As the DWP announces its Way to Work campaign – its first major employability push for 2022 – the headlines herald half a million people into work by the summer, underlaid with the threat of potential benefit sanctions for Universal Credit recipients.
The campaign hinges on jobseekers taking a job, “any job” according to Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, after just four weeks, rather than the three months currently allowed for searching within their chosen field.
If people are capable of jobs in other sectors but do not actively participate, or accept said roles, their benefit payment may be cut.
I find this move deeply disturbing and a huge step back from the people-centred methodologies that the employability industry has successfully fought to extol to commissioners in recent years.
One-size-doesn’t-fit-all. Individually tailored support which meets personal and local labour market needs must remain front and centre of any quality employability provision.
While the media lists a handful of large employers that back the Way to Work initiative, I don’t believe that coercion and sanctions of this kind will ultimately meet employers’ needs.
Through ERSA’s employer engagement work, we consistently hear that employers want a job match, not a conscripted workforce. They want people with a genuine interest in their roles, with the right motivation, ambition, and skills to become a valued, long-term member of staff.
Quality employment support providers understand their locality’s job landscape, the employers with vacancies and their requirements. They’re also realists, looking where the opportunities exist and searching for that not-always-obvious right fit. Employability professionals are specifically trained to exploit any transferrable skills a jobseeker may have and encourage a wider sphere of job searching than a candidate may at first consider relevant.
The pandemic response Job Entry Targeted Support programme, JETS, is a case in point. Tasked with getting people back into work quickly – a phrase being repeated by DWP for the Way to Work campaign – JETS shows what the employment support sector can achieve when people are referred from Jobcentre Plus to their offers.
Importantly, JETS is incentivised to support people into SUSTAINED employment, and I’ve seen countless good news stories of people successfully re-entering the workforce of their choice, or switching to embark on entirely new careers suited to their skills, with no coercion required.
However, what JETS also indicates is that those people with the skills and motivation to flex are already doing so, and are likely to be jobseekers with some form of recent work experience.
Way to Work is predominantly targeted to those in the intensive work search group on Universal Credit and I echo Stephen Evans’s comments from the Learning and Work Institute who said:
“People who’ve recently lost their jobs are the most likely to find work quickly. To tackle current labour shortages, we need a more ambitious plan for people who have left the labour market, with support increasing the longer someone is out of work.”
Way to Work promises jobseekers more face-to-face time with their Jobcentre Plus work coach. Yet two ongoing issues could well render this a moot point.
JCP work coaches – thousands of which have been newly recruited through the pandemic – face an unenviable barrage of jobseekers with differing barriers to employment; a record number of vacancies to fill; and an often bureaucratic referral system to a complex range of national and local support providers.
With the clock now ticking faster thanks to Way to Work can we really expect them to offer genuinely tailored support each and every time?
That is of course assuming people visit Jobcentre Plus. The lack of candidates for vacancies is already impacted by the participation challenge, notably people choosing not to engage with their Jobcentre Plus advisor. This is particularly evident with people over 50 who are choosing not to return to work and to live on savings or to take pensions early. There is a real danger that there will be no incentive for certain demographics of people to engage with Jobcentre Plus now.
And for those engaging with a work coach, can willingness to participate really be enhanced by sanctions? The government’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, has in the past found no evidence that benefit sanctions work, concluding that they were as likely to force people to stop claiming benefits without getting a job as they were to get them into employment.
Since the 1980s, European-funded provision has prioritised people disconnected from the labour market; those not proactively accessing Jobcentre Plus. These vital programmes help some of the most disadvantaged people in society, removing barriers to employment and training, getting their working lives back on track.
As we continue to wait for firmer details of its successor, the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), the record number of unfilled vacancies makes a strong case for community-based, outsourced provision.
I firmly believe the long delayed UKSPF is the way to get vacancies filled, developing people from all walks of life for local vacancies they can sustain, to bring economic independence to them and their families.
In an ever evolving world, catapulted but not solely driven by the pandemic, the need to align education and skills provision at every level with the needs of the current and future economy is vital.
As reported by the House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee urgent action is needed to not only address the UK’s youth unemployment rate, but to reform our school system, further education and vocational programmes to futureproof our young people.
Action now could avoid the labour market crisis being a cause for concern for future generations of employers and individuals.
In conclusion, while I concede that there is some merit in work for work’s sake – we all know it’s good for us in many ways – I think this new push is a dangerous initiative that disregards the evidence and experience of employers, the NAO, and the employability industry at large.
This is not a solution to the UK’s long term labour market crisis, which needs adequate funding, coordination and expertise to support people’s aspirations to work in quality jobs with long term futures.