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Despite the straightened circumstances of many providers 850 people actually attended the annual Welfare to Work conference. However it might be just my impression but although organisations were well represented, they were not well represented by the most senior personnel in their organisations. Perhaps the timing was into holiday season or pre-Olympic break.  The key themes which appealed to me were:

Performance and Innovation

Although Work Programme performance was and is a key issue, there was a change with a slightly softer presentation style. The minister actually thanked providers for achievements so far and a nod to the fact that this had been achieved despite difficult circumstances e.g. TUPE, lack of ESA clients, (surely by now someone must know where they are?). Although the stick in the shape of contract withdrawal for poorer performers was waved it felt there was some attempt to clothe it in carrot.

Innovation and the colour of the box

There was also a focus on innovation or rather a perceived lack of innovation in Work Programme and why the ‘black box’ had not delivered this and a plea for more. Hard to innovate in a risk averse and cash strapped climate.

A subcontractor working with several Primes described Prime contractor’s boxes as either being too full of potential solutions or as being too prescriptive.  Having looked into several myself, the menus of potential  activities for customers currently almost all are based on a 1:1 caseloaded advisor methodology proceeding from  Zones into Pathways through FND and into Work Programme unchallenged and with little reference back to Successful New Deal provision. Perhaps a renewed focus on what really works for customers is called for. The key is that the industry should fight to retain the ability to deliver ‘what works’ and produces results rather than a return to prescriptive and proscribed programmes.

In one session someone pointed out that the flight box is red not black whilst a wag behind me said surely the box is fifty shades...

Holy Grail

There was feeling that many of the issues were being recycled and recycled without solutions. By far the most common of these is the integration of employment and skills. With a few notable exceptions this is still perceived as difficulty now as when there was no access for unemployed persons to SFA funded training. Surely this is not beyond the wit of the talented 850 attendees? It may be that few of us are old enough to recall a time when there were just back to work programmes funded by joined up bodies (TECs anyone) who had joint responsibility for skills, employment and enterprise and when no one talked about silos.

Protest

‘Welfare not Workfare’ the protestors cried as they came through the exhibition hall.  Sadly for them they got the day of the ministerial address wrong.  Happily for us that they weren’t the sort of protestors running around our cities last year!  The protest did however reveal the lack of knowledge and understanding of what work experience is and can do for individual’s confidence and progress which is sadly not limited to young protestors.

Technology

I was taken Claire McGuckin of JCP’s presentation on their part of the customer journey and particularly by their increasing focus on technology interface with customers. Lord Freud at the ERSA AGM urged us to look at technology in advance of Universal credit. The JCP target is for 80% of benefit claims to be completed on line, job matching will be available on line from November,  UC will have customers in putting their own financial information. How are we as an industry responding to this as an industry? Perhaps our lack of confidence in JCP/DWP IT systems obscures the real lessons to be learned.

IEP

After two years of intense work we were able to launch the Institute of Employability Professionals with overwhelming support. Our stand was the busiest of all, our session and launch were well attended and our badges were the must have, worn by all discerning people. The new ERS qualifications are gathering pace and our Future Leaders at Level 4 is underway. Many organisations who had not engaged with us before came forward with ideas and offers of help, employers offered to pay initial fees for groups of staff.  Without doubt the star was Jo Carter, an Avanta personal advisor from Crewe, on stage and on camera with Lord Jim Knight, himself a great IEP supporter. I couldn’t have scripted what she said about how proud she was to be qualified and a member of a professional body and how this enhanced her status and her performance and the industry as a whole. That’s what it is all been about.

Janette Faherty OBE is chair of the Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP)

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