Dr Vanessa Beck of the University of Bristol Business School has been awarded a grant of £975k from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to study underemployment and the lived experience of underemployed workers. The project is a collaboration with Prof Tracey Warren and Dr Luis Torres-Retamal from the University of Nottingham, Dr Daiga Kamērade, University of Salford, and Dr Vanesa Fuertes, University of the West of Scotland and will start in January 2023.
The team will be working with Bristol One City, Citizens UK in Nottingham, The Poverty Alliance in Glasgow, and Salford City Council. The research aims to build positive relationships with these organisations and the wider community.
The project builds on Dr Beck’s previous research, focusing on women’s responses to unemployment and their coping strategies as well as the individual and social implications of being unemployed.
Underemployment occurs when individuals have too few hours of work, are underpaid for their work, or their skills are underused. The project will look at how these different forms of underemployment individually and in combination take effect. The individual and social impact of being underemployed is comparable to being unemployed, particularly when looking at factors like surviving on your income, social stigma, economic anxiety and social connections.
Dr Beck said, ‘In the UK labour market, unemployment hasn’t been particularly high and employment figures are on the strong side. But the kind of work that people have is often not good employment, or enough to live on.’
This project will investigate the extent to which employment is good, decent work. The team will be looking at people’s lived experience of underemployment and how it affects families. For example, if a couple work multiple jobs on unusual shifts, it could affect their relationship, and it could also have knock-on effects on their children and the wider community as they might have to rely on others for childcare. One focus of this study is how these knock-on effects play out.
The short-term impact is through building relationships with non-university partners across the UK.
The long-term aim is improving the understanding of underemployment. Dr Beck said, ‘Classically we think about people as either employed or unemployed, without anything in-between but there’s a huge grey zone where you might be formally employed, but it doesn’t give you the benefits of employment, and we would like this to be recognised more widely.’
The team will consider how the research could improve circumstances for underemployed people, and also their employers, who might not be making best use of their employee’s abilities or skills.
Dr Beck said, ‘The situation is often viewed with an economic primacy that means that if the profits are high, and employment is high, that’s a good situation, regardless of how workers within that system experience it, and this misses a lot of the reality of employment. This project attempts to explore this reality, and investigate the theoretical side of the issue, while hopefully leading to some improvements in the lives of underemployed individuals.’
The study will use longitudinal and mixed methods. About half the team are quantitative experts, who will be analysing the Labour Force Survey, the European Working Conditions Surveys, the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, and the CIPD’s bespoke UK Working Lives Survey.
The other half are qualitative researchers, who will be doing interviews with individuals who self-identify as underemployed. The team will also interview other stakeholders such as employers and employer representatives to uncover the benefits and drawbacks of their employment arrangements.
Find out more about Dr Vanessa Beck’s research
Find out more about the Work Futures Research Group