The Work Programme: Towards Personalised Support?
Authors: Rosemary Thomas
01 December 2011
Few priorities are as pressing at the moment than supporting people back into work – this is especially important for the young and those with health difficulties. Just in the last two weeks we have seen the publication of the Independent Sickness Absence Review, which focuses on job retention and return to work, and the announcement of the Youth Contract offering support for 16-24 year olds. The Work Foundation’s research on regional black spots for NEETs entitled, Off The Map? The Geography of NEETs, received very wide attention from the national and regional press, as we highlighted the need for targeted action at a local level.
So, with all of this welcome attention from policymakers and the media, it is also timely to ask how well the interventions at the ‘coal face’ are working. A few days ago I and a couple of colleagues had the opportunity to visit a Work Programme provider to see their set up and speak to advisors and clients. It has been six months since the launch of the Work Programme – where a ‘payment by results’ regime is intended to incentivise providers of job search and employment support to find sustainable employment for job seekers and people claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Some parts of the media are suggesting that the Work Programme providers are already struggling. Yet for the individual advisors and clients we met the experience, so far, seems to have been positive. However, while hearing about the experiences of young people living on benefits, signing on at the Jobcentre and eventually ending up at the provider, a few things occurred to me.
We spoke to advisors who had to decide who they could place in work within 4 weeks of an initial assessment or ‘diagnosis’. But why is it that the people on this programme had remained unemployed for 12 months when, after 4 weeks, a provider was able to get some of them into work? Well, a number of things seem to be happening. The first is that these peoples’ experiences of Jobcentre Plus had often been less than helpful over the course of 12 months. They felt as though they had not been listened to, that no one was interested in what jobs they wanted to do and no one had the time to help them find the right job. Contrast this with the intensive support that people receive on arriving at the Work Programme providers, and it is not difficult to see how some of them make quick progress. Advisors at the provider currently have the luxury of time and autonomy, choosing how they can best help each individual dependent on their needs. This is something that Employment Advisors at Jobcentre Plus can often only aspire to.
Secondly, there are jobs out there but they do not necessarily match the interests or the skill set of jobseekers. After a certain amount of time on Jobseekers Allowance a claimant is required to take any job, in the same way that an ESA claimant found fit for work is found fit to do ‘some work’. However, evidence shows that a good person/skills match is important for sustainability of work, employee engagement and wellbeing. It is difficult to imagine how this can happen when aspirations don’t match up to jobs available?
Thirdly, there are a lot of people looking for work who have a handful of practical qualifications which do not translate to the workplace. They either do not have the practical experience to go with the role, or the jobs they qualify for in their area are in short supply.
Fourthly, some of the hardest to help jobseekers are those with learning disabilities, an often ignored group traditionally requiring more support to get into work and much more help to stay there.
Some of the solutions are being applied at this provider. They help clients to sell themselves and to apply for jobs tenaciously. They also work with clients to reframe how a job is viewed – as a stepping stone to the next job - using this as an opportunity to demonstrate their employability to future employers. We were impressed by what we saw. The thoughtfulness and realism of the advisors and the optimism and resilience of the clients, despite everything. However some of the solutions to these problems need to come from elsewhere. More businesses need to be willing to invest time, money and training on-the-job (call this an ‘apprenticeship’ if you will). Employers must also adopt a framework to integrate people with learning disabilities into the workplace, by designing suitable jobs and providing support. Doing so will enable eager jobseekers to become part of the world of work, rather than remaining on the margins of an increasingly unforgiving labour market.
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