Richard Alberg, CEO, Aptem Employ

In the context of rising unemployment, the employment services industry has been placed at the centre of employability plans. Central to UK government policy has been the doubling of ‘work coaches’. Yet thus far, little has been said which elucidates their role in aiding the newly unemployed, work-ready jobseeker.

I felt it would be useful to look at the role of work coaches and how technology maps into their role in the new employability environment.

The aims and goals of employment services

In my experience, the employment services industry has two main purposes. The first is to get people into work who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find employment – the section of society who might be long-term unemployed, or who need additional help to find work because they face different obstacles (those with disabilities, lone parents or older workers, for example). The second is to enable people to get into employment more quickly, which has knock on effects for social mobility and social justice.

Employment services may also have a third goal, to enable upskilling so the work secured is better paid and more sustainable.

Delivering high-quality programmes at scale is expensive. A funder should decide the balance between expense and ambition. Having done so, it will want the programme to operate as efficiently as possible, so goals are achieved and waste minimised.

So far, the UK government has committed to double the number of work coaches available to help the surge in unemployment. But given the employability sector – specifically job centres – are already struggling under the weight of Universal Credit applications and case management, can an additional 13,000 work coaches really make a dent?

This is where technology comes in, which, when done well, can facilitate scaled efficiency for those already work-ready while complementing the role of work coaches so they can focus on what they do best – teaching job seeking skills and mindset transformations.

Work coaches and technological enhancements

So how can technology assist and enhance the role of work coaches?

First and foremost, if job seeking uses an end-to-end platform that enables self-service (or self-sufficiency) by those jobseekers who are work ready, all the work coach needs to do is log on to their case load to see progress. Enhance those programmes with advanced data analytics and easy to digest reporting statistics (made possible by Power BI dashboards) and real time, at a glance monitoring becomes possible.

Secondly, we need to understand that the pandemic sets limits on face-to-face interactions. However, work coaching sessions can be conducted via Zoom, which have proven to be similar to face to face appointments in terms of engagement while also teaching the kinds of tech skills jobseekers will need.

Thirdly, technology delivers full personalisation, something that has been all but unachievable so far (read for example, this research on employability services for lone parents). Employability programmes can be customised at the provider and individual level, meaning that needs can be met in a more focused and efficient way.

Fourthly, if work coaches are not spending their time on needless administration and monitoring, they can more effectively develop effective relationships with jobseekers. Work coaching, in my opinion, is more effective when it is an effective psychological contract between coach and jobseeker – teaching skills of self-management and mindset as they negotiate the turbulent and challenging job market.

Finally, and to return to the importance of data, technology has the potential to take human error and undeveloped instinct out of the case management system. When the work coach can track evidence as to progress, be alerted to problems of delays, understand where jobseekers might be struggling, it takes the guesswork out of coaching.

The current state of tech

What would that kind of supportive technology look like? At Aptem, we are constantly working on new innovations. However, this is the bottom line in good practice for employability technology:

A modern system architecture that is capable of sophisticated workflow automation and functionality. What this means in layperson’s terms is that the system should handle the jobseeker’s employment journey without the need for advanced technical knowledge or intervention by the jobseeker or their coach. Tasks will be automated and intuitively accessible, meaning coach and jobseekers can spend time where it matters – an example being the tracking of targeted employers or application tracking.

Service deliverers and service recipients should all be on the same system, meaning that interactions can be tracked.  It’s essential that work coaches can see jobseeker activity, for example, including their searches, applications, CVs, rather than waiting for information from the jobseeker. This allows for a proactive, rather than reactive, coaching relationship. A case management system is no longer enough; any employability technology platform should be a convergence of powerful case management and a self-service jobseeker portal.

Data should be used to measure inputs and outputs at a granular level and iterate towards successful outcomes. Recent developments in reporting and data visualisation can deliver powerful analysis at an organisational, work coach and individual jobseeker level. It means that work coaches can effectively manage their caseloads and apply intervention where necessary in real-time, and providers can easily access and monitor their programme performance.

Offer eLearning and soft skills training as a core-part of the system, to enable people to retrain or develop their skills as part of their employability programme.

Offer an end-to-end solution that supports the provider through the whole journey, from an individual being referred to the service through to them getting a job and staying in that job. The platform must also be able to integrate with any existing technology, seamlessly, to remove duplication.

The future of employability technology

There is an additional step change that technology can offer, to ensure the ‘best in class’ programme delivery.

Deploying nudge capability – technology can be used to deliver nudges to positively shape jobseekers’ behaviour (rather than punitive sanctions) without the work coach’s involvement. This could range from reminders to chase up applications to prompts towards proactivity.

Machine learning to deliver job search results that are not only based on what the jobseeker inputs into their profile, but what they have interacted with in the past, applied for and achieved a positive first stage outcome.

And speculating on what we know to be possible but isn’t yet in operation, we could be looking at:

Deep levels of programme personalisation based upon all aspects of interaction with the programme and platform.

Ever more sophisticated nudging powered by behavioural science.

Bot technology to monitor vacancies and automate credible, quality, relevant applications.

Advisor / jobseeker matching based upon probability of success.

In-work support using sentiment analysis to reveal problems and minimise attrition.

The benefits of technology and its ability to track and report means that it is also easier to calculate the efficiencies it offers. This not only offers assurances to providers that they are performing adequately, but it also means proof of concept when it comes to managing government procurement processes.

Better data also delivers research capability – the ability to inform others about ‘what works’ for job seeking and understand in better detail the dilemmas that jobseekers face in new employment conditions.

The employment sector does a valiant and difficult job and, moreover, faces significant challenges as we enter this period of unemployment growth. But we believe that technology can help deliver a more effective service, meaning mitigations in both the financial and human costs of unemployment.

About the Author: Richard Alberg is CEO of Aptem, the award-winning SaaS technology company specialising in vocational training and employability. Aptem Employ is Aptem’s cutting-edge employability platform that draws upon technology, psychology and data science to empower providers to deliver fundamentally more efficient programmes that demonstrably achieve superior outcomes.