We need more than a task force for ‘British jobs’: we need to rewire our approach to employment and skills

Blog posts

22 May 2024

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson, Institute Director

I’ve written before that the first step in recovery is recognising that you have a problem. So to give credit where it is due, yesterday’s announcement of a new task force to help address skills and labour shortages is a welcome recognition that we need to do more. On the latest data, there are 900,000 unfilled jobs and more than one third of these are hard to fill because of skills shortages. As we have said for some time now, our failure to address this problem is holding back economic growth and leading to more people spending longer out of work.

I’m also pleased that yesterday marked a change in tone, away from blaming the unemployed for being out of work (‘sicknote culture’, ‘lifestyle choice’ etc) and instead focusing on the positive things that we can do to improve services to help people who want jobs and to help employers who have jobs that want people.

The government is also focusing on the right sorts of solutions. We set this out a couple of months back, where my colleague Dan Mason and I reviewed the evidence around what works in supporting ‘good work’ through employment services (this is as part of a wider project being led by the University of Brighton and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to explore how public policy can ‘activate’ employers). We found in particular that there was good evidence for two broad types of interventions:

  • ‘Career pathways’ models that are focused on sectors with good prospects and can provide a combination of training developed with industries and responsive to their needs alongside tailored support to enter and progress in work – like the WorkAdvance model in the United States; and
  • Specialist adviser-led support that goes beyond traditional job preparation and matching to provide elements of careers coaching, skills development, help with costs of work, and support in the workplace (mainly from UK ‘in work progression’ programmes).

By my reading, yesterday’s announcement recognises that we need to do more of the former in particular – linking up extended training (longer than a ‘sector-based work academy’ but short of an apprenticeship) with specialist support for people who are out of work.

However while that’s welcome on one level, it’s hard not to feel frustrated too: because over the last decade we have run down investment in adult skills and access to employment support to the point where we have the least well-used employment service in Europe; because we have spent the last few years telling the unemployed that they need to just take ‘any job’ not the right job; because we’ve set up ‘skills bootcamps’ in a way that doesn’t design-in these sorts of partnerships with employment services and links to occupational standards (my colleague Joy Williams writes about this here, from work we are doing with the Gatsby Foundation); because we have had these issues in the labour market for years and are acting only now; and of course because Parliament will be dissolved in the next six months – so the likelihood of actually being able to do anything about any of these issues in the near future is slim. We need to make progress, but it will be hard starting from here.

So what would a better approach look like? These are issues that we are exploring in our Commission on the Future of Employment Support, in partnership with abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, and have set out that the starting point should be a reformed approach to employment services that is based on more open access to support, shared ambition rather than suspicion of those out of work, much more coherent engagement and support for employers, and meaningful partnership and alignment across services.

Importantly, in addressing skills needs and supporting good work, it means learning from and using the evidence of what has worked in other countries and in pilots and trials in the UK in the past. Our paper in March set out in particular six lessons for future policy – but which boil down to ditching the ‘any job’ mindset and focusing on how we link up better with employers and local services, integrate more effectively with skills, and focus on supporting people – both those out of work and those in poverty in work – to access good jobs with prospects.

So while it’s hard starting from here, we should be optimistic too that with the right changes – the political will, effective partnerships, good evidence and the right implementation – we can make a difference, which would in turn support stronger growth and more people in better work.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.