Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

What role do skills and training play in alleviating poverty and child poverty? Is there any Scottish specific evidence?

Key points

  • Limited evidence was found on the role of skills and training in alleviating poverty and child poverty, including any Scottish specific evidence. Where literature was found, this tends to focus on in-work poverty.
  • Employers in a small-scale qualitative research study, identified training and in-work progression as a means of providing a route to better jobs for employees and a route out of poverty (Findlay et al, 2019).
  • Through secondary data analysis of two large-scale British longitudinal datasets (the British Household Panel Survey / Understanding Society and Longitudinal Education Outcomes), the Social Mobility Commission (2020) find that one of the key factors that had a significant influence on pay progression was the total days of training.
  • The literature search found only sparse literature on skills and child poverty. One example is provided by the Learning and Work Institute (2016) who cite evidence which shows the intergenerational importance of skills and find that if parents participate in learning and improve their skills, this can help their children to achieve better outcomes. In Scottish-specific qualitative research on in-work progression and training, overcoming childcare barriers is highlighted as one way to help alleviate child poverty (Yaqoob and Shahnaz, 2021).


This section explores what the literature tells us about how skills and training contribute to alleviating (in-work) poverty, child poverty and looks at whether there is any Scottish specific evidence. Only limited evidence was found, particularly in the Scottish context.

It is worth noting, however, that poverty tends to be less prevalent with people who have higher levels of baseline formal attainment. That is, UK statistics from 2019 / 2020 (the latest available at the time of writing) show that while 20% of all working age adults were in relative poverty after housing costs, the risk was higher for those who reported they had no formal qualifications or didn't know (43%), and lower for those who reported their qualification as degree level or above (12%) (DWP HBAI report).

In-work poverty

The available literature on the role of skills and training in alleviating poverty tends to focus on in-work poverty. In-work poverty is defined as households where at least one person is in work and the household's income after housing costs is below 60% of the median household income (Findlay et al, 2019).

Findlay et al (2019) conducted qualitative research to explore the responses of employers to in-work poverty and provide some recommendations around the ways that employers might make work a better route out of poverty. Their research methods were: a literature review, 16 key stakeholder scoping interviews, 14 case study interviews with senior management within businesses in the hospitality, facilities management, manufacturing, food production and retail sectors; and a roundtable event with 8 representatives of employers, business organisations and trade union organisations. Interviews focused on understanding employers' approaches, perceptions and experiences in relation to in-work poverty. It is a UK-based study, although detail on the geography of the sample is not provided. The qualitative and small-based nature of the study means that results cannot be generalised to the wider employer population, but nevertheless, it provides some interesting insights into employer perceptions of in-work poverty.

In the study, Findlay et al (2019) found that there was limited awareness among employers in their sample of in-work poverty and that many employers that they spoke to, took few or no explicit actions to address in-work poverty. However, the research identified practices that could make a difference to addressing in-work poverty, including ensuring that pay rates are set at the Living Wage or above and that employees have access to consistent and sufficient hours of work. Employers in their research offered a variety of other forms of support and / or benefits to tackle poverty, including discount schemes, rental deposit loan schemes, emergency financial advances and signposting to credit unions or other financial wellbeing services. Some employers in their study also pointed to training and in-work progression as a means of providing a route to better jobs for employees. Investment in training was cited by some as a way to retain staff. Findlay et al (2019) suggest some actions that employers might take, or that policy-makers might attempt to influence, to reduce in-work poverty, including: improving awareness, business support and advice around in-work poverty issues; addressing sectoral challenges collectively and collaboratively; early engagement of employers to design solutions; and stronger regulatory action. In terms of training specifically, Findlay et al (2019) found evidence of good practice in offering skills development and progression opportunities as a route out of in-work poverty and into better paid jobs. Both stakeholders and employers acknowledged the need to develop creative solutions, so that employees have opportunities for learning and career development even in workplaces where there is limited scope to progress to more senior roles.

Further evidence of the impact of training on poverty is provided by Paull and Patel (2012) in their international evidence review of skills, jobs and poverty. They note that being employed is often seen as a key way of lifting individuals and families out of poverty and argue that employment is heavily dependent on individual skill. Through examining international data sources, they find that the two most important sets of influences on skills are education (prior to labour market entry) and adult education and training (taken after labour market entry). They also cite theoretical models which show that greater skill inequality results in greater income inequality.

Although there is limited evidence provided on the impact of training on poverty specifically, Panagiotakopoulos (2019) presents some interesting findings on employer perception of training and income levels. They conducted a qualitative study consisting of 60 interviews with 30 employers and 30 low-income employees in Greece. Panagiotakopoulos (2019) reports that two employers who invested in regular formal staff training stressed that employees now feel more satisfied about their jobs and are more optimistic about their financial situation. One employer explained, "I had two employees who were low-skilled and had been trapped during the last three years in low-paying jobs. They did not like their jobs and sometimes they were trying to find excuses to avoid coming to work. I helped them develop their skills further so they could undertake a more advanced role in the company with more tasks and responsibilities and a better salary…".

