Government help for the unemployed

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Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Jo Ingold is a lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy, based in the Work and Employment Relations Division. Jo’s current interests are in public employment policies, inter-organisational relations and the public policymaking process. This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and followed on from Seedcorn Research funded by the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) and Leeds University Business School.

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An Ideas in Practice event in Westminster for policymakers, practitioners and academics marked the launch of the final report from a four-year ESRC-funded research project about employer engagement in employability and skills programmes.

What are active labour market policies?

Successive post-war British Governments have struggled to get people without jobs into work. Active labour market policies (ALMPs) were popular policy responses to the problem across European and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the 1990s and pioneered in countries like Denmark and the UK.

Whether New Labour’s ‘New Deal’ programmes; the Coalition government’s ‘Work Programme’; or the Conservative’s forthcoming Work and Health Programme, one theme is constant in ALMPs: private and non-profit ‘providers’ are paid by government to put unemployed people into jobs.

ALMPs have the potential to put people who are out of work into jobs. Amidst increasing talk about workforce diversity and corporate social responsibility, ALMPs can help employers to access individuals from underrepresented groups. The potential for a win-win is clear.

We have just completed a study about what the employers think of ALMPs. We surveyed more than 1,500 employers in the UK and Denmark, and carried out more than 100 interviews with employers and providers delivering ALMPs in both countries. We looked at whether the programmes did what they were supposed to do, and about employers’ attitudes to taking on individuals with particular barriers to work (such as disabled people) who came through these programmes.

Our results showed that ALMPs are simply not working for employers

While employers who use ALMPs in Denmark and the UK have a positive attitude towards hiring unemployed people, they were critical of the programmes themselves. Alarmingly, they suggested that job candidates could be ‘tarnished’ by association with ALMPs as employers’ had such negative perceptions of programmes. Employers complained that unemployed people had to apply for a certain number of jobs each week, which resulted in their receiving large numbers (often hundreds) of job applications to sift through. One employer said simply:

The whole system is nuts.

Employers were discouraged by the large number of ALMPs and providers, a lack of knowledge about the value of programmes and how to access them. Employers also complained about being sent candidates who were unsuitable or ill-prepared (even with basics such as interview skills and CV-writing).

The main reason given by employers for not engaging with ALMPs was that they felt that programmes were ‘inappropriate’ to their needs. Some said that the programmes wouldn’t provide the people that their organisation needed.

While in Denmark, every single employer interviewed had taken part in at least one ALMP, in the UK participation was sporadic, and there was a general lack of trust in government and public policy. One said:

I would imagine it works pretty much like this – it’s a Government scheme, it would fail, it would be a disaster and 18 months down the line, two years down the line it would be something else and it will be renamed and it will be something else because that didn’t work.

There were positive stories from UK employers who had engaged in programmes. This engagement tended to be a result of trusting relationships brokered with employers by Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers rather than the programmes themselves. Relationship-building takes time and was hindered by changes to programmes, contracts and regulations.

More encouragingly, UK employers were generally positive about employing unemployed candidates (including disabled people) although it is of concern that only a small number had done so (the number was higher in Denmark).

We can do better

Based on this research, we make a number of recommendations:

  • ALMPs should be less complex and there should be fewer of them
  • Employers should not receive large numbers of applications from individuals ill-suited to roles
  • Employers should be made more aware of available employment and skills provision and their potential benefits to their businesses
  • To avoid too many organisations contacting employers, central contact points are needed in local areas to showcase the programmes on offer and to provide signposting
  • Employers need to be more innovative when recruiting, and remove barriers for disadvantaged candidates
  • Jobcentre Plus needs a clearer identity for approaching employers and to be more responsive
  • Good practice should be shared between providers, and Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers should collaborate more.

In the early stages of the UK Coalition government’s Work Programme, we undertook research with employers and providers. Five years on, after programmes have come and gone, it is clear that employers’ views, and, importantly, their lack of awareness of programmes, has not really changed.

Until policymakers recognise that employers are critical to the success of ALMPs, and design them with employers in mind, they will fail the people that they are designed to help – the people who have struggled to find work and who need it the most.

The full report is available on the CERIC project page.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.