With new figures showing that unemployment has dropped again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that increases in employment come in the context of a changing labour market. And if you want to remind yourself about how it’s changing you can do worse than visiting Seahouses.
Seahouses is a large seaside village in north east England. A historic fishing port, the former terminal for a major railway, the centre of which is a busy working harbour.
Here boats come in and out through the day. Large lobster baskets sit drying on the side, waiting be loaded on to boats at the next high tide. And the smell of fish and diesel that characterises a functioning port is strong.
But fishing is only a small part of the story of Seahouses now – an increasingly small one.
When you look closer most of the boats in the harbour are former fishing boats now being used to load queues of tourists on puffin and seal watching trips to the Farne Islands. The port activity, on closer inspection, largely consists of these small vessels being cleaned and prepared for the next trip.
And a stroll along the high street of Seahouses, at least in the summer, reveals a thriving service industry, with tourists weaving in and out of pubs, chip shops, cafes, arcades and souvenir shops.
The newsagent window advertises for local jobs, and there are a lot for such a small town: ‘bar and waiting staff wanted’, ‘cleaner required for holiday homes’, ‘receptionist needed for busy hotel’, ‘seasonal handyman required for caravan park’.
The contrast between what Seahouses was and is, is striking. From a working port where working was to run or man a fishing boat, battle the elements and bring back a catch that could then be sold on, Seahouses is now a bustling tourist town characterised by low skill and often seasonal jobs in the service sector.
Fishing and hospitality jobs contrast in a number of ways that are telling.
- Whereas fishing is a trade learned and often passed down through families and in communities, cleaning and waiting is low skill work.
- The high tides might come and go, but fishing is a long term occupation whereas the hospitality industry is seasonal.
- Fishing is largely based in Seahouses, meaning that the people it benefits will stay in the areas, whereas service sector jobs come and go and, as holiday trend change, could easily move out of the area.
- Fishing – like trades such as agriculture or skilled manufacturing – gives people a profession, a sense of shared identity, of doing something that matters, and perhaps even self-respect. Service sector work, on the other hand, has a low status and therefore those doing it have less of a sense that their work gives them a stake in the economy and as such their identity and sense of status in society needs to come from some part of their lives other than work.
Fishing, of course, is hard. Income is often low and unstable, the job itself is dangerous and hard, hours can be long. This is not to idealise fishing. But it is to say that there are big differences for a town and its residents when its work is built on serving tourists rather than catching fish.