Employment & Skills Convention 2018: a front-line look at the current issues of work

Employment & Skills Convention

Employment is at record levels, yet too many groups in society still face entrenched disadvantages in accessing jobs and questions remain around the ‘quality of work’ and importantly, in-work progression. Amongst the many themes explored at this year’s Employment & Skills Convention, these were the stand-out issues the attending speakers looked to address.  

Whether it’s transitioning from university or moving from training to a full-time role, the pace of progression from education to employment is slowing down. Younger people are moving jobs less and those that are, are moving into lower skilled and lower paid roles than the generations before them. It’s a bleak point to make about the current jobs market but with the share of 26-30 year olds in professional jobs growing at a slower rate, it shines a light on the struggles millennial workers are facing. 

Concentrating on the 50% of young people not in higher education is a priority for helping those most in need to succeed in work, the Rt. Hon Lord David Willetts, Executive Chair of The Resolution Foundation, told the convention.

Putting forward policy recommendations, his suggestions included offering support and funding for younger workers to help with the cost of relocating for better jobs and training for those who lack the skills to progress. To boost opportunities of in-work progression, Willets also suggested that the government publicise cross-sector progression paths, so that workers would have a clearer view of the route their careers could take.

Sound recommendations that would help the 1.5 million people failing to escape low pay, it was also a mantra taken up by the CEO of Gingerbread, Rosie Ferguson. “The future for employment, skills and services needs to be about being more family friendly, so that parents, and particularly women, are able to participate in the workforce” she told the convention.

It’s an important issue and one that is often lost in positive messages around rising employment figures. The reality is however, that 68% of the 1.7million single parents in the UK are in low-paid, insecure work. If things are to change, Ferguson rightly pointed out that employers will need to promote better opportunities for work-life balance and childcare will need to be more financially accessible. Another approach, put forward by Katie Schmuecker the Head of Policy at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, aims to bring impact at a policy level. She suggested that working parents should be able to keep more of what they earn by increasing the work allowance in Universal Credit – a move that would result in 340,000 fewer people in poverty by 2021.  

Of equal concern for speakers at the convention was the disability employment gap, which continues to be a huge issue and a key agenda for the sector. Despite an increase in the number of disabled people finding jobs, only around half of disabled people are actually in work. It was an issue raised in a joint seminar from speakers at Policy in Practice, Pluss and Ingeus UK who pointed out that identifying suitable employment opportunities and overcoming an individual’s specific disabilities were the biggest barriers for disabled people trying to secure jobs. 

The onus then is on employers to drive step-changes in traditional attitudes to how they offer and manage employment so that they are more inclusive of a wider proportion of the workforce. It was a point made by the Secretary of State, Ester McVey in her discussion about social mobility: “Imagine what it would be like if all employers behaved like the best employers: offering flexible working, implementing reasonable adjustments, proactively managing sickness absence, putting in place inclusive recruitment and HR policies” she said.

Whilst Ester spoke about the government’s Disability Confident scheme that is helping employers challenge attitudes and increase their understanding of disability, certain industries are already realising the benefits of being more inclusive. Cyber security in particular is arguably leading the charge in this area – specifically when it comes to neurodiversity. Last year, industry leaders met with the National Autistic Society to discuss the benefits that hiring individuals on the spectrum can bring to businesses and how they can modify their recruitment practices and working environments to attract more neurodiverse candidates.

According to Barry Fletcher, Managing Director at Ingeus, this is where the gap lies. When it comes to helping companies employ individuals with disabilities, he argued that “we need professionally trained advisors to help people understand what their options are.” Given the benefits the cyber security industry is seeing in hiring those on the neurodiversity spectrum, there is a strong economic case to be made for this.

The problem can be approached at a regional level, and an issue front-of-mind for those at the convention was the move towards further devolution of the employment and skills sector. According to Ayden Sims, employment policy needs to focus on what’s happening locally and the evidence will come from the devolved delivery of employment services. The sentiment was echoed by Richard Clifton, Chief Commercial Officer and Jon Smith, Head of the Work and Health Programme at the Shaw Trust. By working with local organisations, The Shaw Trust has proven to be able to support the most in-need communities in areas such as housing, managing finances and providing life skills and experience. The challenge going forward, according to Jon Smith, will be the true integration with local services to share resources and pool funding, and to expand case working with local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups.

The perspective from the front-line then is no longer about just getting people into work. It’s about realigning the focus on the quality of work and helping those who would have historically been shut out of employment find jobs. Luckily, and if the recent Employment and Skills Convention is anything to go by, there are a large number of industry players ready to make this happen. 


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