Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: Skills are our ticket out of the low-wage economy

The answer must be Covid-proof jobs. Jobs that take into account that the economy may never be the same

The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) campaign has been running for a few months now and is gaining followers weekly. The government’s slowing down of evictions caused by Covid-19 poverty seems to partly hold us back from a sudden mass homelessness falling upon us this side of Christmas.

But unless we can get government to accept that letting people slip into homelessness in the short term is twice as expensive as keeping them in their homes, then we are simply postponing a giant crisis; not ending it.

The government must find the funds to keep paying the rent or mortgages of people who have fallen into Covid-related unemployment so that they can begin to reconstruct their lives. A homeless life is difficult and full of threats and not the place to start getting back in your stride. It’s not the place to be when families fall to pieces because they’ve lost their four walls.

But is there something we should be preparing for, helping the government keep people in their homes? The answer must be Covid-proof jobs. Jobs that take into account that the economy may never be the same. Our cities and towns may be empty for a long time. Home-working, if you can get it, may be the only thing on offer. As yet we do not know the next stage either of the virus or the economy that has been transformed by it.

So Covid-proof jobs, that take into account the rise and fall of the pandemic, must be what we are all aiming for. And that is what RORA is calling for.

The 2019 economy cannot simply be brought back at a time when we don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We have to reinvent work, quickly. And that means a vast investment in work training and education.

Distance learning is possibly the answer. Learning where you are sitting. Not having to go somewhere to learn, to be upskilled, to be made more job ready and of more use to the market place.

Now is the time to jump on the distance learning gravy train. To promote among employers that it is in their interest to allow employees to gain more skills than are needed for the job, so that they can grow with a changing job market. And also that we get people who have fallen into unemployment to train up for new job chances while they await improvements at home.

RORA will be featuring many of these new distance learning programmes. We will be promoting and encouraging the growth of a new industry of training and education; and encouraging the government and businesses to invest in this area of potential growth.


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One of the great stars of learning in the 1970s and onwards was the Open University. Thousands of people took degrees and upskilled themselves away from the mean world of minimum wage. It is OU’s coat tails we need to be clinging to. And learning from them as to how someone anywhere in the country can be given the chance to learn where they sit.

But added to this we need the skills that businesses need available as courses, so that we can head off a vast increase in young people falling into unemployment. Obviously it’s difficult to learn to be a cook online. But all of the planning, ahead of physical engagement with food, all of the science and chemistry that food throws up, could make you wise before the event. And then when the time comes to get your hands on making grub in the kitchen, you’re already an avid theoretical cook. Now make it real.

RORA will be promoting and encouraging the growth of a new industry of training and education

Apprenticeships and numerous practical jobs in building and housing could be picked up online, possibly making the next generation of skilled workers better placed than in previous times.

We have to accept that we need a new economy.  An economy that still covers much of the existing economy, but now does not bend to the winds of misfortune thrown up by the pandemic.

Prior to taking power in 2010 Mr David Cameron promised us a load of green jobs. They did not come. Austerity came in their place and with it the shrinking of social support, the increase in need in our communities. Now the Confederation of British Industry joins with many environmental groups to call for a mass of green jobs.

Creating jobs in a greener economy, in our educational system, our health industry and our social care services, could be the way to embrace a Covid-proof world. And if we accept the German model of skilling people for more than simply the skills needed for the job at hand, then we are breaking through also towards a potentially invigorating high-wage economy.

RORA grows to aid and abet the government, local authorities, businesses, community groups and charities to create a new world of work. And distance learning seems to me be a good part of the Covid-proof world we need to build.

A low-wage economy has added to the crisis of the pandemic. A low-wage economy is unhealthy. And being unhealthy because you’ve never earned enough to live a decent healthy life is the biggest threat to us and our precious NHS.

Let’s skill up and away from low wages. Let’s use the chance to learn where we sit to our advantage. Let’s turn isolation into opportunity.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue