Richard Scothorne reflects on the lessons we have learnt from employability programmes over the past five years.
People can’t find work that doesn’t exist
In developing employability strategies for various areas with high and sustained unemployment a consistent feature has emerged. They display a ‘jobs gap’: a significant difference between the numbers seeking work and the numbers (and types) of jobs available locally. Some of these areas have great economic development strategies in place with strong leadership and effective partnerships – but even if they exceed their highest expectations they won’t close the gap. There are lots of practical implications of this, such as what do schools do to help pupils understand the wider labour market, broaden their horizons, and give them the skills, confidence and resilience to help them move away and thrive in an unfamiliar community? Can coordinated action be developed between ‘job gap’ areas and areas with much tighter labour markets to help people move and thrive? And – over all of this – how do we deal with a situation where the match between where people are and where jobs are is getting out of kilter?
We have made great strides in partnership working, but…
On the whole, our ability to work as collaborative partners has come along in leaps and bounds – partly because the situation has been so bad and resources relatively limited. This is taking some interesting and ambitious forms. For example, in one area the partners have created a coherent ‘employment service’, integrated with small business development, with all the organisations playing to their strengths and with clear assessment, personalised design and progress management for all priority clients. Every month they review their high quality management information and take action on weak links, emerging issues and under-performance. You’re right, I made that up.
We need to be clear where our loyalties lie
There are a lot of great, dedicated people who provide exceptional support and regularly go the extra mile for their clients. We need to recognise and reward them – and ensure that anything less is not acceptable. If we don’t see a great service we need to do something about it as funders and partners, otherwise we are letting down their clients. And if we see underperforming providers who are outside our control (eg on the Work Programme) we need to find ways to ensure that our citizens get the help they need.
Success has many parents but failure is an orphan
If Gordon Brown had formed a government in 2010 rather than David Cameron, we would have had a programme for the long term unemployed that looked awfully like the Work Programme. The Freud Report on the future of welfare to work, which led to the Work Programme, was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – not Ian Duncan Smith, but his 2006 Labour predecessor, John Hutton. This didn’t stop Labour deriding the programme as “worse than doing nothing” when it failed in its early years to meet DWP minimum performance targets. But is it wishful thinking to hope that perhaps we would have had a programme which demanded (and rewarded) more consistently engaged partnership behaviour by providers and stronger local ownership?
We can do a lot more on prevention
There has been a sustained argument that the risk of deadweight made early identification of those particularly vulnerable to long term unemployment not worthwhile. But the case is crumbling, and international good practice shows that a combination of personal characteristics, attitudes and adviser judgement can bring about a significant improvement in predictive ability. Particularly if you take into account the cost benefit of vulnerable clients gaining work even a week or two earlier than they might otherwise have done. Combine this with earlier support at school, strengthened school/work transitions, ensuring a good match between client and job, support for new recruits (dealing with difficult supervisors, demanding routines, travel to work, childcare etc) and progression to more responsible jobs and more pay through skill enhancement at work, and you have the making of powerful local preventative strategies that can transform lives.
And finally, a sixth: Many of our clients would have been saved a lot of pain and hardship if more people understood and applied basic macroeconomics…
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