ERSA’s CEO, Elizabeth Taylor writes exclusively for FE News, originally published on 2 November here.
Borne out of crisis and mobilised at breakneck speed, the JETS employability programme broke many barriers: for its participants, and the organisations delivering it. Its subsequent and somewhat surprising success unearthed important lessons for future commissions, writes Elizabeth Taylor, CEO of the Employment Related Services Association.
With referrals now closed, the final participants set to benefit from the Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS) employability programme are now starting their journey back to a working future. If the last two years are anything to go by, it will be a swift one.
Launched in October 2020, initially for 12 months, JETS is an extension of the Work and Heath Programme (WHP), commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions. Intended to support the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs in the pandemic, a handful of established employability providers were tasked with the mammoth task of finding them new, sustainable work opportunities as quickly as possible. And they did. Performance outstripped targets and JETS was extended for a further year.
The pandemic abated and DWP finally ceased referrals at the end of September 2022. Delivery of services to existing participants will continue until April next year, when the national statistics of the JETS legacy will no doubt speak for themselves.
So, now we take stock of JETS’ trajectory, what worked well? Canvassing the national providers of the programme, the feedback has been unanimous…
The employability sector was ready and waiting
Awarding contracts to existing WHP providers meant the infrastructure, communication channels, and resources were in place to mobilise quickly. The speed with which DWP awarded the JETS contracts allowed for a rapid response to an emerging situation. As a result, participants received fast and much needed support at an unprecedented and uncertain time.
As Richard Clifton, Managing Director Employability at Shaw Trust commented:
“Using existing providers of WHP meant that DWP guidance could be quickly adapted to support the providers in efficiently onboarding participants. Great communication between commissioners and providers enabled feedback, developments and best practice sharing to flow.”
Existing relationships and expertise were in place
Providers were able to use their existing networks to maximise opportunities for participants and employers.
Partnerships were already built – with supply chains, employers, Jobcentre Plus and community referral partners – and advisers had existing expertise in local labour markets. Armed with this knowledge and updated insights, emerging sectors and opportunities were quickly identified. This then enabled support, training, and development of participants’ skills to move into those sectors.
That said, positioning jobseekers for wholesale change – in their own minds, and those of a potential employer – takes skill and creativity. JETS advisers identifying participants’ transferrable skills and encouraging them to explore new sectors, then presenting them positively to employers desperate to fill vacancies has been a common theme of the programme. As has the inevitable need for support with wellbeing issues, prompted in no small part by sudden unemployment and the pandemic itself.
Although the pandemic led to quick adjustment for everyone involved, the sector provided a bedrock of partner networks, employer relationships, and expertise on which to build.
Fresh talent brings fresh thinking
Not only did Jobcentre Plus and DWP drastically increase staff numbers to cope with the surge of newly unemployed people, JETS providers launched huge recruitment campaigns to resource their employability services. Recruiting from outside of the sector, people who themselves had been affected by the pandemic brought in a wealth of talent that could directly relate to the issues facing JETS participants. Often using their own experiences of being unemployed, they put participants at ease, while being expertly tutored by experienced managers and accessing accredited, industry-specific training.
The approach added real value at The Growth Company, according to JETS Operations Manager, Rochelle Seddon:
“We recruited employees from a diverse employment and skill background and so mapped each Employment Coach’s employment history, interests, languages spoken and skill set. This allowed the team conducting initial assessments to pair each participant up with an Employment Coach most suited to their needs.
“Recruiting advisors with diverse backgrounds brought a fresh approach and invigorated enthusiasm. Intense and continual training, KPI monitoring and effective management, has resulted in a team very passionate about JETS and the work we do.”
Early intervention is key
JETS focused in the first instance on people not receiving furlough or self-employment subsidies. Jobseekers in receipt of Universal Credit or New Style Jobseekers Allowance for 13 weeks or more were eligible for support.
Being able to support participants out of work for only a relatively short amount of time was unique for a DWP employability programme. We know that extended periods of worklessness can create long term barriers for people – not just in employer perception but also in terms of wellbeing, easily exacerbated in this case by the national situation. As one provider put it:
“Enabling a rapid response to unexpected employment means providers catch claimants at the start of their journey and can help them proactively tackle barriers to employment. It is important that employability provisions can support both long-term and newly unemployed participants for many benefits – preventing a ‘spiralling’ of barriers, effective peer support, and early wellbeing support to name a few.”
There are calls to shorten further the eligibility time lock of employment programmes to allow for earlier intervention, provision of digital devices to participants, and processing of essential right to work paperwork. Fabled day-one services are some way off in my view but JETS took a big step toward demonstrating the importance of early intervention.
Remote/hybrid delivery has proven its worth
Historically, employment support contracts have been delivered face-to-face. So switching quickly to remote delivery at the height of a pandemic was seen as a necessary evil (to some). Yet no one can refute the lifeline it provided with JETS. It enabled a wider pool of candidates to access the service, and to work within the sector.
Hats off here to those back office and IT teams that implemented the huge upscale in digital infrastructure for their delivery teams and participants alike!
Employability professionals too showed immense resilience, adapting to primarily online delivery in record time. Maintaining meaningful engagement with participants in this way once again took empathy, and expertise in wellbeing, as well as employability knowledge.
Virtual appointments allowed cohorts of participants, such as those with physical barriers, caring responsibilities, and social anxiety/mental health issues, access to vital support. Lockdown has long since ended, but it’s clear that remote/digital delivery of employment services is here to stay; an effective method to interact with participants and manage large caseloads.
Upskilling equals jobs
The link between appropriate skills and employability is undeniable, as is the importance of brokerage between the available skills market and the skills required by the market. Here, the sector really stepped up to the challenge…
Providers report incorporating sector-based work academies and career routeways in health and social care, HGV licences and customer service amongst others to respond to vacancy needs in care, retail and call centres. Many partnered with training providers where appropriate to help jobseekers pivot into new industries and involved local recruiting employers to offer credence and feedback.
Others appointed adult skills coordinators, integration teams and internal group facilitators to source and deliver courses to participants.
For many, digital exclusion and not knowing how to apply for jobs online presented an extra barrier and cause of anxiety. Most job applications and many jobs now involve digital abilities, so it is vital to address this as an ongoing priority. For JETS, providing digital access to participants and then delivering qualifications digitally worked extremely well, with thousands of online courses undertaken.
Points to replicate
Don’t get me wrong, JETS wasn’t without its issues: concerns about competition between programmes and mis-allocation of participants further away from the jobs market have been raised, but if anything, the recurring complaint seems to be that JETS wasn’t extended further. It worked well and providers want to keep this best practice in place to help more people. While that may not be an option, we must distil what worked well and encourage policy makers to repeat it.
My top takeaways are:
- A blended model of remote and face-to-face delivery will reach a wider range of participants
- Early intervention reduces the risk of long term unemployment, which often leads to more complex needs developing
- Increasing digital literacy and reducing digital poverty across communities is integral to both skills provision and employability support
- Providers are receptive to working with alternative funding arrangements. The new way of funding DWP contracts by using Cost Plus was effective and should be considered for future contracts as it enhanced investment in delivery.
JETS catapulted the employment support sector into the spotlight like never before. Two years later, its unconventional but necessary approach holds important lessons.
The employability sector showed a rapid and professional response to an unprecedented situation and should be applauded for what it enabled JETS to deliver.