It has, to put it mildly, been an interesting week in the welfare to work sector. I even found myself whisked to BBC TV Centre for a live interview so I could add commentary to the war of words raging across the Internet and media. I don’t know if I bring anything new to the debate, but here goes!
I have worked in the employment market for over twenty years and in the welfare to work sector for three. Much has changed, however, certain themes have not.
Employers may not always select well, however, hiring the best people available to them is always their objective. Some prospective employees don’t have the required skills. Others may not know how to sell what they offer as a candidate. Still others get jobs but do not keep them, as they are ineffective at fitting in within the workplace. And finally there are people who for any of several reasons prefer unemployment to the work opportunities available to them.
Meanwhile, government is always looking at ways to reduce unemployment. They do this because it feels the right thing to do given their electoral mandate and the normally well-meaning intentions of the politicians. They do this because unemployment is socially corrosive; it is also very expensive. And in a democracy governments experiencing high unemployment tend not to get re-elected.
Government can employ civil servants to deliver solutions, or it can outsource. Where a provision is tightly specified a competitively procured contract will normally drive down delivery costs. However, the risk of tight specifications is that the deliverers can be mandated to provide services that are ineffective, and it can take a long while and considerable wasted resource before the government identifies the need for change and makes it. An alternative is to pay by results and not specify how these are to be achieved. Darwinian competition amongst providers will lead to innovation and improve the chances of successful outcomes. This is the model of the current Work Programme. Of course whatever model is chosen, the quality of outcome and value for money will be dependent on the procurement process and the extent to which there is genuine competition. Executed well, providers will generate profits however these should be far less than the additional value obtained by the customer.
The current political furore over work experience is somewhat ironic, as it is the Work Programme itself that is far more coercive than the workfare programme so much in the news. To me it boils down to a very simple question. To what extent do we as a country accept unemployment on benefits as a lifestyle choice? Notwithstanding fraud, a life on benefits is not comfortable. If one believes that it is the right of a citizen to choose this over work, then anything other than opted into training and support will be considered an injustice. If one believes that welfare should be no more than a safety net, enforced job-search and employment will be considered reasonable. If a person’s skills, domestic circumstances or location limit the quality of jobs open to them then so be it.
I have real sympathy for A4e. Human beings make mistakes, some are foolish and some are dishonest. When an organisation has thousands of staff, things will go wrong from time to time. If management step in and deal with the problem in a way that is generally regarded as correct, that should be the end of the matter. A4e have succeeded because over the years they have done a lot of things well. Destroying their business will do nothing to improve welfare to work provision. It will simply ruin one of the more experienced and effective large scale providers and deter talented managers and organisations from working in the sector. I don’t begrudge Emma Harrison her dividends. If procurement has focused on the best provision why should one complain when an organisation has found a way to meet its customer’s demands better than anyone else and also make money. If procurement is flawed or the fraud systemic then there is cause for serious repercussions. As matters stand today this does not seem to be the case.
So what next? I hope that the debate moves from A4e, Emma’s dividend and Tesco to our attitude to skills and employment. Our economy is weak, we have a less skilled population than is ideal and we are facing ever stronger global competition. If we don’t address these problems our employment choices will be the least of our problems.
Every week my colleagues and I visit Jobcentre Plus offices and spend time with many advisors. It is clear that most advisors are rushed off their feet and this means that there is a production line feel to the process. As a job seeker this can be both demoralising and frustrating. At a time when individuals face much uncertainty this can be a further demonstration of how control is being taken from them.
The vast majority of Jobcentre Plus advisors do the job because they care about the impact they have and the good that they can do. They are just snowed under and as a consequence unable to proactively assist their clients. Their role has become one of getting through the day and just ensuring that people are registered, basic facts checked and the necessary administrative processes completed.
My advice to the job-seeker is to do your own home-work prior to meeting your advisor at Jobcentre Plus. Spend some time on the Jobcentre Plus website (www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/) and read about the various programmes that are available to assist you. We regularly hear that those who ask their advisors what programmes they are eligible for and can be put on are offered more than those who do not ask. For example the services of my company, MyWorkSearch (www.myworksearch.co.uk), can be obtained free of charge from your Jobcentre Plus advisor. You just need to ask.
It is a very tough environment for job-seekers right now. But there are opportunities. Whether it be getting State assistance or securing a job, the key is to go for it yourself. Don’t rely on others to do the legwork or make it happen for you. Make it your responsibility to find out what is out there and available and then pursue it. Do this and you are far more likely to be successful.
I am currently hiring for a few positions and it reinforces my conviction that MyWorkSearch and MyNewJob.me are essential offerings as many candidates just don’t understand what they are doing wrong and why their applications fail.
When I was last hiring, just over a year ago, we had to use recruitment agencies as we could not get many candidates from our advertisements. Now, from relatively little online advertising, we have been inundated with applications. Many of the candidates were until recently earning more than we are offering and they are clearly very keen to quickly secure a new job.
I have had to sift the CVs and in doing this some could quickly be rejected. They did not sell themselves well, they had spelling mistakes in their CV, or they had not attempted to explain why they would be a great hire. A couple of years ago this would not have mattered so much. Now, however, I was comparing them to a far stronger pool of candidates and eliminating these weaker applications was a fast and easy decision.
Another characteristic that stood out was the industry sector that the applicant had previously worked in. High on the list were publishing, building services/property and financial services. Some very capable individuals are now unemployed simply because their sector has been hammered and despite their talents they are finding it very hard to secure a new role.
In this market there really is no point applying for a job unless one makes the effort to present well and clearly demonstrate suitability for the specific role. Fail to do this and rejection is inevitable. Get it right and one has merely progressed to the lottery stage where luck will determine which of the amply qualified candidates secures the position.
I do hope for all our sakes that more jobs will be created. Meanwhile I advise all job-seekers to:
- Consider extremely carefully what you send out and ensure that there are no silly mistakes;
- Treat each application seriously and put effort into demonstrating your suitability;
- Remember it is a numbers game and maintain a high application rate.
All the best
Our developers assure me that we will be ready to launch on the 25th. In some ways our site reminds me of a house being redecorated. As one approaches the completion date it looks an awful mess with loose ends and unfinished items all over the place. However as the clock counts down each item is dealt with and suddenly one is presented with all that had been planned for. So I hope it will be with our site!
We have now put up a holding page at http://www.myworksearch.co.uk/ and there is a video that explains our offering. Later this week, once we can start taking subscribers, our complete marketing site will go live. Given the time, energy, passion – and money – we have put into this it is very exciting.
The last few days have seen emails fly around the team as we debate the subtler nuances of our marketing website. I do wonder whether anyone will ever read it with the same eye for detail as we have. On the other hand there is the risk that our familiarity with its content means that we miss some howler of an error that will be obvious to everyone but us.
Myworksearch.co.uk and Mynewjob.me are the culmination of months of long days and creative energy. For the team it has been an all-consuming endeavour. However we must not lose sight of the very real problems that led us to create the sites. Unemployment in the UK is now at its highest level since November 1996 and is expected to continue rising, with over 3m likely in 2010. As The Times recently put it, “Applying for work has become a full-time job in itself.” Competition for jobs is now so fierce that almost 400 people are responding to every job centre advert for some occupations.
But there are jobs out there and the solutions we have created will help many thousands of people find vacancies, effectively apply for them and return to work far sooner than they otherwise would. This will make a huge difference to households up a down the country and provides a tremendous motivation to the team.
All the best