Sometimes it has seemed like a lonely battle. Committees of MPs nodded sympathetically in the early years when we presented our arguments but it is only when Lord Leitch published his far-reaching review of skills in 2006 that we began to make serious headway.
The big obstacle to progress has been that responsibility for skills and employment has fallen under two different Whitehall departments. This was magnified by a culture within the Jobcentre Plus agency that promoted a ‘jobs first’ approach to dealing with clients which until recently has meant that the allocation of resources towards improving the skills of unemployed clients has been only a limited part of the available support.
Leitch’s call for a more integrated approach and the recent surge in unemployment has prompted a reappraisal of government policy, although we have yet to see much change at the ground level. ALP believes that much more needs and can be done. In a submission to DIUS and the DWP, we have called for a complete overhaul of strategy in the Government’s response to the recession.
It is now vital that future provision is radically repositioned to recognise that the reduction in available jobs - in the short term because of the recession and in the longer term because of the ever rising skill demands of the UK economy - is reflected in the core design of a revised strategy. In order to prepare long term unemployed and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants to move back into sustainable employment it is necessary that much of the bespoke personal and social support individuals will require is linked more overtly with the skill development that virtually every client will need.
Whatever the individual needs that each client may have, the common element as we move through the recession and back into long term economic growth will be the need to update, refresh and develop skill levels to ensure that they are attractive to and usable by employers. Whilst this will include specific vocational skills linked to particular jobs and sectors, there remains across much of the working population a broadly based requirement to carry on developing the generic employability skills ever more demanded by employers (teamwork, communications, problem solving, etc).
Furthermore, the old division of providers who were focused primarily on vocational/skill training, and providers who were expert in employability ‘training’ and job finding, is now obsolete. This reality must drive the search for the most appropriate and potentially effective contractors/deliverers for the new agenda.
Despite the reduction in available jobs because of the recession, it will still be important to maximise the amount of employer involvement as we seek to prepare people to re-enter the workplace, with appropriate skill levels, when vacancies start to pick up again as they undoubtedly will. This however will be a difficult task, and very hard to arrange across the board for a growing mass market of unemployed people.
ALP’s response is a radical new proposal to re-design a successful initiative utilised in a previous recession, update it and indeed improve and develop it to a significantly higher level of effectiveness. The historical element is the Community Programme so successful in the early ‘80s – a product of that economically difficult period. The programme created tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of real jobs, predominantly in the voluntary sector, undertaking tasks of general community benefit. Typical projects involved extensive work for the National Trust and other ‘environmental’ bodies, the development of previously unusable sites and buildings, gardening and domestic security installations for older people, etc.
The present element, capable of being added to and enhancing the original Community Programme initiative, lies in the availability of high quality, employer designed Apprenticeship training frameworks, increasingly being accessed by adult workers as well as the younger teenagers traditionally involved. The opportunity to offer high quality, relevant vocational skills for unemployed adults, linked to programmes of general community benefit, immediately ‘doubles up’ the potential value of such a programme and simultaneously upskills a large body of potential workers, ready for instant availability for employers when the economy picks up.
The element from the future encompasses the opportunity to incorporate high priority green and energy saving issues, which will not only bring immediate political and socially desirable benefits, but could also be positioned as a direct investment into future profitable ‘green enterprises’. We therefore propose a real work programme built around Apprenticeship frameworks, focused – in part – on the investment in and development of long term environmentally friendly projects. This is surely much better than to simply pay out an increasing amount of ‘deadweight’ benefits to an ever more demoralised and growing army of unemployed, whilst trying to find them increasingly non-existent jobs until (or for the lower skilled, even when) the economy has turned around.
Graham Hoyle OBE is chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers