From education to employment

The heart of employability services and why technology hasn’t transformed services…..yet!

Chris Blackwell MIEP, Founder and CEO of Purpose Led Performance

The world is changing. I want to look beyond the immediate impact of Covid-19 and share some left-field thoughts on what future employability services might look like.

The views expressed are all my own opinions. I will be deliberately speculative and in some cases provocative. You may violently disagree with me and think I have got it completely wrong.  That will be a good thing; we need to encourage more constructive dialogue and disagreements!

I started my employability career seventeen years ago as an employment adviser working on the New Deal programme in West London. It was a job I absolutely loved – working closely with my caseload of clients to support them back into work. I often described my role by using the analogy of a personal trainer (PT). A PT works with their client towards a goal. They set out a plan to reach the goal – but it is the client who ultimately has to do the hard work. The PT works alongside them to motivate them, encourage them, and holds them accountable to keep them on track. I was like a PT for my clients, except I didn’t have a six-pack and I helped them get a job rather than get fit.

Looking back at that time it was a different world. There were no smart phones, no social media platforms, and very little online shopping. There was no Uber, no social media influencers, and no big-data driven logarithms that automated the choices that you made. No Netflix, no podcasts, no Zoom calls, and no giant Amazon warehouses. I was new to London and I had to navigate my way round the unfamiliar streets with a well-thumbed London A-Z, which I carried everywhere.

The world has changed a lot over the intervening period, but has the world of employability changed much?  Is the role of an employment adviser much different today to what it was when I was doing the role in 2003? Has technology revolutionised the employability sector in the same way it has with so many other sectors?  In my view the answer to both questions is ‘no’.

Why have things not changed and how are they going to change? To answer both questions I want to start by setting out what I think the foundations of an effective employability service are and are not. I will then explain why technology hasn’t made a significant impact to date on the delivery models, the cost of delivery or the level of performance that is achieved.

Much of the focus in the sector for the last five years seems to have been on localism and integration with other local services. I think this is a red herring. I don’t think local approaches will lead to better performance or innovation in the sector. In fact, I think it is likely to lead to stagnation in both regards.

Over my career I have delivered services in every singe English region and across the whole of Scotland. In every locality I heard the same thing – ‘our clients are different here’.  This statement was often followed by the assertion that they were more difficult to help into work. I visited and worked alongside employability services in France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, the US and Australia and heard exactly the same thing.

The reality I have observed is that there are far more commonalities than differences, and very strong similarities in the services that were high performing. What are these common themes?

  • A dedicated and consistent personal adviser that has a great relationship with their jobseekers
  • A focus on motivation, engagement and goal-setting rather than mandating actions
  • Practical training and guidance on the process of finding work  – having a realistic job goal, dedicating time to job search, accessing vacancies that are not massively oversubscribed, submitting quality applications, performing well in an interview
  • High levels of activity that are focused on finding work
  • A work alongside model that supports jobseekers to take ownership and control of their own lives
  • Practical problem solving support to address barriers to work

Human psychology and motivating behaviour change are the key ingredients that underpin these common themes and are the most important elements in an effective employability service. Psychological and behavioural principles are universal, not locally specific. Local labour markets, culture, language, benefit systems, education systems and employment laws may vary from place to place, but are secondary and can be more easily learned and adapted to.

I think this explains why the employment advisers of today are still working in a very similar way to how I worked almost twenty years ago. The personal adviser model is effective because the personal relationship is key to building motivation and affecting behaviour change. The technological innovations in the past fifteen years haven’t addressed this or come up with tech-enabled solutions of doing it better. Consider some of the technological innovations that are been tried in employability with little impact:

Automated job matching: The reason most people don’t have a job is not that there are not jobs to apply for – even in the depths of a recession there are jobs to apply for. Presenting someone with jobs they are not motivated to do, don’t have the tools to submit a good application for or which are going to be highly competed, hasn’t significantly shifted the dial on performance.

Self-service portals: Most self-service portals make no difference because people only use them once or twice. To be effective people will need to use them daily. For that to happen they have to be more engaging than Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Netflix, and everything else that people access via the web or their smart phone.

Data analytics: This hasn’t made a significant change yet, but it has the potential to do so. Why has it made little difference so far?  For data analytics to be effective you have to collect high quantities, of high quality data. In the employability market data is gathered across multiple instance of systems, so although there is a lot of it, there isn’t enough of it in a single system to offer much insight. 

So how might employability services of the future be different and how might technology fundamentally change how services are delivered?  I will share just two thoughts, but I would love to hear from others about how they think the employability sector might be fundamentally altered by technology.

During lockdown Joe Wicks became the nation’s PE teacher – could we see the emergence of social media fueled employment advisers with giant caseloads? Personal trainers historically relied on a personal relationship and were limited by the number of people they can physically spend quality time with in a week. The same can be said of employment advisers. Social media has allowed Joe Wicks to build a relationship of trust with millions of people through his numerous videos, without having to meet them in person. People see Joe so often the feel like they know him, they trust him, are motivated by him. They engage with his content and crucially they change their behaviours.

You could argue that an employment adviser role is more complex and varied than that of a PT. However, in a single year an employment adviser will repeat some activities and sessions dozens if not hundreds of times a year. Delivering that content either in live streamed or pre-recorded sessions that are posted on social media channels could allow employment advisers to work with many more people.

Data is the new oil, and constant innovation is the road to improvement. We know the case management approach broadly works – but we don’t really understand the granular detail of what works. Do particular interventions work for particular groups? Do particular advisers have much better success with particular customer groups? I believe that there is significant potential to improve the effectiveness of employability services if we collect the data properly and use it to provide real-time feedback on what works and what doesn’t and adapt services accordingly. What if Google or Amazon commissioned employment services on behalf of DWP? One thing is certain – we would have much richer data on what actually worked and what didn’t and we wouldn’t be designing inflexible programmes that are the same in year 5 as they are in year 1.

The future is uncertain, but one thing that is certain is that sooner or later technology will fundamentally change the way employability services are delivered and in ways that are unexpected. While technology will change the way services are delivered, truly great employability services rely on uniquely human abilities which technology will be able enhance but not replace.

About the Author

Chris Blackwell MIEP is the Founder and CEO of Purpose Led Performance.

Chris started his career as an employment adviser at Ingeus in 2003 and progressed to be their COO. He was UK Managing Director for MAXIMUS from 2012 – 2016. Chris subsequently worked in CEO roles in the criminal justice and education sectors. In 2019 Chris Founded Purpose Led Performance, which supports medium sized organisations with performance and growth.

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