Is it time to rethink employment services for the long-term unemployed?
Opinion: the experience of those using public employment services such as JobPath shows they’re not fit for purpose
At the last count, just over 225,000 people were on the Live Register or receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. This figure will no doubt increase in the coming weeks, as the latest wave of restrictions take hold. While most of these people will quickly return to employment once the economy recovers, a significant proportion (45%) of those on the Live Register are long-term jobseekers, who have been on social welfare for a year or more.
These long-term jobseekers have increasingly become the targets of ‘activation’ in that they are obliged to attend public employment services or face cuts to their payments. Despite the label ‘public’, the services that they are referred to are predominantly delivered by non-government organisations under contract to the Department of Social Protection.
These include the Job Clubs and Local Employment Services delivered by not-for-profit organisations in many areas, and JobPath, the main employment service for the long-term unemployed, which is delivered by private companies on a payment-by-results basis. The payments providers receive depend on how many clients they place into employment, and for how long. For instance, if a client reaches 13 weeks of full-time employment, providers earn €613, on average, rising to an additional payment of €1,165 when clients reach 52 weeks of employment. Since its inception, over €250 million has been spent on JobPath.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline in 2017, listeners talk about their experiences with the JobPath work activation scheme
The current contracts for all three of these initiatives are now expiring and the Government is in the process of commissioning new services in their place. It is doing this through a competitive procurement process, inviting prospective providers to bid against each other on the value of the payments they will deliver contracts for. This has opened employment services provision to the logic of market competition by, in effect, turning unemployed people into commodities to be acquired by providers and sold on for profit.
The rationale is that marketisation will motivate providers to find ways of delivering more effective services at lower cost. Because each jobseeker is a potential source of revenue, there is a financial incentive for agencies to deliver their services to place a wider range of clients. But does it work in practice?
The official evaluation of JobPath suggests that the programme is achieving some success in placing people into jobs. In 2018, the likelihood of finding a job was 26% higher among JobPath participants compared with similarly matched unemployed people who did not participate receive employment support. But whether those placements are translating into sustained jobs is a different question.
From RTÉ Radio 1 This Week in 2015, John Burke reports on an internal audit which gives details on interns delivering unsupervised Job Clubs training to the unemployed
Only 6% of the 376,964 people referred to JobPath between July 2015 and July 2021 found jobs lasting 12 months or more. This low rate partly reflects the significant barriers such as lack of experience, qualifications, mental health, and other issues experienced by many long-term jobseekers. But it also reflects the limited support for addressing those barriers provided by employment services.
One of the concerns about marketisation is that it pressures agencies to keep costs low, which can undermine investments in addressing more entrenched employment barriers. The financial pressure to achieve results naturally inclines providers to try to move people into jobs at speed – focusing on low-paid work requiring little or no training – rather than spending time on upskilling jobseekers to enhance their employability for better opportunities.
Moreover, to keep costs low to win contracts, providers recruit low-skilled staff rather than experienced professionals qualified in career guidance or related fields. This is made possible, in turn, using computerised case management systems so that decisions are made based on standardised protocols rather than the professional expertise of the advisor. For instance, in a survey of JobPath staff conducted last year, 62% reported that they did not have a university degree, while 31% reported that their computer system told them what steps to take with clients.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s The Business in 2019, how can long-term unemployment be tackled?
This points towards a routinised system of support, which is further reflected in the findings of a new report by the author examining long-term unemployed people’s experiences of employment services. Those interviewed for that report describe a generic service that is staffed by advisors with limited experience in working with unemployed people.
Support mainly comprises policing job searching (how many, and what jobs did people apply for) and group sessions on CV and cover letter writing. Guidance is about how to job search rather than matching people to opportunities based on their interests, or upskilling jobseekers through vocational training. It is a ‘one size fits all’ approach, say jobseekers, geared towards minimum wage jobs at ‘the very bottom rung of the ladder’.
This reduction of employment support to job search assistance is emblematic of the ‘work first’ activation model that Ireland has embraced since the financial crisis. Driven by the belief that any job is better than no job, and that the best way to succeed in the job market is to dive straight in, the focus has shifted away from education and training towards enforcing behavioural obligations to look for work.
Guidance is about how to job search rather than matching people to opportunities based on interests, or upskilling jobseekers through training
It is a model that can have some success during times of economic recovery and with people who face relatively few employment challenges. However, it has time and again failed to deliver for people who are long-term unemployed, and who experience employment challenges beyond just a lack of work.
International evidence suggests that alternative approaches based on building employability through training, upskilling and work experience may deliver more sustainable transitions for these cohorts in the long run. However, the approach of procuring services from the market on a payment-by-results basis risks undermining the investments in upskilling that are needed. When agencies have just 12 months to work with clients, and their viability depends on the volume of placements they can turn over within a short period, a longer-term orientation towards building employability and skills rather than job search competency becomes simply too costly.
The Lived experiences of employment services for people who are long-term unemployed study is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 841477.