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1 March 2019

Spotlight Leader: The costs of qualification

If people were paid according to the difficulty of their work the economy, and the qualifications needed to take part in it, would look very different.

By Spotlight

Reviewers of the recent ITV drama Cleaning Up called the series’ plot, in which a cleaner at an investment bank uses information from people’s desks to conduct insider trading, “absurd” (the Telegraph) and “nonsense” (the Guardian). But in a recent episode of the Bloomberg podcast Trillions, the hosts interview Sarah Newton, who began picking stocks at age ten on behalf of a family friend. With her classmates, she made tens of thousands of dollars.

A few years later, while still at school, Newton was among the earliest investors in Google. In her early 20s, as a full-time carer for her mother, Newton took up her hobby again. She has now been trading, unqualified but successful, for six years. She is not the only one. Herbert Wertheim, a 79-year-old optometrist and former encyclopaedia salesman profiled in this month’s Forbes magazine, is not a trained banker either, but he has been investing since he was 18. He is now worth $2.3bn.

There are some jobs for which a very clear set of qualifications is absolutely necessary – surgeons and pilots must clearly be qualified. But if we’re completely honest, a lot of jobs in the modern economy are not nearly as hard as the people who do them say they are. If people were paid according to the difficulty of their work the economy, and the qualifications needed to take part in it, would look very different. At the same time, however, the cost of training for any job has risen enormously. University now costs so much that ministers are suggesting ditching a whole year; some management apprenticeships cost £22,000; professional training can cost over £1,000 a day. And as qualification becomes more expensive, remuneration becomes more important.

The jobs for which people increasingly wish to be qualified are those that can pay off the debt incurred during training. Is this creating a vicious regress in which people are incentivised to train for well-paid work rather than gaining more specific expertise? Is the UK becoming a nation of managers? If so, we should be cautious. Because who knows when a smart cleaner will arrive to call our bluff?

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