Jobs divide that splits the nation

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The Independent Online
IF THE jobs market is as rosy as yesterday's statistics claimed, why is it that Mark Kaczmarek, a skilled worker, cannot find permanent employment, while Mark Jones has more offers of work than he could possibly take up?

The answer is simple. Mr Kaczmarek is a tin miner, with experience of an industry that has had its day, while Mr Jones is an IT specialist, who operates in a market where people with his skills can pick and choose where they work - and virtually name their price.

The raft of messages on the economy yesterday appeared to paint a rosy picture of the state of the nation's finances, especially in terms of the job market. Unemployment is falling again while the increase in average earnings fell, indicating the economy is not overheating. No wonder the Government leapt on the figures, saying they were a big setback for the "doom and gloom merchants".

But the euphoria over the jobless figures will mean little to the thousands of workers who are still recovering from the news that they are to lose their jobs. And it will mean even less to the hundreds of employers who cannot find skilled employees - even at exorbitant wages.

Mr Kaczmarek, who was made redundant as a Cornish tin miner in March, said miners used to have a skill that took them all over the world. "They used to say that at the bottom of every hole there was a Cornishman."

But just as mining was dying in Britain, other countries were no longer opening their doors to foreign workers as they once had.

He said: "Mining's a very physical job. You work in extreme heat and it's heavy work. It wasn't how strong you were, you mined with your heart."

Now he fears for his future. "We're very restricted in Cornwall. There's a limited amount of manual work in Cornwall but factory work is totally out. A lot of the work that is around is part-time. I feel very bitter about this.

"I'm not too old to retrain, but the job I hold dear is just not there."

Meanwhile Mr Jones, an IT support engineer, said: "My prospects are excellent at the moment. I get calls all the time offering me work - almost every week.

"I can't see any problems finding work, even in the long term, because there is such a shortage of people in my field."

The answer to this conundrum lies in the "twin-speed economy" - the phrase that has become the cliche of the late 1990s. One half of the economy - service industries such as finance, banking and computing - is booming, while the other half - mainly manufacturing industry - is suffering.

According to Incomes Data Services (IDS), the job market "is not a two- speed economy, it is a seven-speed one".

The labour market is complex, fragmented and localised. The reality of whether someone can pick and choose between a host of job offers or whether they face a life on the dole is dependent on what skills they have and where they live.

Leading employers in the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and North- east have all cut jobs. On Monday Grove Worldwide said it was closing its Sunderland plant with 670 job losses, carmaker Rover last month announced 1,500 job cuts and Siemens, the German electronics giant, stunned the North-east with the news that it would shut its year-old Tyneside plant with the loss of 1,100 jobs.

Even as economists were absorbing yesterday's data, Halla, a South Korean engineering firm, announced it was laying off staff.

Meanwhile, in the South-east, with the unemployment rate at 2.8 per cent compared with the national average of 4.7 per cent, jobs are plentiful.

Mr Kaczmarek might find it extraordinary that in London hotels are advertising vacancies for chefs paying pounds 28,000 a year, or that building firms cannot find bricklayers and carpenters for pounds 10 an hour. It is still the case that in many parts of the economy there are shortages of key people whether skilled or unskilled.

But look for a consistent pattern and once again it is difficult to find. In engineering, for example, where the screams of economic pain are loudest, there are specific identifiable skill shortages. Graham Mackenzie, of the Engineering Employers' Federation, identifies a shortage of automotive design engineers in the West Midlands, a global shortage of aerospace design engineers, as well as discrete geographical pockets of skills shortages such as for CNC machinists on the South Coast.

Then, of course ,there is the ongoing shortage of computer and IT specialists that has become associated with sorting out the millennium bug.

Many in the industry, however, point out shortages will continue into the medium and long-term, largely because big corporations now continually upgrade their computer systems. A spokesman for IDS, the labour market analysts, said: "The people in greatest demand are in IT and have been now for some time. There are also shortages in construction."

And if anyone is wondering where all the brickies have gone, a quick trip across the Irish Sea will provide the answer. The Celtic Tiger's construction boom has sucked in not only former emigrants but many thousands of English builders as well. On many a Dublin building site, the most common accent is a Yorkshire one.

The IDS spokesman said: "A lot of Irish workers have gone back and quite a lot of their English construction colleagues have gone over with them. It has created a gap. The area which has really shrunk substantially is anything unskilled in manufacturing."

The Government has highlighted skills shortages that prevent the unemployed from finding work. A recent survey identified an extraordinary variety of industries that continue to report recruitment problems. Among them are all levels of secretarial workers, accounts clerks, LGV drivers, telephonists and receptionists.

This is why a casual look at the classified ads pages or at the vacancies in recruitment office windows provides a better guide to the true state of the labour market than the highprofile announcements from Siemens and Rover.