Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Chris Warhurst, Dr Dennis Nickson and Mr Allan Watt, University of Strathclyde and the Wise Group



  1.  This submission concerns the emergence of a new employment segment within the service sector of regenerating urban economies. It could be assumed that this segment should be a major source of employment for the young unemployed. However, they are currently seemingly excluded from it. This problem has been highlighted by research from the University of Strathclyde concerned with an emerging "style" labour market within Glasgow, involving what is termed by us "aesthetic labour". The submission makes suggestions as to why this exclusion is occurring and offers an example of a new training initiative that is attempting to overcome this exclusion.


  2.  The context of the research and the training course is the economic restructuring current with Glasgow. The city is at the forefront of what many commentators term "post-industrial" restructuring. With the demise of shipbuilding, and its locomotive and engineering industries, the city has reinvented itself as a service-based economy. The service sector now provides over 80 per cent of jobs in Glasgow with the largest future increases in business and financial services, retailing and wholesaling, and especially hospitality. Within this shift there is being created "style labour market" jobs. There are now a considerable number of popular and promotional press features outlining the emergence of design-led hotels, flourishing designer fashion retail, thriving nightlife, and café culture of Glasgow. It is interactive service work involving these customers and those who serve them within these industries that is explored with analysis of aesthetic labour, although in the course of the research it became obvious that the practices associated with aesthetic labour were also to be found, to a lesser degree, in other service sector companies outside the style labour market.

  3.  In the context of this economic restructuring, a general consensus exists within current policy debates on both sides of the Atlantic which suggests that national economies can provide for competitive advantage through the enhancement of a nation's technical skill base through investment in "human capital". We argue, however, that the emphasis on technical skill omits recognition of some key developments in the contemporary workplace, especially in interactive service work. Here, employers are utilising labour and seek labour markets that do not, in the first instance, require acquired technical skills but, instead, rely to a large extent upon the physical appearance, or more specifically, the embodied capacities and attributes of those to be employed or are employed—aesthetic labour. In short, at work, employers in the service sector desire a matrix of skills; technical, social and aesthetic. Previous research has emphasised the first, current research has brought greater attention to the second, but the third—aesthetic—has been overlooked to date. Thus we believe that aesthetic labour is an important but so far under-appreciated and unexplored form of labour in interactive service work. Although analytically more complex, "looking good" or "sounding right" are the most overt manifestations of aesthetic labour. In essence, then, employers are seeking employees who can portray the firm's image through their work, and at the same time appeal to the senses of the customer.


  4.  Within the UK around 70 per cent of employment is within the services industries. Such change in the economy has resulted in cities, regions and nations reinventing themselves as "post-industrial" economies. It is argued that the "new" Glasgow is an exemplar of this UK wide trend.

  This shift raises a number of issues:

    —  in contrast to manufacturing work and employment, service provision, with its direct interaction between customer and employee, is characterised by intangibility, simultaneous production and consumption and heterogeneity;

    —  given the above point, employers need individuals with skills or characteristics that are beneficial in the interactive service encounter. A shift in the debate regarding recruitment and selection must also follow.

  Significantly, the general shift tends to obscure more nuanced differences within service sector work and employment. In particular, an understanding of the heterogeneity of services industries work is needed:

    —  the variations between high skill, high wage so-called "knowledge" work and low skill, low wage "service" work, along with the heterogeneity within sectors associated with the latter, such as retail and hospitality, need to be recognised in order to generate a better understanding of the nature of service work, and the skills being sought by employers. This distinction is captured in the labelling of "iMacJobs" in knowledge work and "McJobs" in routine service work;

    —  in the latter group of industries there is another distinction, with an emerging difference between a "style" and a more routine McJob labour market. The increasingly important "style" labour market encompasses designer-type retail and hospitality outlets, and is beginning to attract media attention from the perspective of consumption. Whilst the consumption and production aspects of the McJobs industries have been well researched, the style labour market and its work and employment have not.

