Earlier this month, the In-Work Progression Commission – led by Baroness McGregor-Smith – published their new report: Supporting progression out of low pay: a call to action. The report is a vital addition to the conversation around barriers to training and progression for those working in low-paying roles. We know a substantial proportion of the population (predominantly from lower socio-economic backgrounds) is stuck in low paid occupations. This can have profound effects on social mobility and can reverberate down the generations. Tackling progression gaps for those on low pay is therefore one of the most important tools through which employers can improve social mobility – and in doing so, accrue benefits for their organisations.
Setting out clear progression frameworks and supporting employees to progress offers significant benefits for employers: better management practices around progression and pay are linked to both greater productivity and better retention, and can ensure your business is more appealing to prospective applicants, too.
Progression, as the report claims boldly, “is good for businesses”.
Are employers doing enough to support in-work progression?
Though packed with recommendations to Government and others, the report sets its sights firmly on the role of business and employers in progressing employees out of low pay. Employers, it says, are best placed to engage with workers around progression. This is because – in most cases – those in work looking to progress are most likely to turn to their employers when seeking to understand and take advantage of progression routes that are available to them.
In their 5-point checklist for employers, the report recommends employees should be provided with:
- Individualised progression and learning plan
- Shadowing and work experience
- Supporting professional development
These are valuable interventions that demonstrate the Commission’s focus on the mechanisms needed to support staff to progress. But they are only a starting point: at the SMC we believe that we also need to address the structural barriers that can hold employers back from effectively providing the items from the checklist.
In SMC research published prior to the In-work Commission’s final report, we identified key barriers to progression for those in low pay alongside interventions that could be undertaken in order to remove these barriers.
1. Ensure both managers and staff see the value of training and progression to them and to the business
Offering an array of support for employees to progress is vital, but the value of doing so is dependent both on employers seeing the value in offering opportunities as well as on employees being willing to take them up when offered.
Securing buy-in from your employees means being clear on what progression looks like within your organisation – including the incremental steps and additional responsibilities on offer and the requirements and criteria required to progress into them. Adjusting your progression structures, such as by introducing smaller jumps in between existing roles, can ensure that staff view promotion as attainable.
2. Clearly communicate what training and progression opportunities are available and how to take advantage of them
Once staff are clear on how to progress within the organisation, it’s important that they are aware of the opportunities that are on offer to gain the necessary skills.
In fact, many of the barriers that we found in sectors with low pay for frontline workers came from not having the typical structures that supported management to communicate these opportunities and their value to workers – such as one-to-one line management.
Many organisations communicated L&D opportunities via email or on company intranets – a largely ineffectual route through which to communicate with frontline staff who spent little, if any, time using a computer as part of their work.
Introducing regular (monthly) line-management catch-ups can give employees more time with their managers to discuss options to progression and the training opportunities most suitable to help them meet their goals.
3. Make it practical and useful for staff to take advantage of training and progression opportunities
Offering learning and development opportunities that are inconvenient for staff will only serve to disengage them. If you are introducing extra commitments that would take colleagues away from their work for prolonged periods of time, require unreasonable travel or force colleagues to fit their learning in around responsibilities such as childcare, then your learning and development opportunities are not adequate for your organisation or individual colleagues.
Where programmes are designed without considering the needs, ambitions or goals of staff, it becomes less likely that those staff will engage with the L&D being offered. Be sure to consult your colleagues on what sort of programmes would work for them and ensure the content reflects this.
4. Make learning and development a key part of your culture.
It is possible to offer all of the above and still not have learning and development be a defining part of your company culture and therefore something your staff aspire to. Being vocal about your organisation’s commitment to learning and development can show that this is something you value and help to secure feedback from colleagues on how to further develop and improve your approach.
The in-work progression commission’s call-to-action is an important one that employers should heed. However, the structural barriers identified here can prevent even the best intended programmes from progressing staff in these sectors out of low-pay.
Our Increasing in-work training and progression for frontline workers report takes a closer look at three very important industries (retail, industrial and hospitality), where upward mobility of low skilled workers is particularly poor.
The study delves into the barriers that exist to progression, and the interventions that organisations, with the help of government, can make to offer better prospects to frontline staff. The report contains research, case studies and actions for employers.
For more information on how to support progression for those from low socio-economic backgrounds, read the progression section of our cross-industry toolkit.
Case study: International sandwich and coffee shop chain (250+ employees)
An international sandwich and coffee shop chain that has gained a reputation for investing in training and developing its employees. As a result, staff who initially joined the company on a more casual basis have stayed loyal to the organisation and progressed within its ranks.
Training and progression summary
- All employees complete a structured, mandatory training programme during their first weeks. This training is delivered on-site using tablets during working hours.
- There is a training academy where managers may send staff if they have several hours of digital training to do.
- Progression opportunities are widely available and are encouraged for those who want it.
Senior staff members that we spoke to had progressed from frontline positions.
Key areas of good practice
- The organisation recognises the value of maintaining high standards by training all staff consistently and insisting on refresher training. It has invested a lot of money in its training programmes and in embedding the progression culture.
- Managers are assessed based on staff completion rates of mandatory training – so they make it a priority.
- Training is varied in format including videos, reading, hands-on practical training, and staff feel that everything is covered.
Areas for improvement
- Shops are very busy, so managers don’t have time for regular one-to-one chats.
- There is a sense that managers identify staff for extra training and promotion opportunities rather than staff having a personal development plan in place.
“If you give the right training to a team member, the team member will stay with you forever.”