The Future of Work Is a Global Arms Race for Skills

27/02/2015 12:51 GMT | Updated 28/04/2015 10:59 BST

Almost 700,000 workers in the UK rely on a main job that features a zero hours contract. This means that the employee has signed a contract indicating that they are available to work, however there is no guarantee of work from the employer.

This type of employment takes the invisible hand of the market to an extreme that many find abhorrent. Employers used to train and nurture their employees, expecting loyalty in return. Now employers treat their employees as units that can be dropped in to cover shifts as and when required, with no need to offer any commitment on slow days.

The life of a zero hours employee is in many ways similar to that of a freelancer. Compare a graphic designer working in a company to a freelance designer. The freelancer has to hustle for new work, they need to network, they need to produce work, and they only ever get paid as each project is completed. They are paid only for their output.

The contracted employee is almost always paid based on the time they are contracted to work, not by what they produce. The employed graphic designer can come into work hungover and achieve nothing all day and yet still be paid for that day of non-work. Some people are paid for what they produce and some are paid for the time they are punching the clock.

But there are bigger changes taking place in the world of work today. Some political parties blame a 'flood' of foreigners into the UK for reducing the availability of good jobs. Some commentators blame the wave of offshore outsourcing that has meant that contact centres can now answer calls halfway around the world. But I believe that there is a more complex web of interlinked issues that is dramatically affecting the employment market globally.

Professional work can be outsourced; the Internet has created a robust international platform allowing almost any professional task to be performed anywhere and delivered online. You need a new logo designed, or some accounts checked, or some software to be coded? You no longer need to offer these jobs to a local company, they can go to the best (or cheapest) supplier anywhere in the world.

However, outsourcing does have detractors. The Labour Party policy chief, Jon Cruddas, is due to publish a new book next month titled 'Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics.' In the book Cruddas argues that:

"[We should have] no more outsourcing of relational services to those parts of the private sector that are driven purely by corporate profit rather than a social purpose."

However, I think the ideological argument that a government should not outsource has been lost. It is only right that a government requiring specialist services should be able to pay the best global specialists to provide those services, but this change in both the private and public sector attitudes to work, along with the increased number of skilled candidates ready to relocate for a job, is having a serious effect on employment - and society more generally - today.

Some people are more prepared to move for work; my mother's family moved from Ireland to England in the 1960s because there was no work available in Ireland. As the European Union has expanded we have witnessed far more movement of labour around the continent than ever before, but highly skilled people are able to migrate to anywhere their skills are needed.

It is also important to note that in many cases, products and services have lost a national identity; we don't even know where they come from. Did you download Angry Birds and think about how it was created in Finland? Or use the Google Waze traffic-monitoring app and think about how it was born in Israel? Or hosted your company website on a system provided by Amazon with servers located... where? Where are they located anyway?

Employers can get the skills they need at an ever-decreasing price because they now have a global pool of labour to choose from in many professions. Just look at the recent example of Brazilian IT giant Stefanini who brought employees from Romania over to work on a project in Switzerland - on their Romanian salaries - causing outrage in the Swiss media.

Stefanini has done nothing wrong - in the eyes of the law. Their employees from one location can go and work in another for short periods of time without requiring local pay, but stretching the definition of a short-term transfer has caught out many other companies. Is there one moral law where we define what we 'feel' is right and another that companies use to plan their operations?

But where do we go from here? The future appears to be an arms race based on skills. Employers can hire from anywhere, they can set contract terms that are heavily loaded in their favour, and they can easily send work elsewhere using the Internet. The only way to avoid being unemployed or abused by an employer is to possess skills that are valued globally. The unskilled and semi-skilled working-class face a grim future where technology, or foreign workers, can perform their work better and at a lower cost.

The answer is not futile attempts to ban foreign workers or ban outsourcing as a business strategy. Banning companies from working with other companies is reminiscent of King Canute barking orders at the waves.

The real answer lies in the need for Britons to compete with the world. We need skills, we need innovation and creativity - there is no future in low-skilled work in a highly developed, high-cost country.

So why does the UK now have one of the most expensive education systems in the developed world? This May, I hope that the British electorate can see beyond short-term reactionary political rhetoric and try imagining how the UK will fit into the world order twenty years from now.