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Creating local systems of employability support

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 17

The current approach to employability in many areas is simply failing, according to new research. But Paul O’Brien, chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), explains how there are huge opportunities to make local employment services better for business and better for local communities.

The Autumn Statement made great play of a new infrastructure-led investment strategy, identifying £23bn in extra funding between now and 2021. There is a growing cross-party political consensus that shaping our future economy, particularly in light of Brexit, requires a new deal for local areas. Coupled with changes to local government finance, which will see councils virtually reliant on council tax and business rates for future funding, the success of local areas is now intrinsically linked to business growth. 

This new dynamic ought to put jobs and skills at the heart of national and local agendas. However, this is not the case. In new research, ‘Work it out: Creating local systems of employability support’, APSE and the New Local Government Network set out to investigate what could, and should, be done to develop strategies for employability in local areas. 

We found that the current approach to employability in many areas is simply failing. The plethora of agencies and funding streams designed to help people into work lack co-ordination. For example, take those who may have mental health issues. A patient’s employment status can have a huge impact on their health and wellbeing, but it is rarely a matter considered by GPs or other health professionals. In another example, new businesses seeking to relocate into a local area would benefit from a skills audit and some co-ordination on recruiting and training a new workforce, involving training colleges, universities and local councils, but often this does not materialise. 

Our research found that, in terms of barriers to managing employability issues well, the current DWP system is failing local areas. Whilst the DWP is focused on reducing the claimant count, this approach takes no regard as to the whole-person aspect of employability. For instance, could that person progress in their work? Will they be able to achieve and retain new skills to match those needed in local areas? Will their job offer a decent living wage, removing reliance on future benefits and dependency on council services? Our research showed that many councils found supposed savings from the DWP simply did not help local areas or local people in the most effective way. 

Supporting sustainable employability 

There are solutions. First of all, we need to fix the DWP approach. Rather than pushing people into work, we want local councils to support people into sustainable employability. That means more investment in skills and preparing people better for the world of work. 

There are already a number of councils setting the pace. Sheffield City Council, on behalf of Sheffield City Region, has developed ‘Skills Made Easy’. This brokerage system aims to create 4,000 apprenticeships and 2,000 training opportunities by encouraging employers to take on apprentices, and urging them to upskill current workers. The scheme involves a role in distributing Grants for Apprenticeships (GAPs) to employers taking on local apprentices, and is funded by a joint pot between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and local authorities and employers.  

Another notable case study is SEEDS. This is Southwark Council’s Employment and Enterprise Development Scheme, aimed at SMEs who employ 16-24-year-olds as apprentices or employees and pay them the London Living Wage. The council match-funds the young person’s salary for one year if the employer commits to the London Living Wage; up to 50% for SMEs, or 75% for the voluntary and community sectors. With the benefit of a dedicated mentor, the scheme is not about short-term fixes but finding long-term, quality employment for local young people.  

These case studies are only a starting point. The pace of employability as a public policy issue needs to pick up a much faster momentum, starting with devolving the 16-18-year-old further education budgets to mirror the 19+ skills budgets. Furthermore, it makes sense to devolve the apprenticeships levy, allowing local authorities to distribute this in the same way that the grant for employers is devolved. 

We also require much greater levels of co-commissioning between Work and Health Programmes, with devolved budgeting to support the long-term unemployed into work. Equally, benefits administration and employment advice would be better served by integrating Jobcentre Plus into councils – some authorities are already successfully embracing this approach. 

There are huge opportunities to recast employability to make local employment services better for business and better for local communities. The agenda is there for the taking and it is vital we seize this chance to make a real difference to local economies.


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