Jo Ingold FIEP, Associate Professor, Deakin Business School

The Work and Pensions Select Committee’s Inquiry DWP’s Preparations for Changes in the World of Work is an important one, focusing on digital and automation both in relation to changes to work and with regard to changes to the delivery of employment support. Together with the Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP), I submitted evidence to the Committee and was invited to give evidence at the session on 4th November 2020. In this blog, I highlight the key points from my testimony.

A theme throughout the two evidence sessions on the 4th November was the importance of bringing together employment and skills support. This must begin with joined-up working between the Departments of Work and Pensions; Education; and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This has been talked about for a long time but it’s time this happened in practice. Joined-up working must also extend to joint commissioning. At present, commissioning (and consequently, delivery) of employability and skills provision tends to focus on singular interactions, rather than the cumulative opportunities that the spectrum of employability and skills initiatives have to offer. There is an urgent need to join these up, in order to provide seamless support to individuals throughout their working lives.

Such a joined-up approach is also critical to business engagement. One of the huge barriers that my research has uncovered over and over is that in England there are a plethora of programmes competing for businesses’ attention. We also have lots of different providers on the ground. Employers need to be at the heart of conversations from day one. Not considering the demand-side of the labour market (employers) within the commissioning process means that providers have to retrofit their delivery.

Programmes are currently devised and commissioned on the basis of an assumption that they are good for businesses, with an expectation that businesses will like them because they’re free. My evidence and other data show that businesses do not always want to jump on board with programmes if: i) there are significant transaction costs to their engagement, ii) if there are not clear business benefits and iii) if they do not know how to engage. So, policy design and commissioning needs to start with the recognition that we know that most businesses are not currently engaged in programmes on a sustained basis. We all then need to work from there to provide a compelling business offer that is easy for businesses to engage with. As I said at a recent ERSA event about Kickstart (and in a recent blog in FE News), Kickstart is a great opportunity for businesses and the sector. But it is an opportunity that could be wasted if a) commissioners don’t recognise the barriers to business engagement in programmes (especially small businesses) and b) the sector doesn’t collaborate and fails to effectively engage businesses.

As we move into a new era of commissioned employment programmes post-Covid, employer engagement needs to be incentivised within commissioning frameworks, encouraging providers to work together to co-produce sustained job outcomes and progression (co-opetition). Collaboration is also required at organisational levels across the sector. This requires effective leadership and fostering of organisational cultures of collaboration. The importance of collaboration is increasingly recognised by the key organisations representing the employability sector in the UK. The Institute of Employability Professionals recently undertook a survey of its members about collaboration and the results will be published in a discussion paper in late November/early December 2020. The Employment Related Services Association has been fostering collaboration amongst the employability sector, particularly in relation to the government’s new Kickstart programme.

It is also critical that individual employability (and skills) practitioners firstly have the workload capacity to engage with employers. Secondly, employer engagement and supporting jobseekers are two sides of the same coin, and they are separate but complementary skillsets. It cannot be assumed that people who are very skilled at working with jobseekers are automatically good at employer engagement. They need skills development to do that, and to be supported in this by their managers and organisations.

Fortunately, looking ahead, employability practitioners look to be in the same boat as hairdressers, in that their jobs are not ripe for replacement by robots. Provision of employment support by human beings cannot, and should not, be replaced by digital methods. Instead, digital should augment the support that employability professionals provide to assist people into work. It could, for example, free up time for face-to-face support by automating some tasks. However, there are risks in the new digital employment support context that we move towards cheap, low quality interventions that do a disservice to jobseekers, employers and to employability professionals. In a new research project, we explore the challenges and opportunities and what is happening in practice in relation to the digitalisation of employment services in the UK and Australia.

Finally, across employability and skills programme design, commissioning and delivery collaborative working and business engagement need to be supported by good, robust labour market intelligence. None of the above is rocket science but it needs to be led by government - and the sector will follow this lead.

Jo Ingold FIEP, Associate Professor, Deakin Business School

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