Can the Work Programme do the whole job?

Allegations of major fraud and exploitation in welfare to work schemes have hit the headlines in recent months with businesses such as A4E and Working Links being investigated. Now there has been adverse publicity about stewards’ work placements at the Jubilee river pageant. Various media reports claim that some unpaid security staff had to work in appalling conditions. 

These apparent problems are set against even bigger issues about the overarching Work Programme and welfare to work schemes.

The Work Programme’s model is one of payment by results. Organisations working with unemployed people are only paid after their clients have completed a specified period in a job.  Many experienced charities and community organisations with proven track records of moving people into work are squeezed out of the process as they can’t deal with the cash-flow problems and risk. Ironically the charity Groundwork South West took the gamble of taking on a Work Programme contract but ended up making 130 of its own staff redundant (according to the Guardian, Saturday 9 June).

Worsening economic conditions in some parts of the country since the Work Programme was established mean that there aren’t enough vacancies to fill. Those with the fewest skills are competing with people who have been made redundant in ever more unstable economic circumstances.  With fewer secure jobs, the organisations contracted to support people in their progress from welfare to work have dwindling chances of being paid for their own work. Unemployed people, in turn, are more likely to be exploited and disillusioned by any work placements that don’t lead to real jobs. 

Where does this leave people who can’t find work? We have to count the human cost of poverty, depression and hopelessness and recognise the inter-generational impact as more parents are jobless. The social and economic effects will ripple further into the future if we don’t have adaptable people ready to work when the economy recovers and there are jobs to be created and filled. Meanwhile, the state will have to bear the cost of benefits and the associated strains on public spending arising from worklessness.

Decent employment is the best anti-poverty strategy and it’s time to be more imaginative about progressive education and training for unemployed people so that we can get through the recession and prepare for better economic conditions. Community learning has a role to play where people are likely to remain jobless for sustained periods. Investing in learning communities who can generate ideas and enthusiasm will improve our capacity for recovery and help us to avoid the tragic and dangerous legacy of inactivity and lost potential.

We need to focus on developing people’s motivation, resilience, adaptability, general competence and attitudes and to recognise that a narrow range of task-related skills can become obsolete as a result of rapidly changing technology. Education in functional skills, where needed, and in creative, research and analytical skills encourage people to think for themselves and to respond constructively to change. People with these attributes and an ability to work effectively with others are more likely to be flexible and able to cope with new workplace demands.

Wherever possible, we should be supporting unemployed people into current job vacancies and creating more opportunities but we could be storing up major problems unless we use complementary approaches to work ethically with people who remain jobless. Individual stories from the recent Adult Learners’ Week showed how some people who were far from employability bridged the gap through education.

Formerly unemployed Sarah Cornwall who started her own business after learning with the WEA

A recent positive Ofsted survey of the WEA’s contribution to employability confirmed that our distinctive and complementary approaches and partnerships offer different ways of working decently with unemployed people. We showed that students gain employment – or even create their own – following short, part-time courses ranging from Helping in Schools, Community Interpreting, Health and Wellbeing, Confidence and Assertiveness and even Family History – although these courses were not promoted as being work-related.  

The survey gave us food for thought as we refine our strategy as part of our wider educational programme and in line with our charitable aims. Working with people who might be left behind in the competition for jobs is a moral responsibility and an economic and social imperative.