Sustainable Employment through Skills

Yesterday, I attended the Sustainable Employment through Skills conference organised by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion.

The event aimed to bring together providers from the Work Programme and skills providers from the private sector and colleges, to explore the role of skills in helping unemployed people find work and keep them there.

The event included a very interesting programme of speakers and breakout sessions.

Alan Cave from the Department for Work and Pensions provided a brief overview of the differences between the Work Programme and previous employment support initiatives.

Alan outlined two areas where he feels skills development has a key role to play in the Work Programme. Firstly, the concept of the ‘black box’ (where Work Programme providers are free to determine how they support clients) allows providers to use skills development activities as part of the preparation for getting a client into work.

And secondly, because Work Programme providers are incentivised to keep clients in employment, support for clients once they are in work is crucial.  This support can include skills development activities.

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of Turning Point and UKCES Commissioner, spoke very passionately about the value of skills development in getting people into work, keeping them there and helping them to move forward in their careers. He shared examples of the work that Turning Point has been involved in to help people return to employment.

Lord Adebowale outlined research undertaken by UKCES which illustrated the challenges faced by unemployed people with low skill levels. The research clearly evidences that people with lower qualification levels have a reduced chance of finding work.

The UKCES research also introduces the concept of ‘bumping down’. Bumping down has occurred due to a decrease in the number of middle-level/technician-level jobs. This results in skilled and qualified people taking jobs at a lower skills level, reducing the opportunities for people with low or no skills.

Lord Adebowale also spoke strongly about the role that careers guidance should play in bridging employment support and skills support. He stated the need for skills development activity to be planned to ensure that it increases employment opportunities available to the individual and that careers guidance must be part of that planning process to help with decision making and extending the range of options that an individual considers.

The event also had a strong focus on the needs of employers. Dr Adam Marshall from the British Chambers of Commerce presented the results of a recent survey into employer attitudes towards recruiting.

The survey found that most employers are not confident in recruiting people who have been unemployed for some time. Crucially, they are also not confident in recruiting young people, particularly those with limited qualifications. Dr Marshall highlighted some of the negative perceptions that employers have of young people and called on the Department for Education (DfE) to do more work with businesses to address this.

Many of Dr Marshall’s comments were echoed by Neil Carberry from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) who continued the theme of what needs to be done at an early age to prevent unemployment.

Neil discussed the CBI’s concerns that not enough is being done to integrate young people into the labour market. He highlighted the fact that schools should be preparing young people better for the world of work. Neil too called for the DfE to do more, specifically around careers advice, including highlighting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and introducing the world of work in Key Stage 2 and 3.

Moving away from young people, Graham Hoyle OBE from AELP highlighted the need for greater integration between employment support and skills support during the ‘pre-Work Programme’ period, ie, the period when Jobcentre Plus is working with the individual.

Graham called for Jobcentre Plus to work more closely with skills providers to help more people get back to work within the first year of unemployment.

Lesley Davies from the Association of Colleges (AOC) and Verity Bullough from the Skills Funding Agency discussed the relationship between Jobcentre Plus and skills providers and the need for the right intervention to stop people falling into the long-term unemployed category.

Both championed the role of information, advice and guidance (IAG) in this but raised concerns about the lack of provision within the new National Careers Service for people under the age of 18. While the plan to co-locate the National Careers Service in Jobcentre Plus locations is applauded, the concern is that advisers will have to turn away anyone under the age of 18 who asks for careers advice and refer them to the telephone helpline instead.

The Skills Funding Agency, among other organisations, has proposed solutions to this issue, including a ‘triage’ system where young people could be seen by an adviser and referred on. However, the DfE seems to have little appetite for this.

Focusing back on the Work Programme, EOS presented an inspirational overview of their Employment Centres. These large ‘sheds’ contain realistic work areas representing a range of environments, including a canteen/professional kitchen, a retail outlet, a warehouse, a construction site and a casino.

They involve employers in creating a realistic simulation of the work, which enables clients on the Work Programme to experience different types of work. It also gives employers the opportunity to assess potential employees in the working environment.

EOS works alongside the employers and training providers to ensure that clients develop the right skills, and where necessary gain the right qualifications (gaming licence, forklift truck licence, etc) to give them a real advantage when they apply for jobs.

Other topics of discussion throughout the day included:

  • Employability skills and whether they are really skills or would be better described as ‘behaviours’
  • Graduates and the positives and negatives of them being underemployed
  • Work readiness and the need to look at the individual and what non-skill related support they need in order to enter work.

The entire event was very interesting and hearing success stories from the public, private and voluntary sector gave a huge boost to those who attended.

Personally, I found the huge support for putting careers guidance at the heart of the sustainable employment and skills agenda incredibly interesting. Hearing support for effective, impartial information, advice and guidance from a crossbench member of the House of Lords, the CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, UKCES, the Association of Colleges and the Skills Funding Agency was great.

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