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.

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.

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.