  5.  These developments are clearly evident in Scotland. The new skills to be developed in Scotland are said to be the "thinking" skills used by those working in research, sales, marketing, management and information technology. Knowledge work, indeed, has become a mantra for the country's future economic development. However, data on employment growth, actual and forecast, indicates a very different employment profile. Rising from 68 per cent in 1986, the service sector now provides 74.5 per cent of jobs in the Scottish economy, with manufacturing contributing only 15.6 per cent of jobs. Nevertheless, within this aggregate data, and a point seemingly over-looked by Scottish Enterprise in its strategic development plans, about one third are service jobs mainly in the public sector and over one fifth in distribution, hotels and catering. The next biggest increase will be in personal and protective service jobs, again mostly within the public sector. The skills required by most employers of most employees in Scotland, therefore, are the "person to person" skills.

  6.  In response, and sensitive to the "skills deficit" that is emerging as a result of this structural shift in the economy and employment, we have attempted to explore the under-developed and under-appreciated form of style labour in interactive service work in the "new" Glasgow economy. We describe this work and employment as "aesthetic labour". The research revealed that companies are drawing upon employees' aesthetic qualities—conceptualised as embodied capacities and abilities—at the point of recruitment and selection, and which are commodified through training into competencies or skills to present a particular style and image to the customer. These skills can be distilled into employers' desiring employees who "look good" and "sound right" in their required interaction with customers. Importantly, the research suggests that the use of aesthetic labour may be becoming more widespread.

  7.  The research team conducted a number of focus groups with employees and managers from a variety of retail, financial services and hospitality organisations. The focus groups were further supplemented by interviews with selected individuals from the hospitality sector, for example, the personnel manager of a design-led hotel. The results from this small-scale pilot study were analysed within the following headings.

Recruitment and selection

  8.  In many respects it was in the area of recruitment and selection that the notion of aesthetic labour had the most resonance, as this process allows for the filtering out of "inappropriate" people. The review of job advertisements in the Glasgow newspapers revealed that employers were using a variety of strategies to signal the type of people they would wish to employ. A number of key phrases occurred with great regularity in job adverts encompassing the leisure and retail sectors. Examples, of these phrases include, "smart young person", "smart appearance", "well spoken and of smart appearance" and "very well presented". Furthermore a significant number of adverts asked applicants to enclose a photograph with their application. This practice is something that is strongly countenanced against by the Employment Service, due to possible discriminatory practices. Organisations were looking for the "right" sort of appearance and disposition, the latter often being more important than any technical skills. For example, the personnel manage of a design-led hotel, in discussing the recruitment of staff for a new café within the hotel, commented that: "we didn't actually look for people with experience . . . because we felt that wasn't particularly important. We wanted people that had a personality more than the skills because we felt we could train people to do the job". Allied to this was the way that a certain type of image was portrayed in their recruitment material. The advert for these positions, which interestingly was placed in the Sunday Times, contained a picture of a physically attractive young women (in reality a model) who was felt to embody the desired iconography of the company and its "ideal" worker.

Training and management practices

  9.  A common theme that emerged from the research was the extent to which organisations continued to seek to mould people into the desired person as after they entered employment. Most obviously this was seen in the previously mentioned hotel where extensive grooming and deportment training was given to the staff by external consultants. Such sessions encompassed hair cuts/styling, "acceptable" make-up, individual make-overs, how men should shave and the standards expected in relation to appearance.

  10.  Role playing was a recurring feature of employees training. This method sought to impress upon employees the importance of their own aesthetic capacities and attributes from the customers' perspective and also then develop and mobilise these capacities and attributes as knowledge, skills and competencies so as to be able to differentiate and so better serve customers. The companies instructed their employees in how to approach customers by "reading" those customers signifiers, for example body language. An employee of another up-market fashion retail company related how "the supervisors do a wee act kind of thing and pretend that they are a customer and say `this is a bad example' and `this is a good example', and the good example is when you smile at them as soon as they walk in". A retail manager said her staffs' own body language "can tell you a lot . . . they may not realise the body language that they're giving over is the wrong thing . . . her eye contacts wrong . . . shrugging her shoulders . . . [flicking] her hair". Another respondent in retail claimed, "it's a bit like acting. I mean it's like being in drama school being taught how to stand and how even to look at customers".

