Publication - Research and analysis

Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Main Report

The research report presents findings on young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work. These work conditions included where young people had for example zero hours contracts, low wages, lack of progression opportunities, dissatisfaction with current employment, or varying hours.

Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Main Report
1. Introduction and research objectives

1. Introduction and research objectives

Progressive Partnership was commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake research to better understand young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work. The research included a secondary evidence review, as well as primary research in the form of focus groups and a large Scotland-wide face-to-face survey. The remainder of this chapter outlines the research aims and objectives (section 1.1), describes the background and context to the research (section 1.2) and explains how the report is structured (section 1.3).

1.1 Research aims and objectives

The overall aim of this research project was to explore the experiences of young people (16-24 year olds) in precarious and flexible working conditions. These conditions included where young people had, for example, zero hours contracts (ZHCs), low wages, lack of progression opportunities, dissatisfaction with current employment, varying hours and salary, or seasonal work etc. An overview of the different forms of precarious and flexible working conditions considered in this research is provided at Table 1.1. Further details on how respondents were categorised into these two sub-groups is explained at section 2.5.

Table 1.1: Precarious and flexible working conditions addressed in this research

Precarious and flexible working conditions Not precarious or flexible working conditions
No written agreed contract with employer Full time / Part time contract in a permanent or fixed term (over 1 year) position
Temporary, casual or seasonal position Self-employed – running own business
Zero hours contract / varying hours contract Apprenticeship with a written agreed contract
Short-term position - only up to 12 months

The research also explored what an in-work service offer and / or support for young people in such working conditions could include (e.g. to help them progress to more secure employment).

Full details of the research questions (RQs) investigated in this research are provided at Table 1.2 below, which also indicates where each RQ is addressed in this report.

Although the Scottish Government's ongoing policy position is to firmly oppose inappropriate use of ZHCs and other types of work that offer workers minimum job or financial security (see section 1.2), this research aimed, as far as possible, to take a 'value-free' position (or at least a pluralistic one) by exploring the range of experiences of young people in these working conditions.

The starting position was that these working conditions could be seen as precarious/flexible with negative connotations (e.g. low wages, lacking in progression opportunities) or precarious/flexible with positive connotations (e.g. variable hours, seasonal work), though this would depend on the perspective and specific circumstances of the young person. This is why throughout this report, reference is made to precarious and flexible work, recognising the desired 'value free' approach to the research.

This 'value free' approach was operationalised in the research by: (a) objectively defining a sub-population of young people in Scotland in precarious and flexible working conditions (Table 1.1); and then (b) exploring the full range of their experiences of this. Full details of the method are included at Chapter 2. The results from this research provide an indication of where the balance between precarity and flexibility may be for these forms of work, for young people in Scotland.

Table 1.2: Research questions (RQs) and where they are addressed in the report

Research Question Sub-research question (where relevant) Reported in chapter
RQ1 - What is the range of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions experienced by young people in Scotland? Which of these are the most important / critical (e.g. in terms of their prevalence)? Chapter 3
RQ2 - To what extent are young people aware of their contractual status (e.g. whether they are on a ZHC)? What factors (if any) determine levels of awareness (e.g. sector of employment, demographic characteristics)? Chapter 4
RQ3 - What are the circumstances whereby young people find themselves in precarious work / contractual conditions (e.g. ZHCs)? Do they choose them voluntarily or have no option? Chapter 5
RQ4 - What are the experiences (e.g. positive, negative, mixed) of young people in a range of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions (e.g. ZHCs, low wages, lack of progression opportunities)? What factors (if any) determine these experiences (e.g. sector of employment, demographic characteristics)? Chapter 6
RQ5 - Are there any particular disadvantages, challenges, advantages, opportunities etc. of different potentially precarious or flexible working conditions? NA Chapter 6
RQ6 - What is it about the terms of employment that cause specific disadvantages? What type of contracts appear to be the most problematic and to who? NA Chapter 6
RQ7 - To what extent can different potentially precarious or flexible working conditions be considered as 'positive destinations' for young people (e.g. do they offer opportunities for progression, fit in around lifestyle / caring responsibilities, etc.)? Which young people are benefitting? What are their specific working conditions? Chapter 6
RQ8 - What are the barriers that prevent young people who want to change jobs from doing so? Does this differ by contractual status (e.g. ZHC) or other potentially precarious or flexible (depending on perspective) working conditions (e.g. low wages, lack of progression opportunities)? Chapter 7
RQ9 - What (if any) type of information, advice and guidance do young people who want to change jobs require and what are their preferences for accessing this support (e.g. digital, online, face-to-face)? Does this differ by contractual status (e.g. ZHC) or other potentially precarious or flexible (depending on perspective) working conditions (e.g. low wages, lack of progression opportunities)? Chapter 7

1.2 Background and policy context

The school leaver destination and annual participation measure statistics in Scotland record young people going on to employment, among other destinations. However, some of these employment destinations will include young people in precarious and flexible working conditions and arrangements, including ZHCs. This has attracted some wider interest, with a range of perspectives being expressed on the positive nature (or otherwise) of these types of destination.

