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16 July 2013

16 July 2013

Payment by results on youth employment programmes must incentivise progress into careers, not just jobs

Last week on the escalator down to the Victoria Line at Euston I bumped into Dami, a young man who used to be part of London Youth’s Youth Advisory Board, Dare London. He was in good form, and was talking about setting up a networking business to help support young people finding work to broaden their networks and make contact with employers.

I loved his enthusiasm and flair, and of course said yes when he asked if he could come and meet me to tell me more about his plans. But I did ask myself whether it is in fact young people who have the solutions to the kind of youth employment services we need – and whether something quite fundamental is wrong with the current way we help young people find work and build skills.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank said as much last week in their report Up to the Job?, arguing that Britain’s Jobcentres are failing young people. The report said that employer engagement and understanding was poor; that Jobcentres were designed to get people ‘off benefits’ rather than into sustainable employment; and that young people aren’t properly supported to get basic skills for job readiness.

As someone who has led a number of employability programmes, including a successful Future Jobs Fund franchise, I found it hard to disagree with much of this analysis in the main (albeit there are increasing pockets of real creativity in how Jobcentre Plus is working). Young people we work with through our programmes and in youth clubs across the capital tell stories of broken appointments, inappropriate work placements and de-motivated advisers, all of which add to the already challenging task of finding a job in many disadvantaged parts of London.

And in fairness to Jobcentre Plus staff –  and indeed, providers of the much criticised Work Programme – most people I have met who work within the employability system will admit that things don’t work as well as they should and are in fact themselves frustrated. But where they and I would disagree with the CSJ is when it comes to solutions.

For all its claims to be radical thinking, Up to the Job? disappoints in the key response it offers, which is essentially a ‘payment by results’ incentive programme for Jobcentre Plus offices and staff. This might have the chance of working in a growing economy and for some kinds of worker but the experience of the Work Programme has shown that for the apparently ‘hardest to reach’, there is neither enough money nor enough focus for payment by results to be effective. The BBC report today that a third of young unemployed people have suffered with depression at some point and that over a third rarely leave the house – this requires a radical, holistic, outreach-based approach if we are going to support those young people to build a satisfying future.

Along with the best organisations working with young people, like London Youth member WAC Arts in Camden, who run intensive, successful creative programmes for children and young adults whose disabilities and backgrounds might otherwise keep them out of the work force, I believe we need not only to change the system around employability, but also the narrative.

We shouldn’t be planning for more ‘payment by (short-term) results’. Instead we should be turning this round, and arguing for investment up front in models we know that will actually deliver sustainable results, by providing the things that are missing currently: outreach to those that need it most; more and better one-to-one support; basic skills training; real employer engagement; and better joining up between the myriad programmes and partnerships seeking to provide opportunity. In this way we can create something that prepares people for careers not jobs, helping them develop confidence, resilience and relationship skills to navigate a fulfilling career, and giving the economy the skilled and flexible workforce that we will need in the future.

My friend Dami has managed this – his skills, confidence and the relationships he has developed will give his new business a chance of success. For others it is harder, and we all have to work harder and smarter to create opportunities for them.

London Youth and a number of partners recently launched Build-it, a programme for young people in Lambeth giving them opportunities to learn skills while renovating community buildings. The builders, contractors and housing providers who are leading the regeneration have been incredibly keen to support the scheme. They’ve always wanted to employ local young people but have too often found that those they have been offered through job programmes are not suitably skilled, have high support needs, or just lack the basic understanding of what is involved in a working environment. Build-it gives the young people those things, working closely with them and supporting them so that the ‘employers’ – the contractors and builders – can focus on adding the real value in skills training, mentoring and coaching. So far it is a great partnership, and delivering strong outcomes for everyone – and Jobcentre Plus in Lambeth have been incredibly supportive of the programme.

Perhaps this model – which invests in young people, in employer relationships, in skills, support and partnerships – is a more radical and more sustainable solution. As the parties begin to formulate their policies for the next set of manifestos, it is even more important for those of us who work with young people to show what works, and what the future could look like. Think tanks do a great job in unpicking policy problems – but sometimes it is the real experience, of young people, youth workers, employers, and indeed, frontline Jobcentre staff, who might come up with the better answers.

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