From education to employment

Integrating employment and skills

I am delighted to have been asked to write for FE News and I guess over time that I will write occasional pieces from my comfort zone, which is very much welfare to work. But for my first piece I want to make a skirmish across the tracks in to the area of skills.

We find ourselves in a period of early, fragile, recovery after a deep recession. We are on the brink of the Work Programme, a back to work scheme, commencing early Summer 2011, the size of which has never before been seen in the UK, or indeed in the world. By 2014 The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion thinks there could be upwards of 2.6m individuals claiming Jobseekers Allowance, many of them transferred from Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance. A large proportion of these “legacy” customers will not have worked, or undertaken training for several years.

Clearly we have a Government in a hurry. It has no truck with talk of failure of the Work Programme– there is no “Plan B”. When asked where the jobs are going to come from, DWP Ministers repeatedly state that public sector job losses (500,000 of them) will be replaced, and considerably more, by private sector job creation.

We are seeing green shoots of economic growth and jobs are indeed beginning to be created in decent numbers but the issue is – are the jobs in sectors and at skills levels that match that of the unemployed jobseekers? And where there is a mismatch where does the responsibility lie to address this conundrum? There’s a danger that, while recently redundant public sector workers will find work reasonably quickly because their skills and work experience is recently acquired and transferable, legacy customers will be side-lined because of a lack of appropriate experience and skills.

It is intended that the Work Programme will not allow this to happen. Prime providers will be paid a higher “tariff” to get the furthest from work in to sustained work. “Sustained” has yet to be defined but is likely to be at least a year. Primes will be paid largely on the basis of benefit savings they make. It’s hard to see how providers who don’t meet sustained job targets with the hardest cohorts can survive. What is absolutely clear is that employability providers who do not understand and do not ally themselves with their skills counterparts are very short sighted indeed.

Important principals about the integration of employment and skills were starting to be fostered by the last administration: the IES pilots were a small but significant start; Total Place began to address issues around one-stop shopping for employment, skills (and other) support in the localities ; the RDAs were put in place to develop linkages at a local level between what inward investors wanted in the way of human resources and the up-skilling required for the local labour force. In a few short months all these initiatives appear to be gone with nothing clearly apparent to replace them, and certainly not at the speed the Work Programme will require. There’s a real danger that at a time when we most need “joined-up” policy thinking we are left to flounder without clear direction.

Employability and Skills are mature industries and it’s clear that the Government’s expectation is that leadership and direction will come from within. So, this is a nettle that we have to grasp immediately – working together to create effective long term solutions that tackle entrenched worklessness. That means ensuring that unemployed people can access with ease the right skills training for the jobs on offer and that their future prospects can be enhanced by continued employability and skills support. This is a tall order in a time of empty coffers but we have to think innovatively and with ingenuity around the problem.

What is to stop us creating a solution from within? It’s surely a given that Work Programme prime providers will work with those sectoral training providers who have direct access to employers and jobs and a clear understanding of the skills routeways and the best way of maximising the skills cash in constrained times. What we will need is a commitment on the part of Government to give what support it can, strategic as well as financial, to support the integration of employment and skills as a norm within the Work Programme.

With this as our objective Inclusion and ALP are holding a joint event in central London on 14th December at which we have invited the respective ministers John Hayes (Skills) and Chris Grayling (Employability) to jointly support the objectives of the Work Programme and to help us facilitate discussion between skills providers and employability primes about the very real sectoral employment opportunities available for Work Programme customers. The impetus for this preliminary meeting will be the tenders for the Work Programme that primes will have to deliver by mid-January. Our intention is that this will be the first big conversation of many that will lead naturally to integrated employment and skills.

Fran Parry is director of policy & communications at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion

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