Through secondary data analysis of two large-scale British longitudinal datasets (the British Household Panel Survey / Understanding Society and Longitudinal Education Outcomes), the Social Mobility Commission (2020) find that one of the key factors that had a significant influence on pay progression was the total days of training. They find that workers are more likely to escape low pay if they are younger, live in London, have a more privileged background, work in a professional occupation and are a white international migrant. The authors provide recommendations around considering how to encourage individuals to participate in courses that have demonstrable benefits for pay progression; provide support for other costs associated with learning; ensure there are flexible learning opportunities available; and find ways to inspire and engage low-paid workers in training. They also suggest that targeted interventions may be beneficial for groups most at risk of becoming stuck in low pay.

In a further quantitative study, Cedefop (2017) analyse data from the European Survey on Income and Living Conditions to assess the risk of poverty for adults with low and high levels of education. They find that the risk of poverty increased more for people with low levels of education than those that were highly educated, and conclude that low skilled adults are at a high (and increasing) risk of poverty.

Child poverty

As well as in-work poverty, some (though limited) literature was found on skills and child poverty.

To explore the links between skills and poverty, the Learning and Work Institute (2016) conducted a literature review, supplemented by consultation with learning and skills stakeholders in England via a roundtable. They find that there are three key channels through which learning and skills can affect poverty: work and income; social inclusion and active citizenship; and inter-generational. They cite evidence which shows the intergenerational importance of skills and find that if parents participate in learning and improve their skills, this can help their children to achieve better outcomes. They also provide evidence which shows that in the UK there is a relatively strong link between your income as an adult and that which your parents attained: around four in ten children born to poor parents become low income adults. From this they conclude that people who grew up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty as an adult, and this is partly related to the idea that if someone's parents did not gain many qualifications, they are likely to gain relatively few as well. The Learning and Work Institute (2016) cite research from NIACE in 2013 which shows that skills can help through both learning and earning. The learning element can help to ensure that parents have sufficient skills and knowledge to support their children in their own learning (for example helping with homework) and provide positive role models for children. In terms of earning, having higher skills as a parent can open up higher waged employment opportunities, providing additional resources for their child's learning or moving to an area with higher quality schooling.

Through conducting secondary data analysis on a large-scale UK household survey dataset, the Family Resources Survey (FRS), Barnes and Lord (2013) also find that there are links between skills and poverty. They find that a higher concentration of families with children in poverty have either one or both parents out of work. However, they also show that work does not offer a guaranteed route out of poverty as a large proportion of households in poverty or at risk of poverty contain working people, especially where households contain children. They suggest that employer-driven training is likely to be the best option to help individuals with low and no skills to progress in work and increase their earnings, but such training would have to overcome barriers such as the availability of childcare.

Scotland specific literature

Yaqoob and Shahnaz (2021) reiterate Barnes and Lord's finding on the importance of overcoming childcare barriers to alleviate child poverty, and also provide some Scottish specific evidence on in-work poverty. They undertook primarily qualitative research in Scotland, with focus groups and interviews conducted during March and April 2021. The focus of the research was on single parent families and their experience of child poverty and as such 26 single parents participated in focus groups and 12 one-to-one parent interviews took place. Participants were from across Scotland (Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lanarkshire and Fife). A further focus group was also conducted with staff from One Parent Scotland Families Scotland, who support single parents and their labour market journey. A survey was also issued to 40 single parents, of which 98% were female and most (78%) were white and Scottish.

In their research, Yaqoob and Shahnaz (2021) found that childcare was the central issue in every focus group and interview. For example, concerns were expressed around a lack of affordable and wrap-around childcare which meets the needs of children under three and those with disabilities. In relation to skills, participants said that employers often overlooked their skills related to being a single parent; time-keeping, budget management and multi-tasking. With regards to training, some reported that while induction training was helpful, once the initial employment period was over they were left feeling "adrift" with the presumption that they no longer required any further support. Single parents in the study also expressed a lack of progression opportunities in their work and spoke highly of the benefits of training opportunities. The authors provide some recommendations around investing in single parent / carer specific employability programmes, delivered alongside employers that combine flexibility, high quality paid work and in-work training.

A second Scotland-based study of potential interest is provided by Richards and Sang (2015). Whilst this is a small-scale qualitative study, it does provide some helpful insights into the experiences of in-work poverty in Scotland. Richards and Sang (2015) undertook semi-structured life history interviews with 44 individuals experiencing in-work poverty. Participants were employed across a range of industries, covering the public, private and third sector. The research found that if employers provide their staff with access to training as well as affordable credit (for example, emergency loans to cover immediate expenses), this can help to over-come the burden of in-work poverty. The authors conclude by suggesting ways in which to address in-work poverty, including by empowering the least paid employees in organisations through personal and development reviews, which lead to training, development and career plans.

Overall, however, the literature search returned very limited Scottish specific evidence on the impact of skills and training on alleviating poverty.



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