A 21st-century Jobcentre Plus?

The government must take the business of career progression for state careers advisers much more ser

The news that Jobcentre Plus is now the third most searched for term on the internet, beaten only by Big Brother and The X Factor, according to Yahoo statistics, is a sign of the strange position this institution occupies in our lives. Huge numbers of us use it, but we'd really rather not have to.

So plans to be unveiled this week by the government for Jobcentre Plus should be met with praise, yet also a degree of scepticism. The plan is to make it a universal employment service at the "vanguard of bridging the digital divide".

We live in an era when employment no longer follows the predictable patterns of the past. Average job tenure for men has fallen by 20 per cent since 1975. Agency work and temporary contracts were becoming more common even before the recession began. Careers advice and employment support are now no longer something we need just at school, but throughout our careers, as jobs come and go and we look for different challenges in life.

Jobcentre Plus doesn't figure in this picture at the moment. To most people, it is just somewhere you go when you lose your job and turn up to every few weeks to prove you've been following the rules.

The recession has shown us that people from all walks of life want somewhere they can go when they've lost their job - an experience that ranks beside divorce and bereavement in terms of impact. And this is why many were left feeling disappointed this year - because what they got was not help at all, but form-filling and a blizzard of rules.

Jobcentre Plus has battled to meet the vast numbers of claimants it has had to serve in this recession and it has succeeded in some areas. But it has not managed to be everything to everyone, as the government promised it would be. Many newly redundant claimants have come away from interviews feeling cheated and confused. Even the basic service has suffered, with initial interviews down from 40 to seven minutes in some areas.

New plans to be outlined in a white paper from the Department for Work and Pensions will put technology at the centre of a new Jobcentre Plus service. IT can be used to great effect to personalise services while minimising costs, as shown by private-sector employment organisations here in the UK and other countries, such as Finland and Denmark.

But while personalised web pages and greater web access could take the service to those who would rather not visit a jobcentre, this doesn't solve the fundamental problem of how to provide high-quality, appropriate support for those who have to. Here the role of employment advisers is crucial.

Research this year by IPPR found that what most people want from the service is someone who will listen properly and give them relevant support - not just a standard response. For this, Jobcentre Plus advisers need to be freed to spend more time so that they can grasp people's specific needs. They also need to be given accredited, professional training that will allow them to provide the best possible support.

For too long, the DWP has refused to invest in its staff, while requiring the organisations it contracts to do so. It has also denied its own staff the access to opportunities for career progression it would like to see for jobseekers.

In its white paper, DWP must commit to raising the status of employment advisers and introducing accredited, professional qualifications for all staff, not just those it contracts. It must allow the best advisers to progress in their roles.

Whether this can help Jobcentre Plus beat The X Factor in the popularity stakes remains to be seen, but it would mean a much better service for all of us.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1