David Imber FIEP

The valuable paper from the Institute for @EmploymtStudies ‘Getting Back to Work: Dealing with the Labour Market Impacts of the COVID-19 Recession’ (April 2020) discusses how deep the COVID-recession is going to be. By all accounts, even if the forecasts are out by a big margin, we are facing some big challenges. Whole industries and service sectors will be damaged for a long time to come.

Traineeships and apprenticeships will be interrupted, curtailed, or closed. School leavers will be slow to find work, and the nasty epithet ‘NEET’ could affect most, for shorter or longer periods.

Improving the employment rates of disadvantaged groups will be harder than any of us have known, and it seems probable that exclusion and relative disadvantage will increase.There will not be enough jobs to go around those who want to work. Shortage of jobs will increase competition and the number and frequency of personal failures. Failure will damage beliefs about availability of work and about ability to get work, which in turn will damage effort and resilience, magnifying pre-existing inequalities.

In this scenario, employability practitioners and service providers should not expect to achieve high placement rates though they will still have a role helping employers, trainers and job aspirants get matched up. But their role as builders of employability and confidence will be emphasised as much as their focus on outputs is reduced.

To limit any rise in inequality, we have to understand what equality is. I think it is the ability to compete fairly for a realistically chosen job. It has two main components: the behaviour of potential employers, and the beliefs, skills and confidence of jobseekers.

In the absence of enough jobs, our task is to develop and maintain jobseekers’ competitiveness, while we also recognise that not everyone will get work right away.

To build confidence, and to encourage steps towards a suitable job and fair opportunity, I think we should aim for everyone to have:

  • A valued occupation that suits their abilities and that builds their self and others’ esteem
  • An immediate chance of work, supported by personal employability competencies, that is respected by their community and by
    employers.

Is this a new challenge? Not really. We have been here before. The recession of 1979 to 1988 saw the closure of coalmining, shipbuilding steel-making and the collapse of their supply chains. The UK employment rate fell from 75% to 65%, unemployment rose from 5% to 12%, reaching over 20% in economic decline areas.

How did we respond?

Coloured only a little by rosy nostalgia, I’d like to mention some of the things that helped, hoping to inspire new and imaginative efforts today.

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Public funds were mobilised to launch organisations to respond to the crisis. I was lucky to lead one and saw what people could do. There were, for example, many programmes of work in communities, some whose legacy is still with us. One great team set up the first home shopping delivery service. People with mobility problems could order from a supermarket catalogue, and have the food delivered to their home. No internet, e-mail, apps, booking slots – just clever people with good ideas, drivers, packers, personal assistants and supportive shops. And a forward-looking Borough Librarian, who was instrumental in making it work.

We set up a scheme to do the gardens of people who were unable to do it themselves: mainly elderly or disabled people. The Borough positively sparkled!

We helped the Council’s landscape architect make a huge public park and planted thousands of trees on derelict land – you can see them now, fully grown, on google earth. He drew up plans for beautiful mini-parks and play areas on vacant lots, and they were quickly built, with support from the Council’s Trade Unions.

A forward looking group got Arts Council and Transport Authority support to give space for artworks in the new Metro system. We brought glass from Venice, and artists showed us how to make murals for the stations. One enterprising couple of school leavers left us to set up a mosaic business. I doubt (but don’t know) if they succeeded – but they did get a great start.

We set up an Information Technology Centre – Bill Gates wasn’t on the scene yet – and bought the latest kit: DEC word processors, an ICL network, all sorts of desktop computers including one of the first Apples, daisy-wheel and dot-matrix printers (remember?) and let local school-leavers loose on them. I remember one 16 year old who got hooked on COBOL programming and went off to be a junior programmer. Those who had used the whizzy new word processors quickly got jobs, even though the local businesses were still using typewriters, carbon paper and Roneo machines.

In some ways, our innocence helped: we didn’t think anything was impossible: we built a computer keyboard so a new staff member, who could move only one finger, was able to do admin, stats and reports. It only cost £10 to make.

When the Burton sewing factory closed, many were out of work. But quite a few went on to set up their own small sewing companies in the advance factories built by the local council. Turning our back on labour market statistics and listening to the new employers, we created a sewing training centre in a former school kitchen and couldn’t get the trainees into work fast enough to meet demand.

Work placements were much used, and I remember being inspired by the presence in our office of a young woman who suffered with epilepsy; I doubt if she would have had the experience or opportunity without that placement.

Trade Unions had a right, and were encouraged, to negotiate permission and conditions. Where I worked,we agreed that work placement people would not do the work of a post that had been made redundant.

Trade Unions and employers were quick to object if what we planned would affect jobs or businesses – an important brake on some of our ideas.
What made this possible? A national plan under the leadership of the Manpower Service Commission. Strong Local Authorities contributed flexible and professional staff, sharing budgets and efforts, joining up the MSC funds, the Inner-cities Programme, Local Authority Departments, Regional Offices of Government, and NGOs and mobilising private contributions, such as the redundant engineering headquarters that became the main office for our own operation – and that was only part of the work in just one Borough of just one city.

Eventually the need, not just to occupy people and create opportunities, but also to get jobs, came to the fore. It was overdue: employment rates were rising and unemployment falling. The era of competition for contracts and funding by results was dawning. My perception is that the public sector was both decimated and atomised, and the sort of joint working that came naturally in 1980 will be hard to rediscover.

It wasn’t a golden age – far from it. There was criticism, and with hindsight we can see the weaknesses easily. Not everyone agreed with what we did, and a very few thought we did it for the wrong reasons. But there was innovation, experimentation, and rapid flexible responses to a crisis. If we have some of that approach in the coming crisis we should be able to help. If we also add what we have learned about employer relations, about the primacy of respect and trust between advisor and client, about building labourmarket competitiveness and about choice, motivation and confidence, then we should be able to do more and better. But if all we do is scrabble for jobs that aren’t there, if all we do is see unemployment as a threat to
our performance and label our clients either as ‘outputs’ or ‘failures’, then we risk not rising to the challenges ahead.

And what if the forecasts are wrong and we return quickly to a booming economy?

Even then, there would be many people excluded from the labour market by unfair disadvantage, discrimination or disability. Our 40 year record in reducing these social evils has not been too good, though our efforts have been praiseworthy. We will continue, whatever the outcome of COVID, to face issues of social and economic equality, and need
to do better.

David Imber FIEP

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