Flexible work for all, not jobs at any price: Old-fashioned notions of 'full employment' are no help in adapting to a changing labour market, argues Frank Field

AYEAR ago few politicians talked about full employment. Now, Labour's leadership battle will be fought largely on this issue. But is full employment a realisable goal any more?

The answer is both yes and no. It is not a realisable objective if its advocates refuse to accept the changes that have occurred and will continue to occur in the labour market. There is something old-fashioned and backward-looking in the phrase 'full employment'. The world of the Forties to the Sixties, when people worked a 50-hour week for a single employer which they stayed with for 40 years, will not return.

But full employability can be achieved. This accepts that an increasing number of people will work for a large number of employers - or for themselves - during their working lives. How long they work, the hours per week and the number of years will increasingly be decided by the individuals themselves.

A strategy for full employability must start here. And immediately the inadequacy of the Government's approach is clear. Ministers stumble around as if in a daze, uttering the words 'flexibility' and 'competitiveness' as if these were the end rather than the start of the debate. If pushed, government spokesmen stress the significance of the deregulation 'initiative'.

But these words are not interchangeable. Deregulation is about attempting to recreate the mythical 19th-century textbook version of a free market. Flexibility, likewise, means much more than the Government seems capable of appreciating.

By emphasising flexibility and jobs at any price, the Government is neglecting the main issue. Of course our workforce has to become more flexible, but that is the easy part. The main task is to ensure that wages offer a reasonable living standard.

That is one of the major changes in the economy over the past 20 years. Before, high levels of employment could be equated with reasonable economic and social well-being. Increasingly, however, the link between working and well-being has been broken. A growing army of workers now qualifies for wage supplements from taxpayers. Similarly, for many workers poverty will continue into retirement. Only one- third of part-time workers are members of private pension schemes and millions of workers may not be paying contributions towards even the minimum state pension.

This week a seminar run by the Prudential explored the concept of full employment.

Sheffield City Council led the way on work-sharing when, more than 12 months ago, the workforce decided to share out the available work rather than drawing lots for redundancy. As the council leader, Mike Bower, pointed out at the seminar, some workers welcome the new flexibility, preferring reduced hours to more money, and do not want the new approach scrapped. For others, though,

the size of the pay packet takes precedence.

Our ideas of what constitutes full-time working have changed radically over this period. My great-grandparents would have been amazed at how few hours people in full-time employment are expected to work today. Over this century the number of hours worked has fallen. Another theme explored at the seminar was the trend towards shorter hours during the Eighties. Had job-sharing arrangments continued to increase, a million more people would now be in work.

How can we get what has been a natural process this century operating again? Any strategy on full employability needs to address this question. It must also consider the future of the unskilled. This week's White Paper on competitiveness failed to meet the training and educational needs of young workers.

The demand for unskilled labour has collapsed. Even semi- skilled jobs in manufacturing are being taken by workers with very high levels of skill. Chrysler in the US is the lodestone for the future in manufacturing. The company is scrapping layers of middle management - its work has disappeared as Chrysler appoints graduates to the production line. These highly flexible and highly paid workers now have a great deal of responsibility for running their areas of the production process.

This raises key questions about our secondary schools. They produce too many illiterates who will not be able to share in the work available, even if the work-sharing process becomes operative again. After 11 years of investment in their education, too many young people still have difficulty even writing their own names and addresses, let alone completing simple calculations. As they are far from stupid, what has happened to them?

The secondary-school syllabus is simply not suited to the gifts of many young people. There is a clear need for pukka technical schools that take pupils from the age of 11 and teach BTEC courses. The modular, examination-orientated work required for these allows students to see their achievements grow quickly. Moreover, no pupil is trapped by these courses. They are validated to GCSE, A- level and degree standards, and pupils can change to other subjects if their interests change. But they switch knowing that they have succeeded at something, rather than shuffling off into truancy as a way of hiding their failure.

The author is Labour MP for Birkenhead. His report, 'Europe isn't working', written jointly with Liam Halligan and Matthew Owen, is published by the Institute of Community Studies at pounds 9.95.