This piece of writing is part of a series of blogs designed to stimulate discussion around the five key elements of the ERSA Manifesto: commissioning, complex needs, skills, employer needs, youth employment. Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

Employers are crucial to the success of ‘active labour market policies’ (ALMPs), such as employment support programmes. Yet, how to foster employer involvement and engagement in these programmes can often seem like a dark art. We surveyed over 1,500 employers in the UK and Denmark about their involvement in, experience of, and attitudes towards, a range of employment support programmes in the UK and activation programmes and policies in Denmark.

Challenging stigma

To begin with we need to debunk the myth that employers are reluctant to participate in these programmes. Our study shows that ALMPs are attractive to employers. In both the UK and Denmark employers were positively disposed to recruiting from the programmes and did not consider participating to be risky for their company. Employers in both countries who had recruited from the programmes were equally satisfied with their employees across a range of areas, including their labour productivity, qualifications and skills, and attitudes to work.

UK and Danish employers were equally positive about hiring the unemployed for various types of jobs, from administrative roles, to routine and professional occupations and almost half were open to considering candidates for managerial positions. Employers were in general positive about hiring the unemployed and other disadvantaged groups of people (such as disabled people, lone parents and young people).

Deeper and sustained employer engagement is crucial

So what’s the problem? Well, although the level of employers’ participation in ALMPs was similarly high in both countries, the difference was in the extent of more ‘relational’ engagement. Such relationally engaged employers had not simply placed vacancies with Jobcentre Plus (Jobcenters in Denmark) or provided work placements, but were actively involved in using various activation services, including in-work training and wage subsidies and regularly recruited staff from ALMPs.

More than 60 per cent of the employers in Denmark were relationally engaged in ALMPs. By contrast, this was around 30 per cent for the UK. Such regular and deeper engagement in the UK was largely driven by the provision of pre-employment training and work placements. The higher levels of relational engagement in Denmark were partly explained by the availability of wage subsidies, where a substantial proportion of employees’ wages is covered by public funding.

Such a direct economic stimulus is not the only way to engage employers, although this is worth considering as part of a package of measures. Employer engagement in both countries was driven by the capacity of ALMPs to deliver direct benefits to organisations. Employers are more likely to demonstrate relational engagement in ALMPs if programmes effectively address their needs, or at least fit with their organisational objectives or strategy. In the UK, employers’ recruitment from disadvantaged groups primarily depended on companies’ own policies and activities, but in Denmark this role was fulfilled by ALMPs, which are  more ‘embedded’ in the Danish context and involve employers in their design.

Our research underscores that the overall success of ALMPs such as employment support programmes is highly dependent on employer engagement. A crucial part of this is fostering an environment in which employers become deeply involved in such programmes on a regular and sustained basis.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/K008617/1). More information about the project can be found here.  

A policy report will be available in summer 2015.

Dr Jo Ingold and Danat Valizade

Leeds University Business School