Working practices and the service encounter

  11.  Drawing on a range of examples from the hospitality and retail sectors, we would argue that organisations are increasingly aware of the possible competitive advantage to be gained by utilising aesthetic labour. This awareness in turn has implications as to who is allowed to present the public face of the organisation. For example, within a well known restaurant chain a respondent in one of the focus groups recalled how a colleague was dismissed for being "too common", although the ostensible reason was poor performance. In questioning the decision the respondent (an assistant manager at that time) was told that, "She wasn't what they considered right for the company, what the customers were expecting".

  12.  Employees in one retail outlet, when not serving or replenishing stock were required to stand at 40 degrees near to the entrance of the store, smiling invitingly at prospective customers. Posture here was also prescribed, as, again was appearance: "You're not allowed to stand with your arms crossed, cause that's closed," said a respondent. In another retail store, employees were required to stand in front of a mirror and go through a prescribed appearance checklist before entering the shopfloor. Again, many of the retail employees talked of the "performance" involved in their work, not only managing their emotions, but also their appearance. "I think that we've all got the qualification how to present ourselves. I mean that's how we're getting training, part of your training is actually how to perform," said one such employee, continuing ". . . we've all got to present the company now. We're not workers as such we're ambassadors now". For some companies, such as the style conscious hotel described earlier, their staff are intended to be the embodiment of the company, at which point the human software is transformed into corporate hardware.


  13.  A key issue to arise from this research is that the current misunderstanding of the type of skills that are currently being sought in the service economy can lead to potential employees being excluded by companies utilising this type of labour. This exclusion arises firstly because employers determine who is aesthetically "acceptable" at the point of entry to employment and, secondly, because current training provision is not geared to meeting employer's skills demand with supply. For example, the aesthetic labour research discovered that a number of agencies involved in training provision believed that technical skills, such as IT, were inappropriate in terms of the skills employers were seeking. This finding confirms a number of surveys of employers which indicate that IT skills feature low in employers' characterising of individuals' employability.

  14.  Another emerging issue is who is being employed. Evidence would suggest that employers in the style sector are drawing upon particular segments of the labour market, most notably younger people from middle class suburban areas. Fifty per cent of jobs within Glasgow are now filled by students and commuters from the middle class suburbs. As a result, younger people from those areas of Glasgow with the highest unemployment, the working class inner city areas, and who might have been expected to be absorbed into the service sector as manufacturing and related jobs decline in the city, are seemingly being excluded. With a large number of commuters from the suburbs being employed in the growth sectors, unemployment in Glasgow is double that of Scotland and the UK. Concern is therefore emerging about certain social groups being by-passed by developments in the "new" Glasgow economy. A key feature of Glasgow City Council's regeneration policy is the need for a more inclusive labour market. For example, one of its key economic objectives is to increase the number, range and security of good quality jobs—and assisting more local residents to access them.

  15.  In addition to the recruitment and selection strategies of companies, a third issue is that those being excluded appear also to be self-selecting. As part of its work on attempting to match job vacancies with unemployed people the Glasgow University-based Training and Employment Research Unit, report on a number of focus groups held with unemployed people. These focus groups sought to ascertain the perception of unemployed people in Glasgow towards the growth sector, that is, jobs in hospitality, retail and call centres. The report suggests that there may be something of an expectations gap between employer requirements and the perception of these requirements by unemployed people. This is partially demonstrated in relation to a question asking both employers and the unemployed to highlight the skill characteristics needed to work in the growth sector industries. Amongst a range of other skills, in relation to "Dealing with clients/way present yourself", 100 per cent of employers in call centres, retail and hospitality said this was an important characteristic, whilst the unemployed were respectively, 85 per cent, 89 per cent and 87 per cent. For example, "some concerns were raised about employer prejudice towards the unemployed and a fear that they would be unable to secure a call centre position if they did not have a `posh accent'. As the report concludes "It would appear that a sizeable proportion of the unemployed do not believe that they have the appropriate skills and characteristics to secure employment in growth sector industries" and, in effect, exclude themselves from growth industries in the Glasgow economy.

  16.  The term "social exclusion" is relatively new to political and academic debate in the UK but it is attracting much attention. In the UK, use of the term reflects interest patterns or distortions to a social system, for example discrimination. It is also used to highlight the dynamic processes through which people are disadvantaged. Changes in the labour market are one development that has led to inequalities of income and so contributes to the process of social exclusion. They suggest that the development of policies that offer employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed, older and younger workers should be a focus of attention. The Scottish Poverty Information Unit argues that the causes of social exclusion are structural, not random, and that factors such as unemployment and discrimination serve to create and sustain it.

