Policy development now needs employers even more
When I read the articles in the first edition of this publication they reemphasised my long held view about the role of employers in the policy development and implementation of initiatives across the skills, employment and healthcare sectors. Gone are the days when many large public and private sector employers took a more paternalistic approach to their workforce and local communities. This often meant encouraging relatives and especially school leavers to follow their parents into their company. It wasn’t uncommon for social clubs, sports grounds and limited healthcare facilities to be part of the employee package encouraging loyalty from and within local communities. Major employers often encouraged their local suppliers to, like they did, work with public training and employment services to help unemployed and disabled people.
The jobs market has changed and continues to change at an even faster pace and there is certainly less cohesion in local labour markets. Methods of recruitment used to be word of mouth, local newspapers/agencies and the local Jobcentre. The Internet, demographics of higher than ever numbers in work and patterns of employment provide a raft of challenges to policy makers and providers of recruitment and training services to an increasingly wider variety of employers.
DWP’s Employer Engagement Survey, published in 2014, explored how employers engaged with Jobcentre Plus in their recruitment activities, their workforce development and communications as well as their workforce financial planning and strategies. It provided a wealth of information which will have influenced the development of labour market policies and responses to the needs of jobseekers and employers. So, what type of employment contracts are now being offered by employers? The biggest change now is in the variety of part-time jobs and continued growth of zero hour contracts which have come under significant public scrutiny recently. Vacancies appear to be filled more easily and have contributed to the rise in the working age population.
The Survey concluded that employers are convinced of the business benefits of reflecting their customer/client base in their workforce. However, the practicalities of achieving that are far from easy and the findings also showed low percentages in the recruitment of long term employed and disabled people or those with a long term health condition. The ways Jobcentre Plus has developed their services for employers have been welcomed particularly with Universal Jobmatch. Knowledge about the use and range of recruitment initiatives such as Work Trials and pre-employment training was patchy.
The implications of the different manpower and recruitment approaches and diverse range of opportunities on offer, together with continuing welfare reform, present challenges to say the least. Universal Credit will help as it puts the emphasis on progression and involves Work Coaches staying in contact with employers and individuals to help them increase their hours and responsibilities if appropriate. This is to be welcomed as it reduces the “revolving door” between benefits and short term unskilled jobs. It also confirms that getting a job is often a job in itself and probably confirms the view that it is much easier to get another job when you are in work.
The challenge is to get more employers involved in helping unemployed jobseekers and to get policy makers and providers to design packages to make them more relevant. I was involved in regular meetings at national level with private sector employer organisations. Efforts were also made to galvanise large dispersed public sector organisations to adapt their recruitment and implementation policies but for a variety of reasons the Ministerial wishes and political commitment at the centre did not always get implemented on the “ground floor” where recruitment decisions were taken. This had an impact on prospects for helping local disadvantaged people as in some parts of the country local, regional and national public sector organisations are the only major employers providing most of the local jobs and opportunities.
I would suggest the aim must, therefore, be to bring together all kinds of private, public and voluntary sector employers to improve the working of labour markets. This would then hopefully provide opportunities for those unemployed and disabled people who most need skills and employment advice to help them get on the employment ladder. With increasing devolution from central government, now may be the time to engage employers differently. This will not be easy with several Government Departments developing policies across the skills, employment and healthcare sectors. My hope is that a coordinated cross departmental approach can be developed to designing policy responses and communicating the key messages in a consistent way to employers more generally. This could, perhaps, build on the recent imaginative campaign on apprenticeships. Helping those unemployed and disabled people who often have a complex range of problems that do not always fit into one departmental policy area will never be easy. If the coordination of the communications were, perhaps, given greater priority over a sustained period this would allow the impact of the various initiatives to be measured and lessons learned.