It would be an unthinkable to entrust the education of our children to anyone who is not appropriately qualified. There are exacting qualifications requirements to enter academic and vocational teaching. Whilst the Government's current FE workforce strategy encourages greater flexibility for institutions to determine the specific qualification warranted by each staff position, there is an underlying commitment to professionalism. This is reinforced in the form of a £27m grant from BIS which underpins the work of The Education & Training Foundation (ETF), defining professional standards.
When it comes to professionalisation in support services for the unemployed, the story is very different. The ERSA Employment Related Services Salary & Benefit Survey 2013 identified that 14 of its largest members collectively employed 6,980 staff in delivery roles. There is, however, no mandatory employment services qualification or standard which these 6,980 practitioners have been required to attain; everyone, in principle, is qualified to deliver publicly funded employment support.
As opposed to being a career destination of choice, many employability trainers anecdotally claim to have "fallen-in-to" the job. Whilst this has made for a diverse workforce, it has also made it hard to tease out what the model employability trainer looks like. Indeed, it was not that long ago when many providers routinely recruited their jobseekers into training and advisory roles. Whilst there is an arguable rationale that former jobseekers can build rapport with current claimants through comparable life experiences, there is equally a question as to whether or not those with limited career experience of their own bring the right attributes to help others into work.
The establishment of the Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP), of which I am proud to be a Fellow, has made some inroads. Launched in 2012, IEP led the development of Employment Related Services (ERS) qualifications, including a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship, supported by the UKCES Future Leaders programme. There is, however, no comparable current public funding to back IEP which compares to that enjoyed by the ETF. After an early peak of 710 ERS Apprenticeship starts in England in 2012/13, there were just 300 starts in 2014/15. After an impressive early wave of momentum, professionalisation in employment support services is in danger of slipping back down the agenda.
There is an argument to say that DWP should make professionalisation a mandatory commissioning requirement, forcing provider's hands to invest in quality staff. Given, however, the falling take-up of ERS Apprenticeships, DWP might justifiably assert that providers (and arguably prime providers in particular) should be leading the way. Providers, in turn, will cite the reductions in DWP's contracted employment programme budget as a cause to be prudent in terms of "non-essential" investment, and so the upshot is a Mexican stand-off where no-one really wants to make the first move.
The transient nature of the sector does not help. The 2013 ERSA survey identified that 39% of those in delivery roles had less than 1 year of service in their current job, underlining historically high turnover. This compounds the chicken and egg scenario, creating a disincentive to invest in training. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of continuity between different contracted provisions, where job security for many is at best no more than a few years (the duration of the contract in hand). The workforce fluctuates between economic periods of high and low unemployment, as is currently evident, with many trainers facing redundancy and limited prospect of another job in the sector in the short term, forcing them out of the workforce.
As with most things, there is no easy answer. A key question is what the return on investment is for providers and institutions in investing in the right development for employability trainers. In theory, a more capable and skilled trainer should deliver more job outcomes, and in turn generate more income, justifying the investment. Only when this value ratio is fully understood might we see a definitive change in market philosophy. Let us hope we don't have to wait too long!
Jim Carley is managing director of Carley Consult, a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors