The latest Work Programme statistics came out rather quietly last week. News desks across media outlets took one look at the improved figures and, by and large, decided they were not going to devote the column inches or airtime to a good news story. It was ever thus!
Just in case you missed them, the official Work Programme performance statistics now show that there has been a rapid increase in the number of jobseekers gaining work and that most providers are now firmly on target to meet their year three Minimum Performance Levels for those on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). These government stats, to remind you, refer to those who have been in work and off benefit for at least six months and thus there is inevitably a lag time between provider performance and successful jobseekers showing up in the figures.
The official statistics also confirmed the upward performance trajectory showing in ERSA's 'Job Start' figures, which show the number of people who so far have got a job on the programme, albeit they say nothing about job sustainability. By the end of June 2013, 384,000 long term unemployed jobseekers had achieved a job on the programme, 103,000 of whom were in the 18-24 year old category. Given that providers estimate about 70 percent of these will turn into long term jobs, this bodes well also for future performance.
The Work Programme was created to allow for innovation and development over time. No one has yet found a full proof method to help 100 percent of jobseekers into employment, and let's be honest, no one is expecting too. As the Policy Exchange was saying at our party conference event this week, even if the programme performed to the top expectations, 50 percent of participants would not find work. However, as Work Programme customers are, by definition, the long term unemployed this would still be a massive success for them as jobseekers and for the taxpayer.
There is, however, a dark spot in the performance figures overall. As an industry we are very clear that jobseekers receiving Employment and Support Allowance are not getting into work fast enough. There is work being done to share learning between providers so that the best methods and ideas can be accessed by people working with these jobseekers across the country. However, the truth is that there are limits to what the Work Programme can do by itself.
Many jobseekers on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have multiple needs. It looks as if around a quarter of them have been out of work for at least 11 years and some for far longer. There are significant basic and vocational skills needs in the group, plus a wide range of health related conditions. This isn't specific to those on ESA, jobseekers on JSA can also have many barriers to employment, but these seem particularly acute in the ESA group. Put simply, Work Programme finances alone cannot meet all these needs. There needs to be more resource and more join up between agencies at the local level to provide the type of co-ordinated support that some of these jobseekers need. It will then be a long and potentially slow journey back into the workforce which may in some cases take longer than the two years with which the Work Programme has to operate.
Overall, the industry has every right to be proud of the distance it has travelled since the start of the programme. However none of us are too old to learn and there is still much that can be done to make sure that all parties – government, providers and other partners –work together to put in place the adaptations and improvements that will help to guarantee performance improvements in the future.
Kirsty McHugh is chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA)