Skills provision and employment related support are two sides of the same coin, surely, asks Kirsty McHugh?
Many long term unemployed jobseekers have, almost by definition, significant skills needs – both in terms of basic skills and vocational skills. Indeed, most Work Programme providers are reporting basic skills gaps in around 30 per cent of jobseekers referred to them, rising in some geographies to 75 per cent of jobseekers presenting without a level 2 in maths, English or both.
This matters - both because, at the most fundamental level, a lack of basic skills can prevent a jobseeker functioning in employment, but also because we know that many employers use a jobseeker having a GCSE in English and maths as a proxy for ability and a method of differentiating between similar candidates for a role. In addition, many long-term unemployed jobseekers may possess decent skills, but not necessarily the right skills for their local labour market. This can be particularly the case where local economies have shifted significantly over several years, with older industrial and manufacturing sectors moving out and newer industries moving in.
A further interesting dynamic is the increasing evidence which correlates a jobseeker’s level of qualification with progression through the workforce once in a job. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the better qualified jobseekers are, the more likely they are to sustain and progress in employment, even after an extended period on benefits.
Given this appallingly high level of need, it is therefore almost shocking that the employment and skills systems are not yet sufficiently closely aligned. This is particularly the case given that the current climate of austerity is placing increasing pressure on jobseekers, many of whom are coping with a squeeze on benefits.
It is a nonsense that currently it appears jobseekers may feel faced with a choice – complete a qualification or take a job
The problems are well known. The employment and skills sectors have different funding regimes, different spending priorities and different targets. Work Programme contractors in particular report struggling to access sufficient Skills Funding Agency cash to cater for the needs of their jobseekers – skills needs which simply cannot be met by Work Programme finances alone. When you throw into the mix the fact of different cultures, you get a messy picture, with the jobseekers in the middle the major casualty in a system which seems to struggle to achieve greater collaboration.
To its credit, the government appreciates the challenges and appears interested in how we lever in more skills funding for the long term unemployed. There are structural issues that could and should be overcome. Aligning incentive regimes between colleges, learning providers and welfare to work providers could work wonders. All agencies need to be incentivised to help jobseekers gain long term jobs, rather than complete qualifications alone.
Greater flexibility in the system to enable the transition from skills training into work without disincentivising either party is essential. It is a nonsense that currently it appears jobseekers may feel faced with a choice – complete a qualification or take a job and can find it difficult to combine the two. A clear message to the skills sector about the desirability of supporting welfare to work customers would also be desirable. Too often, concern about double outcomes appears to stop the combination of funding streams around the individual.
The reality for fully tackling the employment services/skills conundrum is through long term political choices. This means prioritising the long term unemployed within the allocation of the overall SFA budget, firstly by allocating a proportion of the Skills Funding Agency budget for welfare to work providers and then by co-commission a proportion of the skills budget with welfare to work programmes.
Without removing funding and accessibility barriers and creating greater incentives for collaboration between the two sectors, jobseekers across the board will be worse off. Those most in need and most likely to have previously been failed by the education system’s careers advice will continue to be disadvantaged, while skills shortages will continue to grow.