Mark Cosens MA FIEP, Founder, Cosens Consult

Plan for Jobs

The government’s response to the unemployment crisis precipitated by Covid19 has been tremendous. There has been timely, significant and economy-saving investment in the furlough scheme and in various employment programmes that make up the Plan for Jobs. The challenge now is to get all of these measures to fit and work together, so that employment-related and skills training services are more effective, and economically sustainable over more than the short term.

ReStart

With £2.9 billion allocated, ReStart is the biggest employment programme in the Plan for Jobs and is soon to launch. We called for this programme in April 2020 in our report. It is very welcome. It’s main features are well designed, and I would applaud additional places being available to Universal Credit (UC) claimants who may have been furloughed or not registered as unemployed for 12 months.

Jobcentre Work coaches will now be able to use their discretion to refer some individuals early, which is empowering for work coaches and opens up greater flexibility for them, to respond to the actual needs of real people on their caseloads. As time goes on, employment barriers can become compounded. Many jobseekers would benefit from support sooner rather than later. For example, maintaining good mental health is a common challenge associated with stressful unemployment. Early support, coaching, mentoring and opportunities brokered by providers of ReStart (and other programmes) can prevent health issues to build up as a result of an extended period of unemployment.

KickStart

KickStart has also launched, with a £2 billion initial indicative budget allocated. To date, it has achieved 120,000 new placements, which really is a great achievement and should be celebrated. And with the scheme running until December 2021 there is hope of this generous ‘wage subsidized’ package having a lasting impact.

However, there are two shimmering shadows that threaten to cast themselves over this bright burst of government intervention:

First, the scale of investment is sobering. While the billions of pounds of investment in KickStart wages will pay off indirectly, the goal to reduce public borrowing is one that is taking a mighty hit. The chancellor should therefore be careful to clarify the exceptional nature of this government spending and not be seduced into seeing too much of an ultimately unaffordable precedent here. Large scale wage subsidies are brave new world stuff.

Second, fraud is a real risk. ‘Gateway’ providers and employers really do need robust scrutiny, to check for any sign of gaming the incentives or displacing existing employees (or applicants for the same roles as KickStart places will cover). There might be a number of investigative approaches to this. But they need to be deployed to prevent fraud and to secure trust in the scheme with the public.

Building progression and sustainable employment and training routeways

It has been a bold move to wage subsidize so many KickStart places for young people. It has been the right thing to do in exceptional circumstances. However, I don’t agree with calls for further wage subsidizing of apprenticeships. Not in a general way. We have to remember who is paying for those wages while employers aren’t. The taxpayers and future generations of indebted citizens are.

A KickStart place is rightly wage-subsidized as a temporary placement in an employment setting. It is designed to ‘kick start’ a young person’s employment prospects. The hope is then that KickStart places lead into permanent jobs or apprenticeships. But apprenticeships represent a longer-term employer commitment. Employer buy-in, through investing minimum apprenticeship wages in their apprentices, is part of the strength of the apprenticeship model. If the government is serious about its headline objective recently stated in its latest FE White Paper and wishes to curate much more employer involvement in skills programmes and their design, then it should not undermine the employer contribution principle that is embedded in its ‘flagship’ programme.

Personalising funding

The Plan for Jobs should continue to evolve and develop in order to improve how employment related programmes and skills training are delivered. As the Chancellor said in his FE News interview:

“it is important to remember that Restart is part of a wider landscape of provision that can help people find work and pivot into new careers.”

However, in his response to the Chancellor, Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute (LWI) is right to highlight a need to reverse the fall in apprenticeships, and to better support adults to retrain. He says that: “we need a more joined-up approach, for example better linking Kickstart and Restart to apprenticeships and traineeships”. I agree with the former (and possibly Sector Based Work Academy [SWAP] programmes), although I think that we can go even further:

First, ESFA is working in genuine partnership with the DWP, Mayoral and Devolved Authorities, Combined Authorities, LEPs and Local Authorities. This is needed to plan, design, evaluate and coordinate Plan for Jobs and future employment programmes. We now have a great opportunity to integrate employment and skills provision more effectively and to make devolution of their funding meaningful.

In practice, we could fully personalise and coordinate all types of employment and skills related support, into well designed, delivered and monitored Personal Employment Accounts. These would allow individuals the freedom and flexibility to buy the right training and services at the right time, with the right intensity and in the right sequence. Personal Key Workers would help individuals 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 beam.org), and; disabled jobseekers, through innovative models like Kennedy Scott’s ‘Circle of Support’.

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 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.

In response to the Plan for Jobs, Elizabeth Taylor, CEO of the Employment related Services Association (ERSA), is right to say that “a rich tapestry of national, local and specialist provisions is needed." By further liberating cross-departmental programme eligibilities, simplifying and coordinating funding models and granting more discretion to contract managers and providers (in secure ways), Personal Employment Accounts could provide a ‘golden thread’ to that tapestry.

 

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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