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Employment and training

Why we need a national employment service

A man wearing a high-visibility jacket and hard hat smiles in front of an industrial background.

This article, written by Victoria Head, Catch22’s Strategic Director of Employability and Skills, was originally published in the New Statesman’s print Spotlight report on Skills on 2 February 2024.

Public opinion towards JobCentre Plus (JCP) in the UK is decidedly mixed. While most people would ideally see these centres as essential support structures that offer hope and guidance to job-seekers and those needing financial help, they are often viewed as places of frustration, punishment and stigma. Processes are bureaucratic, there are often delays to benefit disbursement, and there is a drive for staff to place job-seekers into the first job available, suitable or not.

While it is essential to recognise that JCP provision is integral to the UK’s social safety net, it often falls short in matching job-seekers with roles that offer immediate income and long-term sustainability. Instead of focusing on quality interactions with work coaches who guide individuals towards sustainable and engaging career paths, the emphasis tends to fall on completing tick-box exercises, in which individuals must spend at least 35 hours per week on an application to “earn” their benefits. This is often no fault of the JCP staff, who lack the capacity and incentives to spend time with candidates to identify barriers to work, and explore jobs and career opportunities that could lead to long-term employment.

In France and Germany, over 70 per cent of job-seekers utilise public employment services. In the UK, however, less than 20 per cent engage with these services – significantly below the European average of 54 per cent. It prompts us to question where our employment services may have gone astray.

Any job will do?

For too long, the dominant mantra of employment services has been “any job will do”. As revealed in a report on skills by the former education and employment secretary David Blunkett, JobCentre Plus has often focused on filling vacancies quickly rather than considering the long-term consequences for job-seekers due to issues with under-resourcing. As a result, many individuals find themselves trapped in dead-end jobs, unable to progress their skills and aspirations. A “one-size-fits-all” approach may cost less in the short term (and reduce unemployment statistics) but it is an ineffective long-term solution. Individuals might never reach a sustainable and liveable income, or may drop out of the workforce at the first hurdle.

“Jobs” themselves are also not as simple as they once were. This is a good thing. We no longer need to divide people into traditional trades that follow assigned training pathways. New creative, digital, tech, and green roles mean those entering their first job or those who wish to reskill and upskill have the opportunity to join growing industries that will provide them with sustainable careers.

Under the current financial constraints, offering the space for a tailored service takes time and effort. While colleagues working at JCPs want to give job-seekers the best opportunity to find employment, the current structure often means that jobless individuals are “passed from pillar to post”. This creates confusion for the job-seeker and can often pose barriers to helping them into work. It is also expensive.

Upskilling and reskilling

What could JCP look like? Rather than a place of last resort, JCPs could be vibrant hubs offering opportunities and guidance for those seeking work. They should be places where people learn new skills, explore different career pathways, and are supported to access other services to overcome their barriers to work. They could also be reskilling and upskilling centres. Beyond the traditional skills routes, JobCentre Plus must cater to the industries of the future, offering training in digital skills, green skills and the creative industries. Politicians have started to recognise that. Labour’s shadow employment minister Alison McGovern regularly calls for JobCentre Plus to allow people to retain their benefits while in education or training for long-term careers, rather than being pushed into short-term fixes.

Dedicated career counselling services should be central to the job-seeking journey. Experienced professionals can help individuals explore new career paths and set achievable goals. At Catch22, we have been working in employment services for many years. Our work coaches get to know people as individuals and understand what motivates them. We also provide wrap-around support that covers mental health, clothing and travel, which can pose real barriers to finding work. We have also found that providing people with three to six months of in-work support is key. This is particularly true post-pandemic, when many people are looking to re-enter the workforce after prolonged economic inactivity.

That is why programmes like the TikTok Creative Academy delivered by Catch22, are so effective; providing young people who face barriers to work with the opportunity to learn about jobs in the cultural and creative industries, build their employability skills, and connect with prospective employers. Our other programmes – such as Digital Edge and Digital Leap, two skills programmes funded by, respectively, Microsoft and Salesforce – provide general employability support as well as digital role insights. The national average for staying in work six months after being placed at a job by JCP is 37 per cent. Our programmes achieve, on average, 63 per cent.

The future of welfare-to-work

I started working in the welfare-to-work pipeline more than 25 years ago. During that time, I saw governments come and go. These problems are stubbornly cyclical. One government’s struggle with keeping unemployment rates down becomes another’s tendency to allocate people any jobs leaving them to suffer from skills gaps later. A lot of political space is spent criticising people receiving benefits for not returning to the job market. The solution is not individual blame but addressing the concerns of each new generation with new facts and expectations.

People look to their parents and grandparents as ambassadors; but for many, their blueprint is no longer relevant to the job market. This is where a good work coach makes a difference. They do not simply funnel people into another coding programme but guide you to navigate the tech industry and advise you on where you belong. We have the opportunity to transform JCP so it looks beyond skills and towards aspiration.

– Victoria Head, Strategic Director of Employability and Skills