If you’ve looked at the numbers lately, you’ll know the unemployment picture in the UK looks bleak. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects unemployment to reach 7.5% in the middle of 2021 and the Learning & Work Institute suggest long-term unemployment will reach 1.6 million in 2021-22 – the highest since 1994. It’s scary to think each of these figures is a person with a life, dreams and a family, who might be facing their biggest struggle yet.
But in an uncertain future, there is hope. There is drive from people and organisations across the country who believe that we can tackle this together.
1. We have an opportunity to rethink work.
Unemployment isn’t a yes or no question. Many people, particularly those in low-income families, resort to multiple jobs and zero-hours contracts, often with little security for scope or progression. Job flexibility is no bad thing, particularly if you have caring responsibilities, but flexible work has to be supported, secure and have the same rights as people in permanent work. It also has to be right for the individual and their needs, not a last resort because options are limited.
Recent years have seen a rise in gig economy work, low paid and unstable work and we know that employment statistics only tell half the story. Underemployment – having part time hours when full time hours is desirable, precarious or a-typical work – is linked to in-work poverty and reduced wellbeing. An LSE study found that, unsurprisingly, underemployment is linked to psychological distress.
The pandemic has brought into focus the importance of what is traditionally low income and low security work, such as warehousing and logistics. At the same time, it has shown the high stress that comes with these jobs – not least exposure to the virus itself. This is a moment for government and business to rethink how we protect people; not just from unemployment, but from poor opportunity and conditions that simply aren’t good enough.
The Restart scheme has improved quality metrics from previous schemes such as the Work Programme. But we can go further. Quality of work is just as important: security, wages, contracted hours, progression potential. We need better protections for unstable work, and this is appearing in unusual ways; for example, a new Union recently emerged at Google which includes contractors as members.
This is a moment to rethink how we measure ‘employment’ and bring it into the twenty-first century, so that we bring those hardest hit with us on the road to recovery.
2. We’re building the future, and we can put fresh energy into addressing the skills gap.
The UK’s skills gap has new challenges; we have gaps in both high-skilled roles (such as senior tech jobs and doctors) and entry-level opportunities, including carers and chefs. This creates opportunity for re-skilling across the labour market, and if tackled head on, could create new opportunity for people who, historically, have been left behind.
A key area for potential is digital skills. The pandemic has accelerated trends in consumer and business practice; we used more tech-based solutions during lockdown (e.g. video calling and online collaboration), we shopped online, and even called our GP online. Many of these wheels were already in motion: automation, digitised remote support and working from home practices are not new concepts, but the pandemic has pushed us forward on this journey.
This acceleration is not without its casualties. Furlough, redundancies and drastic uncertainty has had a disproportionate impact on small businesses and people in low-income jobs, especially in the retail and hospitality sectors. This is likely to affect young people especially. And there is legitimate concern that automation could benefit productivity over workers, which could exacerbate underemployment issues.
On top of this, the Brexit deal complicates things; qualifications can’t be transferred in the same way, and industries where we have historically topped up our skills gap from abroad (notably Tech and Healthcare), now need a strong supply from home.
However, the increased demand for digital skills also produces an opportunity to address inequality alongside UK employers’ skills needs.
The UK Employer Skills Survey in 2019 showed 30% of skills-shortage vacancies involved a lack of digital skills. Of course, there’s a world of difference between digital-specific roles and roles that require basic digital skills, but what is clear is that these are transferable skills, and the ability to learn new skills is a lifelong advantage.
These are not just short-term solutions: digital skills will help the UK recover. And helping people hit hardest by the pandemic access digital skills helps us bridge inequality as our country bounces back.
To do this, we need more programmes to boost the digital skills gap, suited to all leaners. Alongside the government’s Digital Bootcamps, we need access for people who don’t have the time or resources to engage in intensive study.
Catch22 runs digital reskilling programmes designed for people with social barriers to work – mental health, low income, poor prospects, disabilities. We adapt our programmes to suit educational needs and social barriers, so that people can access digital roles from Social Media Managers to Cloud Technicians. And we need employers to open up their doors to diversity and embrace the potential of untapped talent across the UK.
We’re lucky enough to work with amazing partners; we have a programme with Microsoft, a Google.org programme, and new support from Salesforce. We need more organisations like these to open the doors to opportunity.
3. Working together, we can tackle long-term unemployment and reskilling at the same time.
Collaboration between government, business and the third sector is essential; we can create a ground-swell of support in a time of need. If we work together, we can tackle long-term unemployment and support individuals and families most affected by the pandemic.
The government are launching some much-needed schemes. Rishi Sunak’s Plan for Jobs shows that the government is trying to learn from previous programmes (such as the Work Programme). The £2.9bn Restart scheme is aimed to address long-term unemployment, and has better funding per person. This means more scope for a tailored response, which is vital to good, quality support and employment outcomes. The Treasury is also putting £1.4bn into Job Centre Plus, which is already hiring thousands more staff.
However, Restart was announced in the November Spending Review, and will attract bidders in Spring and go live in Summer. Although this is actually quite quick in public procurement terms, because the Department for Work and Pensions started a framework process last year, it will take six months before people can ‘walk through the door’.
It raises the question as to whether the aspiration of the programme – to support 1 million long term unemployed back into work – is enough. If current trends continue, we could be looking at double that number out of work by summer this year.
There is also a real issue about sustainability, with a job ‘outcome’ of the scheme being a participant securing an income of over £3,700 over 18 months after they’ve completed the programme. That’s why working with employers to convert placements into sustainable roles is so important.
At Catch22 we’re collaborating with forward-thinking businesses to address the unemployment crisis. We’ve brokered four new partnerships in the last four months and by February, all of these fresh services will be live.
Organisations like National Grid, JP Morgan & Chase and Salesforce are working with Catch22 to open up training, skills and work opportunities to people who are struggling; with caring responsibilities, homelessness, poor education, and other social barriers.
Over the next three years our vision is to support 20,000 people facing complex social barriers into work or training. It’s ambitious, but we’re determined to succeed.
This work complements government support for long-term unemployment; we can move quickly by scaling up existing services across Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and we have connections with people and organisations in those communities already, which helps us seek out people who need help the most.
In the last three months, the Catch22 strand of the LifeSkills programme, with Barclays, supported 104 people into work. That’s 104 people whose lives will get better, who will be closer to paying their bills and supporting themselves and their families.
If that’s not a reason to be hopeful, I don’t know what is.