Mark Cosens FIEP, Author, COSENS CONSULT

Employment Response to Coronavirus: An Independent Report 

Our minds adjust quickly, to major paradigm shifts. Phrases like ‘the new normal’ are becoming clichéd, but we’re starting to know what they mean, especially when contextualised to the world of work.

Just a few months ago, everything was refracted through the prism of Brexit, including in relation to economics and labour markets. Now, we have a superseding prism to line up with the Brexit one, that of COVID-19.

The economic dimension to this disaster has already been mapped out in a series of statistical reports (from the Institute for Employment Studies [IES], Learning and Work Institute [LWI], Resolution Foundation [RF] and others).

From this, it is clear that we have a huge unemployment challenge, to go with our skills deficit and productivity problem. Claimant unemployment could well top 4 million by the end of the summer.

Add this to a 70%+ drop off in apprenticeships and already poor levels of adult learning and we have some serious, interconnected employment and skills challenges to grapple with.

Seizing the political opportunity offered by seismic macro-economic shock

The report, Employment Response to Coronavirus: A Flexible Employment Programme for England & Wales, has collated over 150 expert observations, to provide some clear principles for designing and operating services, and offers a set of coherent and carefully targeted policy recommendations. It sets out a framework for the government to make employment and skills services more responsive to the real economy. 

It advises commissioners to expand on the best of devolution policy and practice. It also identifies how to seize the political opportunity offered by seismic macro-economic shock, to boldly reform the employment and skills sector(s). As its centerpiece, the report asks the government to address previously intractable problems associated with service silos and to commission a ‘best of the best’, integrated employment and skills programme, at scale.

Much (but not all) of the early thinking about the Coronavirus crisis (for example from NCFE, the IES, LWI, Nuffield Foundation and others) has rightly concentrated on short to medium term employment challenges. Looking beyond this, Employment Response to Coronavirus, focuses on planning for the longer term.

Future Jobs Fund

There have been calls from academics for massive job creation schemes and wage subsidies; in the form of apprenticeships, job guarantees, or subsidised work placement programmes like Future Jobs Fund. This report acknowledges some of these ideas, but recommends demand side investment in them to be well targeted, and at a smaller scale and cost to the exchequer.

It also affirms that younger jobseekers are disproportionately affected by displacement when there are fewer jobs. They are also vulnerable to distracting, confusing and damaging influences, affecting their life-chances and career potential.

‘Generation Scarring’ is another phrase that we are becoming all too familiar with. However, the cause of young people has already been taken up really well by the Youth Employment Group, which was established quickly and is constantly challenging the government to act.

In addition, Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, has recently championed a young person’s ‘opportunity guarantee’ with the Prime Minister, and youth unemployment has been widely reported in the media.

The unemployment avalanche

So what about everyone else? We shouldn’t forget that there are plenty of unemployed people aged over 25 to care about, including those who are economically inactive or disabled, and we now have huge onboarding of millions of jobseekers of every type.

The report observes that this shouldn’t lead to masses of inappropriate referrals of jobseekers onto the wrong type of services for them, or to the detriment of the most disadvantaged people on existing programmes.

To address the unemployment avalanche, Jobcentre Plus has battled against the odds. The government has also added funding to existing outsourced employment programmes, such as the Work and Health Programme.

Underspend of ESF and AEB funding can also be deployed to good effect. More Response to Redundancy and Retraining provision will also be needed. However, the sheer numbers of jobseekers will keep overwhelming the available provision.

Demand-led skills services and employer routeways

This report clarifies that the threat of massive long term unemployment will not be best addressed by commissioning just ‘another Work Programme’, but that we should definitely take advantage of decades of national excellence in designing and delivering intelligent employment programmes.

It recommends commissioning a ‘best of the best’ programme, which is more fully integrated with demand-led skills services and employer routeways in priority growth and recovery sectors.

The digital dimension to making this happen is certainly important and there are interconnected recommendations in the report, for upgrading the whole system, both for now and the future. Nevertheless, large scale recruitment, training and equipping of ‘people to help people’ will also be crucial.

The aim of the report is to help the government to invest in both technology and professionals, to enable the ‘new normal’ to work better for everyone and to be there beyond the shorter term measures.

Mark Cosens FIEP, Author, COSENS CONSULT

Mark has served on numerous boards, provider groups and committees, with the aim of contributing to the development of employability, skills and education. A fellow of the Institute of Employability Professionals, his professional specialism is primarily in business development, bid consultancy and commercial writing. At significant junctures in the evolution of employability commissioning he has also been motivated to produce specialised advisory reports that have been disseminated across the sector.

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