Alicja Bobek: There are two sectors of the Irish labour market with average earnings significantly above the national average: Financial Services and ICT. In both sectors the annual earnings (including irregular earnings) were above €50,000 in 2015. Employment in these two sectors is also relatively secure for a large proportion of individuals as the majority of jobs are full-time and permanent (CSO, 2015); they can also be characterised as white collar and have relatively higher levels of job autonomy (O’Connell, 2010).
There is no doubt that for the majority of people working in the Irish Financial Services and ICT employment conditions are still relatively good. There are, however, some new trends emerging in these sectors, and these include the rapid growth of so-called back office jobs. As we found in the Working Conditions Project recently completed in TASC, these jobs are often low-paid and low-skilled. They might be of a white-collar nature, but in fact can be described as ‘not so good’ as the low pay also comes with high pressure and high levels of tight supervision.
It is not possible to determine how many jobs like that are out there as these often have misleading titles. Examples include ‘financial officer’ or ‘technical advisor’: such roles not always actually require any technical skills or advanced knowledge of the industry. These in fact are often related to administration and customer service, hence the main requirement for the job is having ‘people skills’ or being a ‘good team player’. This is how one of the participants (who had a degree in Social Sciences) described his experience of working as technical support advisor:
I think it’s probably generally regarded that the technical stuff can be learnt, whereas the kind of customer service, the kind of social intelligence, that you need to do that, it’s something that is less easy to teach.
Working conditions in these kind of jobs are often not as great as the job description may suggest. Salaries are much lower than the average for the two sectors and we estimate that it is usually between twenty and thirty thousand per year. Promotion opportunities are also limited as career structure is ‘flattened’ and those who manage to progress should not expect very high earnings.
Even more importantly, day-to-day reality can be stressful as employees are subject to increasing ‘targetisation’. Those who are dealing with administrative duties have a set number of cases to be solved and completed per day or week; those working on the phone are told how many (minimum) calls per shift they need to answer and how many (maximum) minutes they can spend on each call. All of this is closely monitored and reinforced on a competitive basis.
For call centre workers, dealing with customers may also cause emotional pressure. This is especially the case when a client who rings already has a problem – a broken phone, forgotten password or issue with their bank account. This is where the ‘people skills’ become important: the individual working at the other end of the line needs to always ‘smile down the phone’. As the calls are recorded, the managers can listen to them and assess them. Meanwhile, customers provide their feedback through online surveys, which brings the monitoring yet to another level.
Finally, it has been brought to our attention that large proportion of this kind of work is offered on fixed-term basis. This adds an element of insecurity and further limits career opportunities. While jobs for life may be a thing of the past, such short-term nature of employment can be problematic when it’s imposed on individuals. For many other professionals moving jobs is a question of choice as they have an option of upwards mobility, especially in terms of pay. On the contrary, young back office workers often do not leave their employers because they want to, but rather because they are forced to do so at the end of their contract. This can have further implications on their future career paths: if people jump from one temporary, low-paid position to another, their CV may look less attractive when compared to those who choose their employer in order to gain new skills and experience.
Employment is growing in both sectors. While job creation is definitely a good sign, the quality of work should also be monitored. There are, of course, career opportunities in Finance and ICT. What is evident, however, is that it has become more difficult to follow clear career paths form many young graduates employed in customer service and back office positions. They are also more likely to encounter a series of short-term and often low-paid positions. ‘Hopping between jobs’ was a choice for many during the boom; now it seems like more are forced into this pattern. This can have further implications for their future work-lives: horizontal (or downwards) mobility can sometimes damage a CV and prolong the period of time in which young people can achieve a job which actually reflects their levels of education.
Dr. Alicja Bobek, Researcher, TASC Working Conditions in Ireland Project