From education to employment

The Cathartic Nature of Clearing One’s Desk…

Kirsty McHugh, Chief Executive, ERSA

One of the joys of changing jobs is the cathartic nature of clearing one’s desk: ripping out the contents of notebooks for recycling, stumbling across Christmas cards from long gone colleagues, and, in my case, locating the original file of papers detailing ERSA’s set up.

For the few of you who haven’t been in the employability sector some decades (and I know many of you have), ERSA was set up in 2005 by a group of ten employment support providers to give a new voice to ‘providers of publicly funded employment programmes’.

Some of those organisations are still in membership:

  • The Papworth Trust,
  • Remploy,
  • Shaw Trust,
  • Working Links,
  • Reed in Partnership and
  • RBLI amongst them.

Gone, but not forgotten, includes Tomorrow’s People, which also provided our founding chair, the awe-inspiring Debbie Scott (now Baroness Stedman Scott).

The nascent organisation had a manifesto, based on the need for a ‘step change in procurement policy’, concern about ‘recent budget cuts by the DWP for welfare to work (sic) programmes’ and to challenge a regime which is ‘too often characterised by inefficiencies and constraints on provider performance.’

Oh, how I laughed as I cleared my desk. After eight years at the helm, had I/we really made that much of a difference?!

Well, I write this during Christmas week, so perhaps it is the impact of the parties and the leaving do’s which has made me feel mellow, but I am actually hugely proud of what ERSA has achieved. Partly that’s pride at the growth in organisational reach and capacity.

Back in 2010, we were just over 40 members, with little in the way of a membership offer, only focused on programmes procured by the Department for Work and Pensions. Eight years on, our reach is truly UK-wide, thanks to active regional networks, and with a policy focus encompassing all aspects of employability support, from employability in schools to support for older workers.

Perhaps more important however is what has been achieved over this period. The backdrop, in truth, has been challenging, if not downright difficult at times. 

This sector has navigated a major economic downturn, with concomitant impacts on the ability of the sector to support jobseekers. The growth in flexible, part time and insecure work has changed the nature of the labour market fundamentally and the sector has had to change too. It is difficult to write, without irony, that the government has been ‘stable’ over this period.

However, it has at least been one colour – I have never dealt with anything other than a Conservative Minister since taking ERSA’s helm. But, my, how many ministers have I seen over these years? We literally did have to go to Wikipedia to find out.

As you’re asking the answer is, that at the DWP alone, we have had six Secretaries of State; six Employment Ministers; and seven Disabilities Ministers: a veritable roll call of the good, bad and the indifferent to try to get up to speed before they are moved on!

But rather than get depressed, I thought I’d list the stuff of which I/we are proud instead.

Here are my top ten proudest ERSA achievements:

  1. Stamping out that terrible term ‘welfare to work’ in favour of ‘employment support’. Not only was the term negative in tone, but it is also inaccurate – with Universal Credit people no longer transition from one to the other.
  2. Positioning employability as something to celebrate. Our awards and Employability Day are at the forefront of this. Only when people see employment support in action do they realise what an incredible force for good it can be. We have worked hard to change that overarching narrative.
  3. Helping publicly and behind the scenes to ensure decent devolution of employability support in Scotland, London and Greater Manchester.   This isn’t yet a battle entirely won.
  4. Supporting the design of programmes by commissioners the length and breadth of Britain. Goodness knows how often we have steered commissioners to learn what has gone before and to make better decisions.
  5. Working to ensure that we avoided something akin to market failure amongst providers at the depth of the last recession. Ask me about this another time.
  6. Helping the set-up of the Institute of Employability Professionals with its focus on frontline staff skills. Although its conception of a membership body for frontline staff has proved a struggle to deliver upon, its focus on employability as a career pathway and professionalising service delivery remains relevant.
  7. Extending our reach across the UK so that we have a mailing list of over 2500 organisations. This means we deliver some of the best market engagement events ever.
  8. Shining a spotlight on what isn’t working and working for change. This is core business. There is always more to do here. Our digging led to exposure of the fact that the government has no evidence of outcomes for people accessing the Youth Obligation. One for follow up in the New Year!

And because the journey is not yet over, I’d share my top ten thoughts on the big picture things that need to change – aside from the obvious point of the reintroduction of common sense to our political class. It’s sort of a personal mini manifesto.

So, in no particular order:  

  1. Reposition employability support from being a Cinderella service for those who are the most vulnerable or ‘hardest to help’ to a right which people are access at different times in their lives. People are complex creatures and respond to more than merely aligning financial incentives.
  2. Overhaul our careers advice and employability support offer in schools. The fact that almost all schools fail to reach the eight Gatsby benchmarks of good career guidance is a national disgrace. How are we going to be fit for the future if we starve our young people of basic advice and guidance? And yes, this is going to cost money. What is the alternative?
  3. Fundamentally reform Jobcentre Plus. Its brand, service offer and culture are not helping the country. It must change.
  4. Ditch conditionality requirements which simply do not support people’s journey into work and at worst can feel coercive. I have also never seen compelling evidence that sanctions work.
  5. Move DWP from a direct management organisation to one which fulfils a market stewardship role across the UK. This would entail empowering other commissioners to learn from best practice and each other and developing a framework within which services could operate regardless of where they were commissioned or funded.
  6. Do far more to facilitate understanding of what good looks like amongst providers of services. ERSA and New Philanthropy Capital have been talking to the DWP about an ‘Employment Datalab’ for over four years (perhaps more). This would enable providers of employability services to test properly the effectiveness of their services against proper benchmarks. That could be revolutionary.
  7. Provide greater stability in the contracting world for employability experts. There is a great array of organisations out there, of all sectors, who have decades of experience of helping people into jobs and careers. Some of these specialise in particular groups of people; some of these operate locally; others have a national footprint. All of them seem to spend more money on bidding for contracts than actually delivering them. What’s the opportunity cost of that?
  8. Fund programmes properly. Some funders are very aware of this (Big Lottery Fund take a bow). However, others really are not. In particular the practice of asking providers for ‘discounts’ to drive down the price should stop. Employment support is not like bin collection. We are talking about people here, sometimes complex, difficult people. This all costs money and we must respect that.
  9. Crack in work support so people are supported to move up the career and pay ladder and also avoid impacts of automation. The jobcentre can’t be the mechanism to do this.
  10. Celebrate success – this sector changes lives. It serves the public good and should be recognised.

So that’s it, my wish list of what must change. Some of the points above might indicate that I’m leaving ERSA frustrated, but that’s far from the truth. I am ever the optimist.

We have come a long way in a short space of time as a sector and I’m confident the sector will be with us in 20, 30, or 50 years doing great.

There is a lot to play for and I, for one, will be supporting ERSA all the way.


Kirsty McHugh, Chief Executive, ERSA

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