Employment programmes in times of 'full employment': The implications for employment advisers and participants
12 Mar 2020
Rosie Gloster, Senior Research Fellow
Helena Takala, Research Fellow
The Institute is currently evaluating several employment programmes that operate in different locations and target varying groups. Despite these differences, there are similarities between the experience of participants and advisers that prompted us to reflect on what employment programmes look like in an era of near full-employment, and the effect on the skills and working experience of employment advisers and participants.
With fewer people now out of work, a greater proportion of people claiming out-of-work benefits have multiple and complex barriers to work. Employment support organisations (including Jobcentre Plus, local authorities and private providers operating under public contracts) are therefore working with more people who are further from the labour market than 10 years ago.
In addition, there have been changes to the wider policy context and funding of public services that have increased the proportion of jobseekers experiencing certain barriers. For example:
- Mental health conditions are significant and commonplace barriers to work, and due to waiting lists for mental health therapies in the NHS, employment programme participants typically do not receive timely support to manage their condition.
- Housing insecurity and homelessness are increasingly common in London and other large cities with expensive private rental sectors; the number of households in temporary accommodation has nearly doubled since 2011 to 86,000 in 2019.
- Lack of English language skills is a barrier for migrants and refugees, and access to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes can be restricted due to a lack of funding which has fallen in real terms by more than 60 per cent since 2011.
The changing nature and prevalence of complex issues that affect employment chances have implications for the skills and knowledge required from today’s employment advisers. Where before their skillset was centred on supporting participants with CV writing and job search skills, they now also need to be skilled at working with adults with complex and high needs. Supporting individuals with mental health conditions, for example, requires sensitivity and an ability to listen – qualities that may not have been listed as part of an adviser job specification ten years ago.
There are implications for what advisers need to know about as well. Traditionally, advisers were first and foremost expected to be knowledgeable about labour markets. Today, advisers need a more rounded understanding of local services (such as housing and mental health support) if they are to effectively support participants with complex issues into work.
Another area that advisers benefit from knowing about is how different health conditions interact with a person’s ability and motivation to work, particularly in programmes that target individuals who are out of work due to a health condition. Here, there is evidence to support the use of specialist advisers. This was the approach taken in the programme of New Deals that offered support from advisers working with specific groups of people (e.g. people aged over 50, young people, lone parents and disabled people).
The New Deals evaluation found that through their specialist roles, advisers built knowledge and understanding about the types of support that worked for each group, and were able to effectively break down varied barriers between client groups. Individualised support is critical but translating that into effective practice takes significant skill. As such, currently Jobcentre Plus is increasing the use of Disability Employment Advisers.
There are counterarguments to be made in relation to specialist advisers, too. For example, working full-time with high needs client groups may have workplace wellbeing implications for advisers. But whether you support the use of specialists or generalists, it is clear to us that adviser training is an essential ingredient in a successful employment programme.
Staff training is often given insufficient attention. As a result, advisers may feel unable to offer efficient support to participants, causing high staff turnover. Frequent staff changes can, in turn, have negative implications for participants. Participants benefit from the continuity of a single adviser relationship as this allows them to build a trusting rapport that can be instrumental in addressing barriers to employment. High staff turnover can make individuals feel that they need to start all over again with a new adviser, hindering their progress.
While we believe investing in staff training is important to programme quality across the board, it is crucial in the procurement of fixed-term programmes where advisers are likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts in line with project delivery and funding timescales. It is vital for programme success that providers build a sufficient budget for staff training and skills development when bidding for employment service contracts, and that commissioning organisations are willing to invest in the skills of employment advisers.
The requirements for the skills and knowledge of advisers are not static; they change in response to developments of the labour market and changing participant needs. In a period of high employment, advisers need the skills and capacity to effectively support people with complex needs. When employment rates come down again, advisers will need to be able to simultaneously support this existing participant base as well as new entrants with less complex needs.
The changing nature of the employment adviser’s role underlines the importance of continuous and sustainable investment in staff training and development in the sector. Investing in staff training can not only add to adviser wellbeing and reduced staff turnover, but also ensure programme quality and improved outcomes. It will also help secure the continuity of the single adviser relationship that will improve the experience of participants – an aim that should be at the heart of all employment programmes.
Any views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.