The demand-side of active labour market policies: a regional study of employer engagement in the Work Programme
Jo Ingold and Mark Stuart, Leeds University Business School
Post based on an article in Journal of Social Policy
The Work Programme for the long-term unemployed introduced by the Coalition government in 2011 has attracted much publicity – largely around the number of job outcomes being less than expected and that it is a ‘policy failure’. However, an aspect which has not so far drawn much public attention is that of employer involvement in the programme. This dimension has also been largely neglected in academic research on active labour market/welfare to work programmes. We argue that ‘employer engagement’ is crucial to the success of such programmes and that it has two ‘faces’. The first ‘face’ relates to active employer involvement through recruiting unemployed people, offering work placements or pre-employment support. The second ‘face’ concerns the activities that organisations and individuals delivering the programmes undertake to try to engage employers.
The article presents findings from a survey of 643 private and third sector small businesses in the Yorkshire region accessed via the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. It also presents data from private sector ‘provider’ organisations delivering the Work Programme in the same area.
We found that at the time of the survey only 5 per cent of employers had recruited unemployed people from the programme. Employers recognised the potential advantages of the Work Programme for reducing their recruitment costs, but most did not know about the programme and had not been contacted by providers. As a result of the recession many businesses were also simply not recruiting.
The provider interviews highlighted that providers were attempting to engage with both SMEs and large employers, but that the ‘payment by results’ funding model for the Work Programme had so far driven them towards large employers for significant numbers of ‘repeat’ vacancies. The interviews also highlighted the role that providers can potentially play in encouraging employer engagement. They can take steps to overcome employers’ negative perceptions of the unemployed and help the jobless to negotiate recruitment processes which can exclude them. They can also use their expertise to develop an in-depth understanding of businesses and their staffing requirements and tailor their services to employers’ needs.
In other Northern European countries employers tend to be involved in the development and implementation of policy via employer representative organisations. In the UK these organisations are not embedded in the policy context and were not actively involved in the development of the Work Programme. Additionally, the Coalition government took the decision not to advertise the Work Programme widely to employers, as the Labour government did with the New Deals. It was therefore left to providers to fill the gap by directly contacting employers.
A key problem with this is the flawed assumption on which the programme is based: that there are jobs available for the unemployed to take, if only employers are willing to offer them. Since the survey was undertaken, the economic situation has improved, but it is questionable as to how far the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups have benefited from it. Whatever the political hue of the government that oversees the follow-up to the Work Programme, it must build employers into the process early on, taking account of what their current and future demand for staff means for effectively helping the unemployed into work.