We need to address wholesale systemic failure in employment and skills

The unemployment system needs levelling up in order to best serve those who need it most, argues John McDonough

At the CIPD conference in Manchester last November, David Lammy MP made the point that 50 per cent of Black boys were being raised above the fourth floor. At the same conference, many speakers highlighted the need for inclusion, being able to attract more diverse talent and how enabling social mobility was a key priority for them and their organisation. 

What Lammy didn’t get into was the systemic failure of organisations including local authorities, Greater London Authority, DWP and others. Over the course of the last 13 years of my dealing with them, I have come to realise that many are not seeking solutions but actively resisting them. 

Latest research, for example, shows London now has the highest unemployment in the country. So, we now have a public sector supply chain in employability and skills which struggles to function and a government whose levelling up agenda makes London fearful. 

Whether businesses are well intentioned or are being forced to look for solutions they wouldn’t ordinarily, they are in for a very rude surprise when they see how difficult it is to get anything out of the system. So where do we start?

Firstly, let’s start with belief. How many people working in employability and skills have ever seen anything that works, that they can access repeatedly and refer people to with confidence? 

This is a question I always ask in jobcentres. Less than 2 per cent of work coaches (of more than 2,000 I have dealt with) can point to a programme that works consistently at getting the long-term unemployed into work, which begs the question “what have they been doing?”

But, like Pavlov’s dogs, they’ve been conditioned to expect failure, as many have never seen anything that works. This scenario could be repeated across the country in many training providers, colleges, job brokerages and charities. 

But who owns this and whose job is it to fix it? If you haven’t seen it before, it’s like the story of everybody, somebody, anybody and nobody (Google it). Nobody has got this, it’s in the ‘too difficult’ box with too many stakeholders, too many interdependencies, too little understanding, too much “it’s above my pay grade” and not enough of the desire and capability to change. The system is not set up to achieve or enable most people to succeed. And this has a direct impact on businesses. 

Recent research by the London Chambers of Commerce found 63 per cent of businesses have no intention of engaging with government employment schemes. We have to ask why that is. We also have to ask what impact that has on people who are relying on such schemes, ie. jobseekers, and what are some obvious areas for improvement.

Last year (after years of trying) we had it confirmed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not measure the performance of employment support programmes bought through the dynamic purchasing system (DPS). This is often their quickest route to market and should be a tool that enables innovation, measures success, replicates and scales. It should also be responsive to employer needs. 

We started a campaign asking for all work coaches and jobseekers to have access to transparent performance data of all employment support programmes. While we have had a lot of interest and support, there are a number of high-profile public sector organisations – including devolved authorities, councils and LEPs – who do not feel the need to hold the DWP to account for the performance of programmes they buy. 

Let that sink in. If they can’t or won’t do that, what exactly can they do beyond offering warm words and promises they know they can’t keep to both employers and jobseekers? Too often, this becomes Einstein’s definition of insanity. So how do you solve a problem like Lammy highlighted and get the system working better?

The need to level up suggests that something has not been working as well as it could or should. But that also means recognition of that by those involved. Matthew Syed writes well about cognitive dissonance and sunk costs. An MD of a prime provider whom I met with a number of years ago said to me “there’s a lot of hubris in this sector”. Success leaves clues and the opposite is true as well. 

Independent evaluation by Ecorys of the Families into Work programmes found that The Life You Want, which we ran in Haringey in 2010, was by far the most effective thing they did in the two years. So why haven’t we been back? Why are we not in Haringey at scale, transforming the lives of all residents, not just those in tower blocks?  

As Tony Robbins says, “you have to participate in your own rescue.” We use this message on our programmes but it needs to get across the public sector supply chain quickly. And employers need to heed it too. 

John McDonough is managing director at Recro Consulting