Motivation Matters

Later this week I am speaking at a conference on digital innovation in job search. As I work on my presentation I cannot help but reflect on some challenging home truths. There is a common perception that some people simply cannot use technology. That it is too complicated for them or they are of a generation that simply does not ‘get it’.

However, it does not take very long to find evidence disproving this. Video-conferenceHow many people who never found use for a computer adopt the technology once their grandchildren are on Skype? Or what about those who discover they can make some ready cash buying and selling on ebay?  Or perhaps their interest in their family history has brought them to the many research tools available online.

The simple truth is that most people will make the effort to learn how to use technology when it suits them to do so. The challenge is helping the person recognise the benefits so they make the effort.

This has particular relevance for job search. Without digital skills it is hard to find anything but the most basic job. From vacancy search to online application forms to simply emailing a CV, technology is ubiquitous.

We developed MyWorkSearch because it seemed obvious that a low cost and readily accessible job search assistance portal would make sense for very large numbers of people. The hundreds of thousands who have benefited from the service demonstrates the merits of the approach. But what about those who find it all just a bit too difficult?

All too often I see those assisting others with job search simply accepting low levels of digital literacy and agreeing that alternative methods of job search are acceptable. The more I think about this the clearer it is to me that we are doing jobseekers a disservice. Very, very few people are genuinely incapable of using technology. We need to make clear to jobseekers a) why technology will benefit them and b) that learning basic IT skills is both essential and within their capabilities. Too many people use ‘technology’ as the barrier that impedes their job search. Those of us who work in the employment sector need to be clear that the training and equipment are available and the only real barrier is motivation.

Catch 22 with British and EU bureaucracy

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My blog-silence has been broken by my frustration at some very silly and wasteful EU / British rules that cost us all a lot of money and bring negligible benefit. Let me explain. Those who know of my company, MyWorkSearch, will be aware that we have an online portal that provides a wealth of resources to assist individuals on their job-search journey. We have recently added content and functionality so we can deliver employability courses that are funded by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and European Social Fund (ESF). The payment for an employability course is not that much, however, a technology delivery model makes it viable. To be entitled to the funded course Paperworka person must be unemployed and eligible for benefits in the UK.

Our funding comes via a contract holder, known as a Prime. Our Prime is subject to strict audit rules and should any process or paperwork be incorrect can be required to repay monies they have received. This can be several years down the line and in a low margin sector risk the on-going viability of the Prime. Clearly this creates a risk-averse approach.

So far I am sure that all who read this are nodding their heads and thinking that this is as it should be. Unfortunately, what it has created is a monster of bureaucracy that prevents help being provided to people who need it and adds overheads to providers and government that ultimately we all end up paying for. Meanwhile, the system appears to be designed in a way that stops intelligent change taking place.

The latest example we have run into is with regards to eligibility. In order to provide a short (20 – 30 training hours) employability training course we need to see a copy of a person’s passport or birth certificate. This presents us with two problems. The first is that many people, especially those who find themselves in need of these funded employability courses, don’t have a passport and have long since lost their birth certificate. Getting copies requires time and money. The second is that an employability course can be effectively delivered online, however, demonstrating eligibility and getting a learner signature requires face to face interactions and thus limits who can be assisted and where they are located.

If employability courses don’t make a difference they should not be funded at all. If they are helpful there should not be barriers that prevent their swift provision. What is the point of restricting or delaying assistance that gets people from costly benefits recipients to contributing taxpayers? We have a cumbersome system designed to prevent fraud without anyone stopping to consider how many people are really likely to masquerade as unemployed and entitled to benefits in order to get a free employability course. Nor do they appear to have considered the relative costs of the occasional eligibility mistake versus the bureaucracy overhead that every party bears for every assistance recipient.

Notwithstanding that self-certification would probably be fine, there is a middle-ground solution. Only an eligible person can claim unemployment benefits and Jobcentre Plus could readily issue a confirmation that the checks have been undertaken. Indeed they already have a process for this. The challenge is that the SFA and ESF won’t categorically confirm that a Jobcentre Plus document is sufficient proof. A Prime naturally needs to avoid the risk of clawback so in the absence of a clear SFA statement it insists that its supply chain dots every i and crosses every t.

