A Day in the Life: James Cockett goes on a mission to the Low Pay Commission

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18 Nov 2019

Tony Wilson

James Cockett, Research Economist

Follow @JamesCockettIES

The date is 1 April 2019. Today is an important day for me. Today I present research findings at a Low Pay Commission workshop.

I have always enjoyed presenting; it is a good opportunity to talk about the work I have done. Shortly before the Low Pay Commission workshop, I gave a presentation to over 60 university students on what careers in social research are like. That presentation had impact, but in a very different way!

Today I have no idea what it is going to be like, who will be there and what the building will look like. There are so many unknowns! All I know is that I will be presenting interim findings alongside my colleagues Helen and Dafni, from the Institute for Employment Studies. Our research is on the effect of the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) on employment and hours using the Labour Force Survey and the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. The presentation is on a Monday at 11.40am, so I had spent parts of Thursday and Friday and the weekend having practice runs with colleagues and friends (mini shout out to them here).

The part I am presenting is the methodology of the research we are undertaking. I know this well and that gives me great confidence…but saying it is like a tongue twister! There are only so many times you can say difference-in-differences (DiD) and difference-in-differences-in-differences (DDD) (couldn’t they have called it something else?) before you start to get a headache. I had to make sure I was word perfect.

The day begins…

My day started early, I am not usually an early riser, but today had a purpose and I shot out of bed. I got the train from my home in Brighton (Hove actually) to City Thameslink, a short walk from the Low Pay Commission offices. It was a beautiful day and I had left with plenty of time.

Walking into the building, it was buzzing with civil servants. It was my first time in a government building. I couldn’t tell if I was nervous or excited. I collected my ID badge from the desk and made my way towards the lifts. However, only one out of five were in operation. Never a fan of lifts anyway, I took the stairs…to the seventh floor.

Panting, sweating and with my face the colour of a tomato I reach the top of the stairs. There I see my colleague Dafni, this whole experience was new for her too! We made the usual small talk with the other researchers who had already arrived, but looking around I noticed I was certainly the only one not eligible for the NLW - probably the youngest by about 10 years. This, however, made me feel privileged to be there.

We took our seats about half way back in a room of about 40 people. On the Low Pay Commission is one of my lecturers from Sussex, Professor Richard Dickens, a familiar face. He was also the chair for our session. The Commissioners are facing the room. The presentations begin.

First came presentations on a set of newly commissioned projects. The first two were researching the impact of the NLW on Business, one using difference-in-differences methods and the other based on case studies of two UK cities - Sheffield and Manchester. There was a further presentation on proposed research on the impact of the NLW on productivity and profitability. Then came research using Understanding Society by Silvia Akram and Susan Harkness on the impact of the NLW on earnings with a focus on pay differentials.   

As a longer-running project on the effect of the NLW on employment and hours we were last to present. Helen, usually quite a quiet person, projects her voice well across the room. This gives me confidence. She introduces us and the project. Then it’s my turn.

Now it is my turn…

I stand and face everyone, my heart thumping. I take a deep breath and then begin. Despite being in a room of established researchers and academics, I feel at home. Many of the room are looking down at the slides, taking notes; it certainly doesn’t feel like 80 eyes are on me. In the middle of the room, however, is a gentleman who catches my attention. He is attentive, looking directly at me and listening to my every word. It is to him I address my presentation, keeping my head up to project my voice whilst gesturing towards the slides. I have a clicker, and of course press it one too many times, but it doesn’t disrupt my flow. The 4-5 minutes are over in an instant, no slip of the tongue, I have done it! I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! I sit down and relax whilst Dafni and Helen continue the presentation.

At the end of each presentation a discussant provides comments and suggests further improvements. Of course it is the gentleman in the centre of the room, Professor Kerry Papps, a New Zealand academic from the University of Bath. The session is over and we break for lunch.

A thrilling afternoon to come…

In the afternoon, we were invited to stay for a special event to mark 20 years of the National Minimum Wage (NMW). It was fascinating. It began with a presentation on the impact of the NMW on the labour market, followed by a presentation on ‘What we know and what we don’t know’ about the minimum wage after 20 years of research. Despite predictions of a range of negative effects from the introduction of the NMW, evidence over the last 20 years in the main has achieved its aim of raising pay for the lowest paid without damaging their job prospects.

After this a panel of former commissioners discussed their experiences on the Low Pay Commission and lessons for future commissioners. This was an eye-opener. They told us how they would deliberate late into the night over a few pence change. To my amusement it seemed that the economists would often prevail. My favourite quote was “Economists are quite normal” (clearly they have never met me). I also learned that both the employer and the union side would use the case put forward by economists as justification for the agreed rates to their members.

The day concluded with a panel discussion on the future of the NMW and NLW, which included Professor Alan Manning, an eminent labour economist. It was amazing to hear the insights of the panel. There was a discussion on how much of an impact the Low Pay Commission can have, its remit and the most appropriate future direction. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to believe I was there (people usually just say that… I actually did).

I left with a feeling of excitement, I had spent a day with people who have the ear of government. The research they commission really does have an impact.

There were a couple of statistics from the day which stuck with me:

■    Up to 30% of jobs (seven million) are affected each time the NMW is uprated.

■    Since 1999 as a result of the introduction and uprating of the minimum wage, it is estimated workers have benefited from a real increase in earnings of £60 billion. The bottom 1% of workers were paid £2.70 an hour more in real terms in 2018 than would have been expected under average pay growth. This equates to an additional £5,000 per year for the lowest paid full time worker.

 This blog post was originally published on the UK Data Service Data Impact Blog.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.