Where next for employment policy?

The Work and Pensions Select Committee held an evidence session last week on the future of Jobcentre Plus. A seemingly innocuous session, the Committee took evidence from representatives of a range of organisations, including providers of skills or employment support. For the cautious observer, what really stood out from the session, and indeed, from previous evidence sessions on that topic, was the emerging consensus that JCP has to start moving towards more individualised support for jobseekers, as well as the need for better, more in-depth assessment of the needs of claimants.

UK unemployment policy is not the only one moving in that direction. Many public employment service providers across Europe are reaching the conclusion that the existing model of support for jobseekers is reaching its limits and new, alternative ways must be found. Current employment support proved very good at tackling what one could call “mainstream” jobseekers, but has generally failed to adequately assist the “hardest to help” (e.g. long-term unemployed, people with health problems, very low skills etc.). This is resulting in the creation of “pockets” of long-term unemployment, which have seen little to no improvement in their employability prospects.

The UK individually, and its soon-to-be former, EU partners collectively, have recognised this problem. Already in February a Council Recommendation on the integration of long-term unemployed into the labour market explicitly called for individual assessments of jobseekers to better determine the necessary steps in their journey to employment. This would be followed by a type of agreement between jobseeker and employment support provider, detailing the commitments on either side. The provider would deliver support, where needed, in an integrated fashion with other services, such as health, housing, social services, skills etc.

No more business as usual – but how?

Recommendations are fine and good, but this emerging new model raises a number of policy questions for those designing the employment services of the future:

  • Can this new type of employment support provision be delivered in-house, especially given the specialist knowledge necessary to properly assess a jobseeker in depth?
  • Which jobseekers and at what stage of their journey should be referred to a specialist, integrated service?
  • How can we effectively integrate skills provision and training with employment support for those with skills needs?
  • Will current employment services have the resources, expertise and overall capacity to handle the demands of this new reality?

These are all challenging issues that need careful consideration and will have to be addressed when deciding the form employment support provision will take. It is the only way for the EU to tackle the challenge of long-term unemployment, which has the potential to seriously disrupt social cohesion.