However the use of positive and negative destinations within the statistics is to indicate whether the activity means the individual is engaged and doing something that will help them fulfil their potential. The statistics are not intended to provide information on whether school leavers are having a positive experience within any of these destinations and the data on which the statistics are based would not allow such a judgement to be made.

As a result, the Scottish Government committed to working with partners, including Skills Development Scotland (SDS), to better understand the prevalence and experience of young people in precarious and flexible working conditions, with a view to providing an in-work service offer and support for those wishing to progress to more secure employment.

Prior to this research being undertaken, there was a lack of robust, Scotland specific evidence on the working conditions and arrangements of young people and their experiences of these. The intention was for this gap to be addressed through this research project.

The Scottish Government's ongoing policy position on ZHCs is that the inappropriate use of ZHCs and other non-standard types of employment that offer workers minimum job or financial security is firmly opposed. This is stated in the criteria for Fair Work First[1] and the relaunched Scottish Business Pledge[2].

While there is no legal definition of a zero hours contract, in the context of Fair Work such a contract is one which does not guarantee any work to the individual and does not set out a minimum number of hours (whether ongoing or for a set period). Examples of inappropriate use of ZHCs by an employer are set out in Box 1.1 below.

Box 1.1:

Fair Work - Examples of appropriate and inappropriate use of ZHCs

An employer is likely to be using a ZHC inappropriately if:

  • They offer a worker a regular pattern of work or regular number of hours but offer only a casual / zero-hours contract;
  • A worker has had no say in the ZHC and wants a contract of employment guaranteeing a minimum number of hours;
  • They put pressure on a worker to accept the terms of a ZHC in order to keep their job; and / or
  • They offer a contract which affords the person 'worker' status when they should have 'employee' status.

An appropriate use of ZHCs would involve the following:

  • They are mutually and explicitly agreed with staff;
  • Staff have the option to request guaranteed hours;
  • They are linked to seasonal work, resilience or other functions where workloads are highly variable; and
  • Any employees on ZHCs have comparable employment rights to other staff.

The Scottish Government supports a number of initiatives which promote and encourage flexible working such as:

  • Working with employers to encourage flexible, agile and inclusive workplaces that benefit all employees;
  • Providing £159,000 for 2019-20 to the Family Friendly Working Scotland Partnership to support and promote the development of flexible and family friendly workplaces; and
  • Funding Timewise to conduct a feasibility study for a 'What Works Centre for Flexible Work' in Scotland. This aims to design, test, scale and embed new approaches to increasing the availability of flexible working.

In addition, the Scottish Government are also seeking to improve both business practice and young people's understanding of employment rights through:

  • The relaunched Scottish Business Pledge which has no inappropriate use of zero hours contracts as one of its core elements;
  • The implementation of Fair Work First which is committed to promoting best practice to businesses in Scotland with regard to extending Fair Work criteria to every type of grant, funding stream, and business support budget open to us;
  • The implementation of the Developing the Young Workforce strategy within the school curriculum, where learning about the world of work and employment rights are a key part of career education for young people in their senior phase at school; and
  • Supporting the STUC's "Union into Schools" programme, which involves union representatives visiting schools to raise awareness and understanding amongst young people about the importance of citizens' and workers' rights and the role played by trade unions in the modern workplace.
  • The Young Person's Guarantee, which aims to ensure that every young person aged between 16 and 24 in Scotland has the opportunity of going to university or college, participating in an apprenticeship programme, training, fair employment including work experience, or participating in a formal volunteering programme.

1.3 Structure of this report

This research report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 1 describes the background and context to the research and sets out the research aim and objectives;
  • Chapter 2 outlines the methodology adopted in the research project including a summary description of the qualitative and quantitative elements;
  • Chapters 3 to 7 report on the main research findings, including an overview of key points from each chapter;
  • Chapter 8 details the conclusions.

Contact

Email: youngpersonguar@gov.scot