  17.  As already noted in the style labour market, employers require a matrix of skills—technical, social and aesthetic. The first is provided "in-house", the middle and last filtered into companies through recruitment and selection processes. It is the middle and last skills that are encompassed by the term "person to person skills". However, it is only the social so far that has been appreciated by academics and the various development agencies. For employers, however, the aesthetic skills which also comprise the "person to person" interaction can be of crucial importance as a criteria for entering employment. Moreover, such skills are essential to the process of service (in other words, doing the work) and the product that companies are keen to portray (in other words, employees embodying the image of the company). Thus, the emphasis on technical and social skills in advanced economies' work and employment omits recognition of a key development in the contemporary workplace—a development that effects the employability of much of the Glasgow labour force.

  18.  On the basis of a number of publications and presentations made by us, some of those involved in the National Skills Taskforce have strongly argued the importance of this research in their overview of the current skill requirements and VET provision in the UK, suggesting that this research needs to be extended and ought to be supported. An analysis of social exclusion in terms of employment opportunities in the style labour market of the service sector is needed, for both practical and academic reasons.


  19.  The Wise Group was established in 1983 and is what is now called a social enterprise—though now a large and diverse enterprise. It has 370 full-time staff and a turnover of £17 million. The Group has charitable status and operates across Scotland and in several cities in England. The Wise Group's objective is to help the long-term unemployed find and keep jobs. The Group has collaborated with public, private, voluntary and community partners in this task. As part of this aim it is determined to convert good ideas into practical solutions meeting the needs of not just the unemployed but also employers and local communities. Over the last 16 years The Wise Group has helped move its clients from welfare to work, regenerated communities and helped the excluded find ways to integrate. Over 12,000 people have been through The Group's programmes, of which 6,000 have secured employment. Another measure of the Group's success is that Government has adopted many of its initiatives as national policy—the most important being Intermediate Labour Market (ILM), which has been absorbed into the New Deal.

  20.  The Wise Group runs a number of programmes. The regeneration services include hard and soft landscaping maintenance, horticultural services, wood and metal fabrication, woodland creation and management, glass recycling service, domestic energy efficiency, domestic security and safety and concierge services. The people services comprise fast track personal development and job search, call centre, care and job coaching, administration, catering services, child-care and classroom assistants, education and awareness raising, and customised training for employers.

  21.  The unemployed are The Wise Group's key stakeholders. In 1999 over 1,300 people were assisted from unemployment into sustainable jobs. The programmes offered range from short job search and motivation courses through vocational skills training and year-long work experience programmes.

  22.  It was the concern with social exclusion from the style labour market which brought together members of the research team and the Wise Group. A training course was developed in a series of meetings between members of the research team and representatives of the Wise Group. The aim of the course is to train the young and long term unemployed with the aesthetic skills which would then able them to access the style labour market. A further aspect of the development process was the involvement of local employers to ensure that the type of skills, with which the unemployed are to be equipped, are indeed apposite for accessing growth sector jobs. The course will seek to help unemployed people access these new employment opportunities. It will be based on understanding the opportunities available in these new jobs and helping participants to develop their own personal presentation style to meet the new expectations of employers. The focus will be less on technical skills training, which employers are happy to undertake for the right candidates, but more on giving young people the confidence and motivation to make an impression on the employers' customers.

  23.  This programme will be funded under the New Deal programme of the UK Government. In January 2000, Tessa Jowell, the Minister responsible for the New Deal, announced that all New Dealers would be offered personal presentation courses as part of a ten-point plan to improve this Government initiative. Specifically, the Minister was responding to numerous complaints by employers about the "scruffy appearance" of many job seekers. The Wise Group initiative aims to ensure this situation will change. Moreover the training course is likely to extend beyond Glasgow. If the course is successful the Wise group wants to help other cities capture this new jobs boom, especially for those who would otherwise be overlooked. Indeed, both the training initiative and the research have resonance beyond Glasgow, to all restructuring urban economies.

University of Strathclyde and the Wise Group

March 2000

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