Responding to the COVID-19 jobs crisis and beyond: building an evidence base for public policy

CERIC Members win £37, 9k grant from the Research England Strategic Priorities Fund. to undertake research into the current jobs crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Team: Professors Mark Stuart, David Spencer, Christopher Forde (with Dr Chris Mclachlan, Cranfield)

Background: The COVID-19 crisis is having a profound effect on the UK labour market. The government sought to protect the labour market through the first national lockdown via the introduction of the Job Retention Scheme (JRS – also known as the furlough scheme). A novel initiative in the context of UK labour market policy, the JRS offers employers wage support of up to 80 per cent to cover the furlough of workers. Evidence suggests the furlough scheme has been well received by business groups – including the Confederation of British Industry and the Trade Union Congress – and in financial terms it constitutes the most significant response by the government to the COVID-19 crisis. Take-up of the scheme has been high, with nearly 10 million claims, and at the peak of the first lockdown nearly 1/3 of the UK labour market was on furlough; helping to prevent a large-scale increase in unemployment.  
The continuation of the JRS has, however, been plagued by uncertainty and the government has revised and extended the scheme numerous times – it now runs to the end of March 2021. Uncertainty has impacted employers’ planning, with the result that the latest labour market data (which coincides with the scheme’s original end date) shows a record monthly increase in redundancies (larger than 2008). Problematically, there is no evidence-base to guide policy makers, in terms of employers’ use of furlough, their experiences and expectations of its effects, their preferences for job support, or their future employment plans beyond furloughing. There are surveys of workers’ experiences, but no robust employer data to help inform a more strategic and coordinated approach to policy making to help protect employment through and beyond the crisis. We propose to conduct the first national survey of employers’ use of furlough.  
Contribution and approach: The proposed research meets the Research England QR criteria in two respects. First, the research extends an ongoing project that examines employers’ job retention strategies during and beyond the crisis. We already have one paper at revise and resubmit at a leading journal. Second, the proposed employers’ survey will entail new research activity that will generate an evidence base of significant interest to policy makers and external beneficiaries. We have support for the survey from the Trade Union Congress, The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, British Chambers of Commerce and various sectoral employers’ federations (including retail and engineering). We can engage these beneficiaries at national, regional and local level and will also partner with key government departments, such as BEIS and DWP, to ensure co-production and wider policy impact. The activities and outputs will be threefold:
1.    Workshop 1 – we will constitute a stakeholder group, comprising the above beneficiaries, and will host a workshop in early December to discuss addressing the emerging jobs crisis and the value of the furlough scheme. This will include the presentation and evaluation of our survey instrument, to ensure external input into its design.  
2.    Administration of employers’ survey – the survey will be launched early in the New Year. The survey will be distributed online, take 20-30 minutes to complete, with a target response of 1,500 employers – including a regional sample of 500 firms. We have an initial quote from Opinium (a leading survey agency), who have confirmed it will take between 4-6 weeks to administer, reach the number of required responses and return to the research team for analysis. (we also have estimates from two other survey houses, to ensure we meet purchasing protocols)
3.    Launch event – The survey method will allow for rapid response data collection and analysis. We will host a launch event – with the publication of a formal report - in late March 2021. This will include an initial closed workshop with our stakeholder group, followed by an open event for external beneficiaries including policy makers, practitioners and think tanks. An accompanying press release will ensure widespread media attention in the findings.
The total cost is £37, 903.32.

Long-term outcomes:  The furlough scheme is seen as a crucial policy instrument to help mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Our findings and report will contribute to a wider public debate about the long-term viability of such a scheme as the UK looks to ‘build back better’ from the crisis. This will resonate at local, regional and national level amongst the key actors in our stakeholder group, and our survey will confer significant reputational effects for Leeds within leading public policy circuits.  We have already been asked to submit evidence on quality of working life to the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee, and will be able to feed our findings to this ongoing inquiry.