Employability reality check
CEO John Hitchin writes that if the UK is going to recover and nobody is left behind, we need to think differently about how we support people into fulfilling, sustainable work.
I remember, very clearly, a board meeting in early 2021 where we talked in detail about the modelling we’d done for our bid to be part of the Restart programme supply chains. The conversation was about the staggering numbers of unemployed people expected to need the relatively light touch support of Restart in the boroughs we work.
We know those boroughs well, so I could imagine all those people. Whole communities.
Not all my colleagues believed those numbers. We did lots of sensitivity analysis on the figures (checking what would happen if the assumptions around unemployment levels were wrong by 5,10, even 25%), and the finances made us nervous. But it was clear the government was expecting a huge number of unemployed people in 2022.
That’s not the labour market we’re in though, is it?
The current labour market
The labour market is not what we expected it to be post-pandemic. There are record numbers of vacancies and people opting out of the labour market entirely, especially older people.
This is not because Britain has lots of comfortable people retiring early, but instead because of high long-term sickness (10% higher than pre-pandemic) and a mismatch between available roles and ‘fit’.
I’m not going to go into the data here, as lots of organisations have already done that well, particularly The Learning & Work Institute participation gap report.
Why does it matter?
If this trend continues, we’re going to see long-term issues of older-age poverty, businesses losing experience and skills, a slower economic recovery, and specific groups of people being left behind.
The provision that exists – such as our programmes Inspiring Families and Journey2Work – has been reliant on European Social Fund (ESF) money and the loss of that provision will exacerbate the issues we’re seeing now.
It will have significant implications for people who are already furthest from the jobs market, and the benefits of being economically active.
The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is not going to kick in quickly enough for the groups that ESF supported. That more intensive work with people who are marginalised is not going to happen.
Renaisi is a national organisation, but we focus our support for people who are excluded from the labour market in London.
While this is a UK-wide problem (see that same L&W Institute participation gap report for comparison with other countries), it is a particular problem in London.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a bigger negative impact on the unemployment rate in London than across England as a whole, with unemployment in London peaking at 7.7 per cent in late 2020 while the peak in England was 5.5 per cent.
More recently, the Office for National Statistics reported that the unemployment rate was higher in London (4.7 per cent) than across England (3.9 per cent) in March 2022.
There’s an undeniable economic cost to both the economy and the state as cited in research from many others, including the Centre for London report on London funding needs, the ERSA report on household budget squeeze, and the New Economics Foundation on inflation hitting the poorest hardest.
But we must not forget the personal and emotional impact on people like Alan who had been a baker, a builder, and a maintenance person for TfL before being made redundant in 2015. Alan struggled for a long time to get back to work. He was 53 years old when he joined our Inspiring Families programme and we supported him to rethink what he wanted from work.
Or Clinton, who was referred to Renaisi after eight years out of work due to an injury. Clinton had lost his confidence until he met with one of our advisors who supported him take on driving work that suited his lifestyle.
What can we do?
We need to think differently about how we support people into work.
It’s not just about ‘employability’ anymore. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure that word and idea of the sector is unhelpful for the challenges ahead.
We need imagination from funders, businesses, government and providers, like us, to meet the very different labour market and funding context we’re in thanks to Brexit, recession, post-covid and everything else.
Government and other funders must accept the people who need support aren’t going to the Job Centre or browsing LinkedIn for opportunities.
We need targeted outreach to meet people where they are and we need to offer something much more holistic that points towards employment, like Stepping Stones funded by Islamic Relief UK, which is for migrants with no English language skills or network.
We also need targeted approaches to address barriers – career gaps, lack of digital skills or UK experience, and long-term health issues – like our Wise Horizons (for older workers) and Parent’s In Work services.
Employers who are experiencing recruitment and retention issues must also play their part by advertising and recruiting differently, then supporting people to be a part of their workforce. Our Transitions model is all about inclusive recruitment and supports both employers and those with specific barriers to get the right job and sustain it.
As a sector, we need to work together to address the issues, inform funders and employers, and shape services that are fit for the future. We’re rethinking a lot about our service offer as we develop a new strategy, and I’m constantly asking myself – what would it look like to be more collaborative?
We’re up for it and would love to talk to those who are too.