I regularly speak to other small providers. We all have our examples of how the system has been daftly designed. But what truly adds insult to injury is our inability to get this changed. The SFA only deal with the Primes and smaller providers who are at the mercy of the rules have no route to dialogue or mechanism to obtain clarification. The Primes do not wish to jeopardise their contracts and have to conform to a system where they are informed of the rules they must follow and know that any mistakes can prove very costly. Meanwhile, now that much of the SFA’s funding is mixed with EU monies, there is always the ultimate joker card that trumps all arguments. Brussels makes the rules and we have no choice but to enforce them.

Entrepreneurs tend to be passionate about what their business does and also adept at finding solutions to problems. I really value that our service helps people find employment. We change for the better the lives of many people. I am so frustrated that I work in a system that is so poorly implemented and where there is no route to effect change. I could make it my mission to expose ineptitude and obsessively campaign for improvement. However, doing so would no doubt commercially hurt my business and take time I don’t have. So I just grit my teeth and get on with it, observing considerable waste at a time when we are all told that government expenditure must be cut. How very sad that I and so many others are put in this position. It does not make me proud to be British or European.

May All Your Troubles Last As Long As Your New Year’s Resolutions

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I came across Joey Adams’ insightful wish on a friend’s December 31 Facebook update.  It made me laugh but at the same time brought home an area of serious concern. We are in tough economic times and unemployment blights the lives of millions of people. For the past four years my colleagues and I have provided a technology platform that has assisted many tens of thousands of jobseekers. ResolutionWe operate across the spectrum, from experienced professionals to the long-term unemployed and from those close to retirement to teenagers looking for their first job. From the data we see and the conversations we have, a few things are apparent:

Far too many people have a naïvely optimistic approach to job-search. They put insufficient time into planning, quality and action. Getting a job is a competitive activity. For every successful individual there are jobseekers who are not offered an interview as well as those who make it to the shortlist but do not receive an offer. So very often the difference between success and failure is time and commitment.

We have all made life choices that subsequently come back to haunt us. Daydreaming through the boring school lesson, the TV programme instead of homework, the qualification that was just too much effort, the lack of commitment that resulted in someone else getting the promotion at work or perhaps the fun nights out that meant there were no savings available to fund a new business.  All of these decisions have ripple consequences and the challenging economy has amplified this.

As we consider the new year and where we will invest our efforts and what plans we will stick to, I hope that career makes it to the top of the list. Employment vs unemployment and good job vs bad job affect a person each and every day. Some focus and effort can make a real difference. Let’s hope Joey’s cynicism applies just to the smokers and gym-phobic!

You can keep your problems

You see, I have enough of my own. Problems can be time-consuming, stressful and challenging. Now I don’t resent my own problems as an absence would suggest there is either nothing much happening in my life or I have no control over it. But just because I recognise the value of taking responsibility for my own life does not mean I welcome other people parking their issues at my doorstep.

And this brings me to one of the aspects of the welfare to work sector that I find most puzzling. People who abrogate responsibility and just expect someone else to find a solution to their difficulties are simply ticking time bombs on the cusp of their next misfortune. Until a person takes personal responsibility s/he just blows in the wind and cannot be relied upon. So why do so many advisors pick up the baton and step in to find a job for a person? They are simply reinforcing the message that the individual is useless and needs everything done for him/her. It won’t be long before something happens and once again the person is unemployed, passively waiting to be assisted again.

This does not mean that jobseekers should be just left to it, somehow knowing what to do and how to do it. But there should be a crystal clear message that the advisor is not taking on the customer’s problems but is simply providing help so the person can find workable solutions. When selling MyWorkSearch I often focus on how technology saves costs and is convenient to access whenever and wherever required. However if I had to pick one attribute that is transformative, it is retaining responsibility with the jobseeker. Because once people cease being dependent they start coping and from this comes confidence and confident people are far more likely to have fulfilled and successful lives.

So I am happy to help people; indeed I delight in it. But don’t ever ask me to own your problems. They are your’s to solve.

