Mark Cosens MA FIEP, Founder, Cosens Consult

While it’s not good to mix metaphors, amidst our challenges with Covid-19, the themes of woods, trees and reforestation seem apt.

The lockdown(s) and social restrictions could be likened to devastating wildfires for the economy and labour market; burning almost everything before them. But now that emergency measures have been taken, and fires are at least partly under control, it’s a good time for some detailed damage assessment and more systematic attempts at reforestation.

The Employment Challenge (The Trees)

Please think about what falling trees mean for people with social disadvantages.

What if you’re furloughed, or redundant, struggling with life, demotivated, even mildly depressed?

Maybe you have two children to raise on your own. Does the employment and skills system work for you?

Do you think employment opportunities are out there for you? Can you see them?

Do you know where to go for Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) that leads to real employers who will employ and train you ethically?

Do you know where to get help with travel or childcare costs as you look for work, attend interviews, or sign up to skills training sessions?

Does someone friendly and knowledgeable let you know about local, holistic support? Maybe for help with your housing situation...

The Employment and Skills System (The Woods)

In many places, dedicated public officers, key workers, and employability and skills professionals, are doing their best. However, unemployment levels are higher than anyone can remember, employers are shedding jobs, rather than recruiting, and even where good employment services exist, they are mostly configured for the pre Covid-19 world.

Therefore, in July, it was good to read in the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) new Commercial Strategy that:

"(DWP) will work with the other government departments, employers, colleges and skills suppliers locally on an ongoing basis (to) develop alignment between the employment and skills systems."

A few days later, we saw a pipeline notification for a £1 billion employment programme to help the long term unemployed.

These are welcome announcements. We recommended them in the report ‘Employment Response to Coronavirus’.

Employment Services Reform (Reforestation)

Here are three hopes for how reform and commissioning can lead to reforestation:

1. Genuine Partnership

First, DWP works in genuine partnership with the ESFA, Mayoral and Devolved Authorities, Combined Authorities, LEPs and Local Authorities; to plan, design, evaluate and coordinate new employment programmes. We now have a huge opportunity to make devolution meaningful and the principle of subsidiarity real at home.

In practice, we could fully personalise and coordinate all types of employment, health, housing and skills related support, into well designed, delivered and monitored Individual Employment Accounts. These would allow individuals the freedom and flexibility to buy the right services at the right time, with the right intensity and in the right sequence. Personal Key Workers would help them to decide what they need, whether vocational training, Microsoft Certification, a CSCS card, a driving license, travel fares, childcare, or help with other cost items that act as barriers to work and learning.

There are good precedents for this, for: skills (in the form of Individual Learning Accounts); mental health services; support for homeless people (see multi-award-winning, and; disabled jobseekers, through innovative models like Kennedy Scott’s ‘Circle of Support’ (which showed real promise for scaling up).

When people have a say in the provision they receive it stands to reason that they are more motivated to make the most of it. If all funding streams are aligned, blended, accessible and controllable at the front line, then perhaps we might even hope to dream of the end of intractable barriers to employment and learning altogether.

2. Phase out the National Careers Service

Second, the government phases out the National Careers Service (NCS). It doesn’t work very well. There may be pockets of good practice, but NCS is too remote, invisible and ineffective. It is hosted on a bland, generic webpage. A couple of years ago, when I tried to use it for a friend, the service was beyond poor. I’m not sure how informed it is with up-to-date labour market data and would like to know how many employers actually feed into it. Either way, it makes more sense that IAG should be delivered closer to the people who need it; not just online, but also through more localised Careers Hubs, LEPs, HE and FE institutions, Schools and Local Authorities (Skills Hubs etc.) All upgraded with the latest and most robust data capabilities.

3. Connecting Employment Services to Real Demand

My third hope is for employment services to be more connected with real demand. While hospitality, travel and tourism suffer, health and social care, logistics, digital and green construction are among sectors seeing labour and skills shortages. Our employment services and training need to join up with actual opportunity pipelines. Again, this needs more localisation of new programme design and delivery. We also need more coordinated employer engagement. Multiple providers chasing the same employers every week for the same vacancies is a bad way to build sustainable employer relationships.

In summary, DWP can work more collaboratively with other parts of government and genuinely reform the employment, health and skills systems. Through Individual Employment Accounts, disjointed and complicated funding streams can be streamlined and marshalled together, to meet real, front line, personalised service needs. In this way, more people with disadvantages will be able to see the employment and skills woods, for the (still falling) trees.

Mark Cosens MA FIEP, Founder, 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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