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Why we need a better employment service for jobseekers

Jobcentre Plus does not help the vast majority find work, says the director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

By Sarah Dawood

Jobcentre Plus, the official government agency for jobseekers, cannot tackle the recruitment crisis because it is not fit for purpose, says the director of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).

Tony Wilson was speaking in parliament to the Work and Pensions Committee – a cross-party group of MPs tasked with scrutinising the government’s policies on employment – during a session on Plan for Jobs.

The £350bn Plan for Jobs was launched at the start of the pandemic to boost employment through schemes such as: Kickstart, aimed at young jobseekers; Restart, aimed at those looking for a new career; and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which provided grants to employers so they could furlough staff and continue paying up to 80 per cent of their wages.  

Wilson told MPs that while the Plan for Jobs had helped avoid an “unemployment crisis”, the UK was now facing a “participation and recruitment crisis” as vacancies hit a record level but unemployment also remains high.

To access support from a work coach at Jobcentre Plus an individual needed to “not only be claiming benefits but the right bit of benefits”, he said, adding that there was too much red tape and too many criteria to meet. As a result, many people were turning to the National Careers Service for help, which is focused on careers advice rather than accessing a specific job.

The government should invest in a more inclusive public employment service, Wilson concluded. “How did the National Careers Service become our public employment service?” he asked. “Why aren’t people able to talk to Jobcentre Plus? We have more than 20,000 advisers, yet people can’t book an appointment. The starting point is to have a genuine public employment service – somewhere you can go to find a job.”

The latest research shows that despite there now being plenty of job vacancies, there are 570,000 fewer people in work than before Covid-19. This was put down to several contributing factors during the parliament session, including those aged 50 to 64 retiring early after being furloughed – there are now 180,000 fewer over fifties in work than before the pandemic – and younger people deciding not to return to sectors they worked in before 2020, such as hospitality. Due to both Brexit and the pandemic, fewer migrants are settling permanently in the UK, meaning certain industries fuelled by international workers are struggling to fill roles.

Those from disadvantaged and minority groups are also finding it harder to get back into work. Employment support for people with disabilities is particularly lacking, said Wilson – in 2020, the government allegedly spent less on specialist employment support for disabled people than they did on the furlough scheme in one week. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that around half of disabled people in the UK aged 16-64 were unemployed in 2020, compared with only two in ten non-disabled people.

“We just don’t spend enough money on it,” said Wilson. “I don’t think it’s acceptable given that disabled people are [far] more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people.” Devolving employment support to local authorities and better alignment between these and health services could help to improve job access for disabled people, he added.

Hannah Slaughter, an economist at the Resolution Foundation think tank, was also present at the Plan for Jobs session. She told the committee that unemployment is still high for younger people, especially those from minority ethnic groups, in particular the Black community. This is partly down to sectors such as hospitality, leisure and those requiring zero-hours contracts being hardest hit by job losses during the pandemic. “We’re seeing the return of young people into the labour force but employment levels are not back to where they were,” she said. “Schemes like Kickstart and Restart need to step up to help these groups of people.” She also suggested that a scheme like Kickstart particularly tailored to the 50-64 age group could help to encourage older people back into work.

Sam Avanzo Windett, deputy director at the Learning and Work Institute, added that the government should tailor more employment schemes and policies to “overlooked groups” rather than the general population. “Some of the bigger national programmes have not fared so well for people with disabilities,” she said.

Businesses also have a corporate responsibility to hire more inclusively and engage with disadvantaged groups, said Wilson, particularly those that hire shift workers. “They have a responsibility to do better,” he said. “[This means] more inclusive recruitment, engaging with disadvantaged groups, and better notice around shifts.”

Watch the full committee session here.

[See also: What we’re getting wrong about the Great Resignation]

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