Pragmatic pulling

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When was the last time you played a computer game? Not some simple exercise on your mobile phone. I mean a complicated multi-player game with numerous controls, options and challenges. Learning how to master the game is hard. There is a lot to learn, from controller/keyboard commands to gameplay options and rules. And yet millions of people do this. Many of whom fail to get formal qualifications or are cajoled and encouraged in order to achieve them. So it is not a question of being unable to learn. It appears to be more about motivation to learn.

What also strikes me is the effort and research that goes into learning how to play a game well. Playing a video gameThe game may arrive with a booklet and have training segments. However the enthusiastic gamer will google for guidance, read forums and find videos showing other players’ tips and tricks. They will do all of this because they are motivated to succeed and know that learning this information is key to their gaming success.

I have spent considerable time in recent months visiting establishments that provide employability assistance to job-seekers. At the end of the course an assessor verifies that the learner has indeed understood what an employer is looking for and what s/he personally needs to do in order to secure and keep a job. What has struck me is how much cost goes into cajoling individuals through that relatively short learning journey and assessment. Pushing this information to learners is an expensive process. It all costs money – from learner recruitment to physical infrastructure to tutor and all the associated delivery resources. Currently the taxpayer, via the Skills Funding Agency, picks up the multi-billion pound bill for this.

So here’s a thought. What if a reasonable proportion of learners could be encouraged to self-learn? They could use technology to pull the learning they need and, when ready, complete the required assessment process. The main barrier is motivation. The person who is willing to invest time and effort mastering a game cannot be bothered to do this when it comes to what s/he perceives as someone else’s course and qualification. In an ideal world people would see how learning this information benefits them and would find the internal motivation to pursue the knowledge. However in the real world it does not happen and we invest a fortune in pushing education.

So what would happen if we made learning resources available online and paid people to achieve qualifications? I imagine that a payment of twenty five percent of the cost of pushing training would be sufficient to motivate many learners.  If half our students could self-learn one third of their training we would save a fortune in delivery costs. Meanwhile training provision could be focused on the harder to help groups that are not able to self-learn.

I can see how this would be politically sensitive. After all, why should ‘we’ bribe people to learn something that will benefit them? The answer in these straitened times could be that it is a pragmatic solution that could save a fortune. If you are not sure it is feasible, invest in a computer game and see how long it takes you to master the game-play!

Much ado about rather a lot

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.

Bifurcation

Bifurcation is one of those excellent words reserved for crosswords and serious conferences. It was being used yesterday to describe a rather depressing phenomenon that will affect millions of people. I was at the Employment Related Services Association annual conference and labour market trends were being discussed. Bifurcation was being used to describe the way the employment market is splitting into well paid and highly skilled jobs and low paid unskilled ones, with the middle being squeezed. Technology and globalisation mean that many of these ‘middle’ roles are disappearing and those that cannot obtain the highly skilled jobs face unemployment or jobs they do not want.

This is a concern for the affected individuals as well as a problem for our country and unfortunately there are no easy answers. Going from unskilled to skilled is not a swift and simple journey and meanwhile our knowledge employers are struggling to find the people they need. The wider the gap between the haves and have nots the more unpleasant society becomes. There are thousands of families for whom the choice is unemployment or low paid work and the forthcoming changes to the benefits system will increasingly make life without work more challenging. I firmly believe that it is better to have a job with the structure and self-respect that this brings however for many the types of job available to them will not make for fulfilling employment.

I don’t believe there are solutions to the bifurcation. The Luddites demonstrated the futility of taking on technology and markets. However go to any UK town and there will be a college offering free training. Meanwhile the quantity and range of online training is vast.

It is easy to stigmatise the unemployed and there are certainly many who abuse the system or make no effort to help themselves. However I believe the majority simply meandered through education and early adult decisions and then found themselves in a position where options were few and employment choices bleak. I don’t want to trivialise the challenges of up-skilling or being different in a community where unemployment is the norm, however the more I think about it the more the solution is with the individual and not society. Government can enable however each person has to make his or her own choice as to what discomfort will be endured in order to bring about personal change or change for one’s children.

