Report launch: how do we engage more employers in employability and skills programmes?

Jo IngoldDr Jo Ingold, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy, CERIC, Leeds University Business School.

3 December 2017, at an event in Westminster for policymakers, practitioners and academics, we’ll be launching our final report from a four-year ESRC-funded research project about employer engagement in employability and skills programmes.

Employers are critical to the success of employment activation and employability programmes, yet there’s been surprisingly little research about employers’ perspectives on them. In the first phase of our research, we surveyed over 1,500 employers in the UK and Denmark. In the second phase, we undertook more than 100 in-depth interviews with employers and providers delivering employability and skills programmes in both countries, to provide a ‘two-sided’ perspective on employer engagement.

Employers’ perspectives on employability programmes

Employers were generally positive about employing unemployed candidates, but less so about employability programmes, particularly in the UK. A critical difference between the countries was that, while every Danish employer we interviewed had taken part in at least one programme (and often more), among UK employers participation was more sporadic. UK employers were most familiar with apprenticeships above other provision. A key reason for not engaging in programmes was that employers thought they were inappropriate to their needs. They were put off by the large number of programmes and providers, lacked knowledge about them and about how to access programmes, and were unsure about their value. The most popular reasons for engaging were to access an alternative recruitment channel, to develop talent and to ‘give people a chance’.

Critically, employers felt that the benefit conditionality system and employability programmes themselves could ‘tarnish’ candidates. Employers were particularly dissatisfied about receiving large numbers of job applications as a result of conditionality and entitlement conditions. The lack of a tailored service from providers could also result in employers being sent candidates who were of ‘poor quality’, unsuitable, or ill-prepared.

Employers were generally positive about employing disabled people, although only a small number of UK employers had done so, and not necessarily through employability programmes. In Denmark the Flexjobs scheme for disabled people (offering subsidized jobs under special conditions, in-work support and reduced working hours) was popular with employers. Importantly, in both countries very few employers had made changes to their recruitment and selection processes to encourage candidates from disadvantaged groups, despite recognising the shortcomings of the standard application and interview method.

Our survey data found two distinct groups of employers in terms of engagement in employability and skills programmes. Firstly, those who were ‘instrumentally engaged’ on an ad hoc basis in specific initiatives but not that ‘committed’ to them. Secondly, those who were ‘relationally engaged’ and were more committed and involved in a broader range of programmes on a repeated and sustained basis. This distinction was supported by the interview data. The survey and interview data showed that relational engagement was higher in Denmark than the UK. Crucially, UK employers did not feel that employability programmes were designed with their needs in mind and, compared with Danish employers, had very low trust in public policies.

Providers’ perspectives

The data from providers in both countries showed striking similarities with the employer data, in terms of barriers to engagement and reasons for engaging, as well as in their perspectives about what relational (or in-depth) employer engagement meant. However, the fact that UK employers had less ‘institutional’ trust in government policy and programmes critically left more ‘gaps’ to be filled by providers. They tended to achieve this through the development of ‘inter-personal’ relationships with employers, based on trust. So these relationships were largely between individuals from provider organisations and from businesses, rather than based on relations between organisations. But, although these relationships were critical to employer engagement, they were also fragile and trust could be easily lost. This wasn’t helped by changes to programmes, regulations and contracts in localities.

UK providers also expressed concern about employers’ fluctuating demands for labour, which were difficult to meet. Additionally, there was a gap between employer demands and the individuals that providers’ held on their caseloads, who were possible candidates for vacancies. Providers felt that this gap could not be filled by programmes in their current form. One way of providing a good ‘offer’ to employers was by being able to provide a ‘spectrum’ of services (ranging from pre-employment training to in-work support and training). But providers could only really do this successfully if they’d won a range of employment and skills contracts (from different government departments), or merged with or acquired organisations that had. Alternatively, providing a range of services to employers required working with other organisations, sometimes competitors (what is often referred to as ‘co-opetition’).

This research reveals the extremely fragmented landscape of employment and skills provision in the UK, as well as the remoteness of employers from them (notably the situation was slightly different in Scotland, where these policies are devolved responsibilities). The current formulation of employment and skills policy assumes that employers will engage and will provide opportunities for unemployed individuals. But this research (and the previous research we conducted about the UK Work Programme) suggest that employers are not beating the door down to take part in these programmes, despite them being a potential avenue for increasing workforce diversity. If the government wants to seriously address labour market disadvantage and in particular to halve the disability employment gap, an urgent re-think is needed about the current direction of policy.

Policy recommendations

  • In their current form, programmes are not working effectively for employers. Employers still lack knowledge about programmes, don’t recognise their potential benefits and consider them inappropriate to their needs.
  • A smaller number of programmes, with more continuity and stability but less complexity and fragmentation would make it easier for employers to engage.
  • Changes need to be urgently made to avoid employers receiving large numbers of job applications from benefit claimants in order to fulfil conditionality requirements, as this is damaging to employers’ views of initiatives. A critical aspect of this is better targeting of applications to employers.
  • Devolution is an important opportunity to improve employer engagement in the design and implementation of initiatives and to devise programmes that are responsive to local needs.
  • Merging different government departmental funding streams for employability and skills provision would be helpful, especially as the government looks to replacement European Social Fund provision.
  • More employers need to be equipped with information about ways to make their recruitment and selection processes more inclusive and effective.
  • To maximise resources and to provide a better service to employers, we need more mechanisms for sharing evidence-based good practice across different providers, programmes, cohorts and areas, which currently the competitive contracting frameworks mitigate against.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and followed on from ‘Seedcorn’ research funded by CERIC and Leeds University Business School. More information about the research can be found here.

 

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