Low-paid workers are moving into better employment despite loss of jobs through automation

Low-paid workers living in areas where skilled jobs have been lost through automation are no less likely to move to better employment, new research shows.

Fears that the loss of hundreds of thousands of better-paid, intermediate-skilled jobs has cut employment mobility are unfounded, a British Sociological Association conference in Belfast heard today [Wednesday, 12 September 2018].

Sanne Velthuis told the ‘Work, Employment and Society’ event that although middle-skilled jobs had declined because of automation, relatively large proportions of low-paid workers were moving directly into highly-skilled jobs, where the demand had increased, she said.

Ms Velthuis analysed statistics on over 25,000 people in England and Wales for her PhD at Coventry University. She examined different local areas and calculated the rate at which middle-skilled jobs, such as metal, electrical and electronic trades, had declined relative to low-skilled and high-skilled jobs in each area.

She found that in areas where there was a bigger decline in middle-skilled employment relative to lower- and higher-skilled employment, the low-paid were actually slightly more likely to move to a better job between 2001 and 2011. These areas included Manchester, Cambridge, Sheffield, Leicester, and London.

She said that this suggested that job polarisation – the automation of middle-skilled jobs, leaving mostly high and low skilled work available – had not affected the ability of low-paid employees to move on.

In areas such as Durham, Grimsby and Portsmouth where there was less of a fall in middle-skilled jobs, the low-paid were 5% less likely to move on between 2001 and 2011 than in areas with high polarisation.

She said that overall in the country, about 43 per cent of workers who were working in a low-paid occupation in 2001 and were still employed in 2011 had moved into a higher-paid job by 2011.

“It has been suggested that a fall in the number of intermediate jobs may make upward mobility more difficult for those in low-waged jobs,” she told the conference.

“A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission raises the issue of the comparatively low and declining number of intermediate jobs in Great Britain, stating that the disappearance of 700,000 better-paid, intermediate-skilled jobs means that there will be fewer employment opportunities for low-paid workers to aspire and get promoted into.

“But concerns by policymakers that job polarisation is making it difficult for low-skilled workers to move up the occupational ladder appear to be unwarranted.

“Since 1997, the majority of low-paid workers who moved into a high-paid associate-professional, managerial or professional occupation appear to have been able to move straight from low-paid occupations to these relatively high-paid occupations without working in a routine or other intermediate occupation in between.

“The answer to the question of why a decline in the relative number of middle-skilled jobs has not resulted in lower rates of occupational progression for low-paid workers is likely to do with the fact that job polarisation increases demand in many higher-skilled occupations at the same time as it decreases demand in routine-intensive intermediate occupations.”

Her analysis used statistical techniques to compare workers of similar age, ethnic group, qualifications, occupation and other factors, so that the effect of polarisation could be studied in isolation.

  • Ms Velthuis used data on 25,292 low-paid workers gathered in 2001 and 2011 as part of the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study. Her analysis excluded a regional fall in unemployment rates as the reason for the higher rates of movement from low-skilled to high-skilled jobs in some of the areas she studied. While it is theoretically possible that stronger jobs growth contributed to higher upward mobility in certain areas, the areas with the largest relative falls in intermediate jobs included a mix of areas with high employment rates and areas with average or lower employment rates.

For more information, please contact:

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392


1. The British Sociological Association’s Work, Employment and Society conference takes place from 12- 4 September 2018 at the Europa Hotel, Belfast.

2. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235   www.britsoc.co.uk