Transferring responsibility

There is a much quoted proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  I have been increasingly reminded of this as I have spent more time in the welfare to work sector.  There are numerous organisations that provide help to the unemployed.  They typically employ advisors who sit with jobseekers and whose responsibility it is to get as many of the people they are working with into a job.  As I have learnt more about this sector it has become worryingly clear that there is a problem.  Advisors assume that they need to do all the work for the jobseeker and the jobseeker simply falls into line with this way of operating.  This means that advisors decide what jobs their customers can do, write their CV, find relevant vacancies and then make applications on behalf of the jobseeker.  To a large extent, if the advisor does not do it, it does not get done.

On a very practical level, reduced government spending on assistance programmes means that this operating model cannot continue.  In previous years there was sufficient funding however nowadays the amount of money available is less than the cost of giving the help.  If providers cannot find a less resource hungry delivery model they will go out of business.

However I think the problem is more serious than that.  We all need to engage with the challenges and opportunities we have in our lives.  Jobseekers who don’t take responsibility for their job search are unlikely to commit to any job they do find themselves in.  Without this commitment the chances of long term successful employment are inevitably reduced.  The vicious circle of unemployment and unemployability kicks in and their brief period in work becomes simply an expensive interlude.

I don’t want to trivialise the challenges for individuals who are long term unemployed.  Finding work is hard and those jobs that are offered aren’t exactly the most appealing.  However having a job is far more likely to be a stepping stone to something better and the sense of purpose and value that employment brings are in themselves life-transforming.

My colleagues and I at MyWorkSearch have been evangelising about using technology to enable jobseekers to more actively participate in their search for work.  In many respects our message to providers has been about saving costs and efficiency.  These arguments certainly work as having unemployed jobseekers put some hours into their own job-search is a pragmatic solution to insufficient advisor availability.  But the more I think about it the more it is clear to me that having jobseekers search for their new role is also good for the individual.  Long term unemployment in a welfare society such as the UK breeds a culture of dependency.  The search for work is an important step on the journey of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.

Year 3

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We are just signing off our second full year of accounts and this brings home to me that MyWorkSearch is not quite the startup I consider it to be.  Indeed to be totally accurate the company is now 27 months old.  The business has gone from an idly discussed idea to fully formed business with a wholly functional technology product, numerous awards, management structure and processes, employees, customers and multi-million sales.  I still have my original business plan and whilst our core proposition remains the same it is amusing how wrong I was about so many aspects of who we would sell to, how and at what price.  On the one hand I can take pride in our ability to adapt to the market and opportunities, however I also have to recognise that a considerable sum of money was speculated on a venture that turned out very differently from the forecasts that underpinned the investment decision.  I don’t think that this is inherently bad, however it is important to recall this lest hubris sets in.

We now face our next set of challenges.  When we started we were pioneers in suggesting that the labour intensive process of (re-)employment transition assistance could instead be delivered using technology.  The prevailing wisdom was that our type of service could at most be a support resource to the assistance provided by a consultant.  We were not calling into question the value that a consultant could bring.  We just observed that in many cases there simply was not the funding to provide help in this way and that an effective alternative was necessary.  We thought it could be done through smart technology and decided to invest our time and money in making this happen.  Now that we have proven it is possible and become successful we have competition.  In many ways this is a good thing.  With very few exceptions, the absence of competition indicates the absence of a market.  Also, having competitors keeps us on our toes and ensures we do not assume our current market leadership is an entitlement.

So where to next?  We have made good progress with our employer proposition. Each week new organisations subscribe to our services and we are winning repeat business, demonstrating customer satisfaction.  We are partnering with an expanding number of organisations and it is clear that so long as we don’t do anything daft we will continue to develop our market presence.  Our government work is also progressing well.  This summer, in the UK, the Department for Work & Pensions starts the Work Programme.  Many hundreds of thousands of people per year will be assisted first into employment and then helped remain in work.  Delivery is sub-contracted via regional ‘Prime Contractors’ and with funding tight and the numbers requiring assistance high, technology solutions are one of the few methods of making the Work Programme viable.  This presents us with a huge opportunity and this week we launched our Work Programme mini-site at www.myworksearch.co.uk/wp.

