John McDonough, Managing Director of Recro Consulting writes for the Northern Agenda for Manchester Evening News, published on 16 March, the original post can be found here.

How can we get jobseekers off carousel of poor-quality training and into work?

There is a lot of talk about levelling up – and nowhere is it more talked about than in the North/South debate – but no one seems to know quite what it means in practice. Greater devolution is often mentioned, more decisions to be made locally, but what exactly does it involve and what is the capability of organisations tasked with doing so?

Giving more powers to local areas is absolutely welcome but how much difference will it actually make? The need to level up suggests that something is wrong or at least not working as well as it should be. So, what can change, how can it change and, crucially, when will it change?

The recent and much anticipated Levelling Up White Paper talks of a sense of pride in place, supporting high streets and increasing productivity amongst other things with 12 overall missions. For many areas, transport and connectivity are major issues but that sort of new infrastructure is years off and costs huge amounts of money. With so many challenges facing people and businesses, including Covid recovery, many areas need quick wins and solutions so where can they come from?

An obvious starting point and a key element of the White Paper – is in the area of employability and skills (a lot of which has already been transferred from the Secretary of State for Education to the devolved authorities) and measuring the performance of programmes that should be dedicated to their success.

Something like that is very much base camp and, whilst it might not sound particularly revolutionary, this is what it means to people.

You go to a job centre because you want help to find a job. They send you on a course or training programme. Now, does that get you into work or do you arrive back at the job centre when it’s finished and get sent on another course and so on?

That’s a simple and reasonable question, isn’t it? But most jobcentres can’t tell you the answer because they don’t know. The reason they don’t know is that they don’t measure it. Many people end up on a carousel of poor-quality training and employability programmes which don’t get them into work – to their and to desperate employers frustration and to everyones cost. And that impacts their life, their health and the local area and economy; much of which the White Paper is seeking to address.

Last year we launched a campaign for all jobseekers and work coaches to have access to transparent performance data from the employment support programmes DWP use. Most people would expect that as a matter of course but it isn’t the case.

We spoke to local authorities around the country and, whilst some were supportive, others were nervous and uncomfortable holding DWP to account. Now this is free, local authorities don’t need to wait for further powers to be devolved from Westminster, they don’t need to wait for the next government spending review, they just have to ask some basic questions of DWP.

But people have been conditioned and, if you’re involved in employability and skills, you have to be aware of how poorly managed this stuff often is. Furthermore, skills and employability funding are often like oil and water, the two don’t mix, which ultimately impedes everything commissioners are trying to achieve. How many have spent funding knowing it is unlikely to have much of an effect, let alone transform the career chances and choices for an entire region?

There are numerous famous psychology experiments around conditioning and what happens when people give up; but we shouldn’t forget what can be achieved when they do believe.

If you’re a local or combined authority in a devolved area such as Tees Valley or Greater Manchester you don’t need to wait for a government department to try and think of something that may or may not solve some of the local challenges jobseekers and businesses have.

Think about the difference that could be made to people and businesses in these areas. In the Tees Valley, for instance, with 20,400 people unemployed (Nomis for ONS) and over 8,000 vacancies (Indeed) and in Greater Manchester, with 77,900 unemployed (Nomis for ONS) and 54,229 vacancies (Adzuna), what’s going to change to get jobseekers access to the best possible programmes that get them into work or high quality advice that will direct them to the next stage of their career?

Tees Valley are trying to make 133,000 jobs available by 2024. Doesn’t that mean local people being able to get those jobs? Because if they don’t and are left behind again, that is not levelling up.

But how many people don’t want to go to a job centre – they’re too proud or don’t think they could help them? How many are currently living off savings, too young to retire but lacking the help which could really make a difference to them? Where can they get high quality expert advice and support?

Giving people access to the best possible support is the only way we’ll get them back into the labour market and the more areas that can understand and facilitate it the better. My personal passion is to help people get the life and career they want, offering programmes that often get at least 50% back into work at all levels. Surely everyone is entitled to the best possible support when they need it. After all, this is what local areas want and need.

The difficulties Whitehall departments have in working together is well known.

Greater devolution of powers and budgets, including skills, gives regions a fantastic opportunity to course correct and take some significant step changes quickly but are they really ready and do they know how to?

Devolution doesn’t have to mean revolution. But like anything else, it starts with doing the basics well.