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With current numbers of long-term unemployed in the UK already at 400,000 there is an urgent need to help support people back into work.

The trouble is that the very people who could provide the expertise to do this are leaving the sector in droves. As the Government transitioned its help for unemployed people into a new scheme called the Work Programme, many thousands of specialist advisors were made redundant. Unsurprisingly, they have been put off ever working in the sector again. They are bemused that after years of helping others to find jobs, they now have to register at the job centre themselves.

They fear that there is a lack of long-term stability in the welfare to work sector and that its structure is dependent on whichever political administration is in power.

The Work Programme is the coalition's flagship strategy for dealing with long-term unemployment. It consolidates and replaces previous schemes run by the Labour Government. It will pay private and not-for-profit providers on results – a radical departure from what has gone before.

The Work Programme does have real potential to make a difference to people's lives and to also benefit the flailing UK economy, however, as with all reforms, the system faces teething problems, one of which is around the availability of skilled advisors to deliver the programme. Unless contractors think carefully about their staff retention and talent management, it's evident that the programme could undergo shortages of the right qualified personnel. The types of schemes that might help keep staff on board are peer to peer training, and structured development programmes – where staff are supported to progress and given clear guidance on what is expected at each level. It would also be useful to mirror the in-work support that they will be providing to those they place in work.

Recently, we organised a series of workshops to support former specialist advisors to the long-term unemployed who had faced redundancy. Half of those attending reported that they have been put off working in the sector ever again. One reason for this is because they feel the contractual nature of the welfare to work sector doesn't offer long-term job security. The volume of redundancies was exacerbated by the lack of government support during the transition process from the old contracts to the Work Programme. Consequently, many see their jobs as subject to political decisions over which they have no influence.

The public sector could well suffer as a result. Jobcentre Plus (JCP) workers are likely to see the impact of staffing shortages among private sector providers on those they refer for help. As JCPs themselves have already seen a number of redundancies, this could well compound the issue.

It is now a numbers game – with payment awarded for people placed – regardless of how long they have been unemployed. The danger is that the focus will become on the 'low hanging fruit' – people who are easy to place – rather than on those who require more time and help.

This will not be an easy shift in practice for those who have previously worked in this area, and built up years of experienced. They will need to adopt a different mindset when delivering the Work Programme to that which was needed when working on previous contracts. The coalition's delivery model, which will pay on results, will need personnel to be more results driven, commercial and focussed on retention. However, with many advisors joining the sector to make a genuine difference to peoples' lives, (80% of those who attended our workshops), there is a fear that this new look programme, with all focus on results, will not allow advisors the time and resource needed to help vulnerable groups. Contractors will need to be aware of the step change needed in both skills and attitude from advisors and support them accordingly.

A primary focus for all managers is to deliver tangible Work Programme results. Although investing in staff development may seem financially risky for providers, this short term pain is necessary for long-term gain. This is because it is important to bridge the gap between the old and new mindsets mentioned above and help those advisors still in the sector get to grips with their new organisations, new workloads, new ways of working and new targets.

Additionally, staff retention rates in the welfare to work sector generally are notoriously low, and so, in addition to this training, contractors should also offer advisors regular reviews and development plans for career progression. It is only with this kind of foresight and planning that organisations specialising in helping the unemployed back to work will retain talented staff.

Organisations will only be successful in delivering the new Work Programme through a commitment to staff engagement. Otherwise, in the long-term, they may find themselves without skilled personnel to deliver those potentially lucrative contracts.

Anton Roe is director at Alderwood Welfare to Work, a specialist provider of personnel to organisations delivering the Work Programme

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