Working with those whose employment challenges are more severe has allowed us the opportunity to once again embark upon intensive product development and stretch ourselves as we consider how to meet the needs of this client group.  We started work last year on our Nudge Engine® – functionality throughout our site to examine a person’s progress with MyWorkSearch and make personalised, useful suggestions – and have significantly expanded this for the Work Programme.  Our head of research, an occupational psychologist, has created a number of transferable skills questionnaires that can elicit what a person has the potential to do and then MyWorkSearch takes this data and helps both author a CV that presents the client’s capability in the best way and also finds relevant vacancies.  Other innovations include sophisticated activity management with jobseeker performance reporting provided to the Work Programme advisor helping the client, integrated chat to provide jobseekers with help when they need it and user journeys that can be customised and locked-down.  We created a table of MyWorkSearch features and were pleasantly surprised when we reviewed just how much we had developed.  At the very least we expect to positively impact upon the lives of many thousands of people who are struggling with the difficulties of extended unemployment.  However if our approach proves successful with those whose employment problems are more severe it is quite possible that we will have a transformative effect upon the welfare to work sector.

So we may no longer be a baby startup – but it certainly doesn’t feel like we are coasting or can rest on our laurels!

Common sense and practical help

MyWorkSearch is a commercial organisation and without revenue we cannot continue to operate.  We know that our service helps people back into work however we unfortunately need to charge for usage.  For the past eighteen months thousands of job seekers have been provided with MyWorkSearch by Jobcentre Plus with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) paying us.  Our research reveals that over 60% of those enrolled secure new jobs within three months and the average time is 62 days.  Thus the government has in return for its payment helped a person to come off benefits and return to being a tax-payer.

This publicly funded provision has now come to an end and it is ironic that it has done so at a time when the DWP publishes a research report “Job Search Study: Literature review and analysis of the Labour Force Survey” which looks at the characteristics of job search and what works.  This 118 page document provides a wealth of statistics and observations, however it was four of them that really stood out for me.  None of them are a huge surprise however it is easy to lose sight of their importance.

The first is the authors’ observation that: “The majority of theoretical and empirical studies of job search date from a time either before the rise of the Internet or when its use for job search was less developed and widespread”.  The second is that between April and June 2009 over 80% of job seekers used the Internet to look for work.  In other words, the majority of ‘industry experts’, advisers, civil servants and ministers learnt their skills, developed methodologies and formed their opinions at a time when offline job search predominated.  Yet nowadays, across all demographics, online is the most likely activity with the bulk of adoption in the past several years.  Indeed given the growth of online that was being observed quarter by quarter leading up to this research, 2 year old 2009 data materially underestimates current usage.

The third area that was commented on was a person’s social network.  Across a broad spectrum of roles an extremely good source of employment is an individual’s contacts.  When an organisation is hiring it is often those connected with the vacancy who are best placed to know of the opportunity and suggest a potential recruit.  So individuals with a wide network of people who are positively disposed to them and who communicate their availability are far more likely to receive a timely and warm introduction to prospective employers.  Equally, those without networks or those whose network comprises fellow unemployed, are less likely to hear of and be recommended for opportunities.  Social networks can be local and personal, such as former colleagues, fellow school parents or neighbours.  They can also be online via the many network sites that exist.

The final area is self-efficacy.  People with self-belief in their own qualities and their likelihood to secure a job are far more likely to obtain employment.  This self-fulfilling positive approach is clearly harder to maintain the longer a job search takes or when a person comes from a community where unemployment is the norm.

All of the above pre-supposes the desire to find a job and this in itself cannot be taken for granted.  It also assumes possession of minimum skills to make the person employable.

There are not enough jobs out there for every person who needs one.  But there are jobs for many people who don’t have one and are looking for one.  Reading through this report confirms my knowledge that we are doing the right thing with MyworkSearch; it also frustrates the hell out of me that an obvious, inexpensive and effective service is being cut at a time when it is very much needed.

MyWorkSearch will continue to prosper with our other contracts and I am optimistic about the future.  However I do wish we could find a way to offer the service to every newly unemployed job seeker.  Hopefully some senior policy makers will read this DWP research report!