Europe’s workforce needs improved knowledge to compete globally

Strategies aimed at developing better quality workplaces and allowing workers to develop their abilities in a more secure employment environment are needed to help industries remain competitive. Action is needed at EU level to monitor working conditions across industries and state boundaries to prevent rising inequality between regions, sectors and worker categories, according to new research.

Research conducted through the WORKS (Work Organisation and Restructuring in the Knowledge Society) project shows that workers need more skills to be able to respond to rapidly changing business processes and to be able to collaborate across the boundaries of their organisation. The research suggests that industries in all 27 Member States are tending to become more specialised and increasing workers’ skills is now closely related to work intensification rather than more interesting jobs with greater learning opportunities.

The WORKS project comprehensively brings together knowledge and data on changing work practices throughout Europe. It compares 13 major surveys in Europe on organisational change and includes three major EU-level employee surveys on changes in employment and the quality of work. WORKS undertook 58 organisational case studies from 14 EU countries covering business functions such as research and development, production, logistics, customer service and IT in a range of manufacturing, private and public services. A further 30 occupational case studies were carried out in the clothing, IT, food and customer service sectors. The project takes into account employment, equality and industrial relations regulations and gender issues.

The researchers found fragmentation of employment conditions even within the same company, with workers employed under different terms and conditions. The threat of outsourcing of jobs previously associated with manual work is now spreading to white-collar work. Trends toward standardisation and intensification of jobs are experienced by employees as stress, insecurity, feeling overqualified, a lack of control and a deterioration of well-being. For women, although new knowledge work has opened up new opportunities, this can mean adopting a ‘masculine’ lifestyle, with long hours and sacrificing the work-life balance.

The current financial and economic crisis is having an ambivalent effect – while it may speed up business decisions to outsource activities to low-cost destinations, it could result in work being brought back in house to reduce overcapacity or to retain qualified staff. Recommendations for industries include: 

  • Introducing learning organisation models, to develop the ability of employees and to enhance the capacity to innovate.
  • Basing innovation on an educated workforce.
  • Improving workers’ representation and increasing their input into restructuring processes.
  • Paying urgent attention to Health and Safety issues to address the stressful impacts of restructuring on workers.
  • Preventing inequality caused by the fragmentation of value chains by establishing a common set of terms and conditions for workers.
  • Promoting skill development in low skilled work and upgrading jobs, reducing insecurity and supporting better work-life balance in service industries.

Many regulations defined at the EU level are meant to achieve equality, decrease discrimination, improve the quality of work life, educate the workforce, ensure job security, and govern restructuring and its effects. However, in practice such regulations are often not adopted or selectively implemented.

Recommendations at policy level in the fields of Health and Safety and work quality include:

  • Monitoring working conditions across industries and state boundaries more effectively.
  • Action at EU level to prevent rising inequality between regions, sectors and worker categories.
  • Encouraging new structures for employee participation.
  • Supporting European level worker representation initiatives and EU legislation to support national systems to protect workers and working life along the value chain.
  • Supporting regional and sectoral vocational and educational training infrastructures to promote and support lifelong learning for all citizens.

According to the researchers, by understanding what is happening at the workplace level, policy makers will be better able to uncover the gaps between how regulations are meant to function and how well they function in reality. The four year project has published a comprehensive glossary of key concepts in book form and on the website.

WORKS - Work Organisation and Restructuring in the Knowledge Society (duration: 01/06/2005 – 31/05/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: www.worksproject.be

Contact: Monique Ramioul, Monique.ramioul@hiva.kuleuven.be