How thinking and acting local can help the long-term unemployed

When we think of welfare to work schemes we picture job centres, the Work Programme and providers such as A4E and Ingeus. We think of media representations of jobcentres,  through television sitcoms such as The Job Lot or the League of Gentleman's dispiriting job club run by the cruel pen-fetishist Pauline. National debate is focused on whether the Work Programme is working , whether private providers are assisting the long-term unemployed, or are incentivised to assist only the work-ready, 'parking' the others in the long-stay unemployment car park.

More quietly, but sometimes more consistently than national schemes, local authorities are running their own skills and employment programmes. Much of their effort and impact undoubtedly goes un-noticed and under-appreciated by policy makers and the media. Their provision is often targeted at the hardest to help, those with multiple barriers to work such as health, housing and criminal record and at young people without experience of work and job-ready skills. Importantly, local programmes are aiming to reach the growing number of unemployed people who do not sign on. These currently account for more than half of those who are looking for work. While free of the compulsory activity requirements of benefit claimants, it is also likely that they are receiving little help to get into work.

How are local authorities supporting people towards work?

NIESR has just published the findings of independent research for the Local Government Association on employment and skills programmes run by nine local authorities from North Tyneside to Southampton and locations in-between. The programmes were developed to support local people into work through a range of interventions, including  advice and guidance, training, coaching and mentoring, work placements and apprenticeships. Programmes aimed to identify and fill gaps in provision and to work alongside existing services rather than duplicate their work.

Programmes went beyond immediate preparation for training and employment by taking account of the wider needs of individuals, recognising the ways in which health, housing and other issues can restrict progress into work. Some of the programmes were focused on particular wards or localities with inter-generational worklessness and high levels of deprivation where national schemes have made few connections and little impact.

Despite the challenges inherent in helping the long-term unemployed, programmes achieved good results in engaging clients and getting them into jobs or training. They didn't always fully review their impact, preferring to spend resources on delivery, but a number of the schemes show good employment outcomes and value for money. Most importantly, the local authorities were able to provide qualitative evidence on the factors which they believe get people into work or on the way there.

 

What makes local authorities effective players in skills and employment?

We found that three main features of local authorities account for their successful development and delivery of local back to work programmes: the economic and political leadership of local authorities; their localised knowlege; and their expertise in skills and employment.

Local authorities' leadership position within their towns, cities and regions, combined with their localised knowledge, enabled them to forge partnerships, map provision, identify local needs and gaps and to build referral networks. Rather than set up services in competition, they brought them together, providing a one-stop-shop and referral point for coordinated services. Individuals' multiple needs could then be identified and addressed through referral to the widest possible range of appropriate services.

Local authorities involved a range of partners playing a key national and local role. Links forged with Jobcentre Plus enabled joined up services for individuals outside of the Work Programme and, importantly, not claiming out of work benefits. Employers were brought on board through links with authorities' wider economic development and skills work.

Caseworkers and individualised support can make a difference

The programmes allocated each individual their own caseworker to help ensure they were given personalised and continuous help where needed. Caseloads were sufficiently small to allow for the kind of intensive support which is reported as sometimes lacking in the Work Programme, for example. Participation in the programmes was voluntary, no-one stood to lose their benefits by not taking part. The individualised help and access to provision are likely to encouraged local people to be involved.

Programmes also recognised that, for many of the longer-term unemployed, movement into work is not a realistic prospect. For these individuals, programmes aimed to build the foundations for future employment and measured progress through intermediate outcomes, such as training, work placements and volunteering. This applied especially for projects targeting young people, in Bury and Surrey, who needed help in becoming 'work ready'.

Future back to work schemes can learn from local authorities' experiences

There are five main lessons from the nine local authority case studies for the design and delivery of future back to work schemes:

  1. Any new services must link with existing provision, rather than to duplicate it.
  2. Councils have a particular role in helping the growing number of individuals who are not claiming out of work benefits and who are likely to be without support.
  3. Services must address wider barriers to work, including health and housing, given the obstacles that these present to employment.
  4. To engage the long-term unemployed and people with significant barriers to work, services need to be accessible, attractive, useful and flexible, providing one to one support.
  5. Provision should take full account of the needs of local employers and councils' plans for strategic growth to ensure that training matches jobs in the local area.

Local councils are clearly filling a gap, reaching parts of the unemployed population that national provision has failed to engage. But quality provision for unemployed people is resource-intensive and requires funding. Whether more councils can follow the example of those in the report, or whether existing local provision can continue, is clearly dependent on their future finances, and unallocated funds may be increasingly currently hard to find.

Note: this blog was originally published as opinion piece on the website of Public Finance, which provides news and expert comment on public policy and finance

 

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