Through numerous welfare-to-work initiatives, such as New Deal schemes and Employment Zones, private and voluntary sector organisations have, for years, been involved in helping the long-term jobless back to work.
But the scale and scope of this involvement looks set to expand following an announcement from Work and Pensions secretary Peter Hain last week.
Commenting on early findings from the DWP’s commissioning strategy, he said: “The private and third sectors, working with Jobcentre Plus, have a vital role to play in our hugely important goal of achieving full employment and eradicating child poverty. If we are to meet this ambitious goal we need to take a fresh approach that utilises all the talent and skill available to us.”
This “fresh approach” is mainly targeted at helping the long-term unemployed and some of 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit back to work. These are groups that Jobcentres have traditionally had problems in reaching.
The reason, according to employer body the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), is that people from these categories tend to require much more support in getting back to work compared with the average jobseeker. But a report from the National Audit Office last year found that personal advisers from Jobcentre Plus spend less time face-to-face with customers than workers in similar organisations in leading countries abroad.
The CBI believes the one-size fits all approach generally taken by Jobcentre Plus does not adequately cater for those unemployed with complex and often multi-layered issues that prevent them from entering the workplace.
This is where organisations such as Working Links can make a difference, according to director Chris Hobson. The organisation is a public/private/voluntary partnership between the government’s Shareholder Executive, recruitment agency, Manpower, IT, business consultancy, Capgemini and christian community service, Mission Australia and has helped 80,000 individuals into employment since it was formed in 2000, including the ex-homeless and those coming out of jail.
Hobson says that people coming from these backgrounds may have to overcome a number of hurdles, such as drug addiction, illiteracy, low confidence or problems with finding transport to travel to work before they are ready to go into work.
He said: “What we offer is a holistic approach to an individual’s situation that gives them a package of support, both personal, and in terms of training and giving them the skills to secure a job.”
The increased use of private and voluntary organisations in this area will also herald a change in the way these agencies are paid. The DWP would like to see future payments to contractors based much more on sustainable job outcomes where the emphasis will not just be on getting a person into work, but making sure they stay in work.
“This will give a real incentive to help people into jobs that provide the greatest career prospects,” said Hain.
At present, suppliers are paid at different stages in the jobseeking process, such as when people find a job and if they are still in that job three months later.
At the Papworth Trust, a charity that helps disabled people into work, director of operations Matthew Lester says a lot of work is yet to be done to determine at what point a person becomes secure in their work. For example, he says many people returning from incapacity benefit may have to retrain and so will enter the workforce at a low level.
“Even after a year to 18 months at such a level , you couldn’t say whether they were secure or had had enough time to build a career,” said Lester.
“But in general it is the right approach to stop the revolving door syndrome where people keep returning to claim benefits,” he said.
The government has also said that to incentivise suppliers, welfare-to-work contracts should be longer and that there should be a smaller number of lead contractors to achieve this. But Lester says it must ensure that this approach doesn’t force out smaller specialist agencies who may have expertise in a dedicated area.
“As the DWP is the sole buyer, it in effect makes the market,” he said.
“Longer contracts and fewer contracters may help with efficiencies but there’s a danger that some smaller specialist providers will be lost. The DWP must be clear about what it wants the market to look like from the beginning.”