Good Work in the South Yorkshire economy

Elizabeth Sanderson and Dr Jamie Redman, Y-PERN Policy Fellows (South Yorkshire), at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University

Over the last few decades, the UK has seen a rise in low quality work (Goos and Manning, 2007). These are jobs which are broadly defined as low-skilled, low-paid, insecure and more effort intensive, offering little scope for worker autonomy, task discretion or opportunity for upwards mobility (Shildrick et al., 2012).

Despite the introduction of National Minimum Wage legislation in 1998 and more recent National Living Wage legislation in 2016, incidence of low pay measured as below two thirds of the national median weekly wage has remained stubbornly high at over a quarter of all employees (Cominetti et al., 2022). This is partly owed to the effects of job insecurity on earnings, with workers in the bottom quartile of the wage distribution typically experiencing greater work schedule volatility (Cominetti et al., 2022) and persistently lower employment tenure compared to workers in the upper quartiles (Choonara, 2019).

Despite this, compared to previous decades and across most sectors, UK workers surveyed in the 2010s reported working harder and with less control over how hard to work, what tasks to do and how tasks were to be done (Green et al., 2021).  The Sheffield City region is no exception to the national rise in low quality work. Dubbed ‘Britain’s low pay capital’ (Thomas et al., 2020), poorly remunerated and precarious forms of work are found to be disproportionately concentrated in the Sheffield City regional economy.  

In May 2022, a key feature of the South Yorkshire Mayor’s manifesto was to tackle poor job quality as part of a broader commitment to building ‘a better not just bigger economy’. The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority have since identified a series of key strategic priorities geared towards addressing issues of job quality and establishing a regional level ‘good work’ agenda. The key strategic priorities for ‘good work’ are as follows: 

  • To establish an evidence base around the future of work in South Yorkshire, including planning for and managing the decline of some sectors and the transition to new sources of employment. 
  • To show and to demonstrate that good work is more than standards and compliance but can drive benefits for all. 
  • To create a movement for change rather than a club that rewards those already providing good work. 
  • To consider where good work practices currently exist and how these businesses can inform and champion a good work agenda more broadly. 
  • To consider the implications and approach for improving job quality among what may be hard to reach businesses.  

Our research team, based at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research and as part of the Yorkshire Policy Engagement Research Network (Y-PERN), responds directly to the mayor’s call for a regional level job quality intervention. We have developed and will execute a broad four-point agenda which seeks to both investigate and improve job quality in South Yorkshire.  These four points are as follows: 

  1. Build an evidence base. Understanding the issues around job quality, developing scenarios for change and learning from what has been developed elsewhere. 
  2. Deliver good work trials/demonstration projects. Through a mix of pilots and observational studies of existing practices we will demonstrate how new approaches to good work can operate in the workplace with benefits for all key stakeholders. 
  3. Build a movement for change. With engagement, involvement and leadership of business, intermediaries, workers and citizens, we will define and drive a good work agenda in South Yorkshire. 
  4. Draw lessons for influencing policy. We will identify calls to action for a future devolution settlement for South Yorkshire while ensuring that good work practices identified and developed in the Sheffield City Region are available to influence policy and practice across other regions of the UK.