The economy is never static, so why is our approach to unemployment? Take Bernard: he cooks a mean fishcake and has great entrepreneurial skills but he cannot read and write and is low in confidence. To enter the labour market he needs an approach that helps him translate his skills. This takes time, and works better over a cup of tea in his kitchen, than in a job centre office. Working in a domestic setting we have been able to view the challenge Bernard and others like him face and translate this into employable skills, with considerable early success.
This month the number of people unemployed made a worse than expected jump, to a new total of 2.38 million, with job vacancies reaching an all time low of 429,000. In response the DWP are scrambling to expand their network of job centres and the numbers who are employed within them – but to offer what exactly? Perhaps tea and sympathy sweetened with the £60.50 per week job seekers allowance.
The problem we face is huge and expensive. In addition to those currently losing their jobs, there remains the so-called ‘stock’ of long term unemployed, people like Bernard. There are also a significant proportion of British workers, for whom the cycle will be a continual one between low skilled, vulnerable jobs and periods of unemployment.
The human cost in terms of misery is high. So are the financial costs. David Freud, previously advisor to the government and to the opposition, recently estimated that it would be rational to spend up to £62,000 per person on getting people back to work because the cost of unemployment is so high.
It is time for a radical re-think. We need a system that makes new vertical connections between British people and emerging areas of employment growth – for example green jobs, the caring professions, nano-tech, social enterprise. And new horizontal connections between soft skills, apprenticeships, learning and work.
In other words we need an approach that brings together soft and hard skills, geography and industrial policy; that integrates and greatly reduces the £40bn cost of unemployment; that starts from people’s front rooms and has the capacity for continued evolution.
Searching for work is a dispiriting process. Despite a physical re-design, job centres remain more suited to the bygone era in which the welfare state was founded. Searching for a job online, as I did last week, is no different. The electronic journey is long-winded and grey. I was a nameless cog, identified only by my postcode, viewing jobs which rarely had a real description or salary attached. The chasm between this and the compelling description of a job in the Times, or alternatively the way I might advertise my full range of skills on gumtree.com could not be wider.
At Participle we work with young people, so called ‘chaotic’ families and those over 60 in communities across Britain developing 21st century public services. It has taught us a lot about work and how to move into it.
In the eyes of the local job centre many of the families we work with have few if any of the skills that are needed to work in a modern service economy even in an upswing. In all cases however we have seen the power of meeting individuals and families where they are, visualising (literally) where they want to be, and working alongside them to get there. Some of the best providers of welfare to work services already go some way to this approach but all are currently hampered by the silos in which their service has to be delivered.
In another strand of our work we have developed the concept of the ‘slip road job’: one that supports older people back into work either part time or in a different capacity. The BMW worker made redundant earlier this year is a different case. Here connections can be made between proven skills and job opportunities but new support systems are also needed to turn a potential crisis into a re-skilling opportunity, to keep motivated and think laterally about what is possible.
There are four fatal flaws in the current system and these will continue in the new contracts currently being handed out across Britain to those responsible for getting people back into work.
One, the system is over specialised – like vast areas of our public services too much time and money is spent on sorting people into ‘pathways’ and ‘customer’ types. Such an approach wastes more money on designing new entry points to what remains an old fashioned linear system. What is needed instead is an open network that can support people in multiple ways and continue to move them up the skills curve. Most of us find jobs through connections and you can’t do this if you are held in a queue with others whose barriers are too close to your own.
Secondly, service providers are currently competing for the £1bn market of welfare to work. The real market however is approximately £40 bn when Further Education and so called ‘passported’ benefits to which the unemployed have access, are taken into account. There is a clear opportunity to develop a service that starts with the individual and wraps a full service around them, stripping out a significant percentage of the £40bn resulting from service overlaps.
Thirdly, there needs to be a new approach to risk sharing. It is accepted that most work is found locally but there is currently little incentive to innovate locally since the returns and risks are held by central government. Again the result is a static, rigid system when what we need is a approach that addresses the constantly shifting needs of individuals based on a living, breathing, changing economy.
Fourthly – it’s personal. Being unemployed is a deeply personal thing – whether you are the skilled but newly unemployed worker from BMW or the returning to work mum lacking in confidence – you need someone to work along side you.
Despite the rhetoric providers do not currently work with people they do things for and to them, too often perpetuating a workless culture. Treat people like children and they will behave like them. Current service frameworks do not make it possible to take a whole life approach with an individual. Technology does, front line staff can and yes, the unemployed really want this type of approach.
A reformed, modern welfare state would offer something completely different. The core would be a universal, locally rooted and highly personalised offer. Not a job centre at all, but a network of facilitators, linked to a powerful system of job vacancies, training opportunities, seed enterprise funding linked to the benefit system, mentors and coaches to keep your pecker up, peers you can speak to during the weeks ahead. Replicating the support networks that most people reading would automatically draw on, would cost less and more importantly, would work.