Making Employability Work

With unemployment high on the political agenda, it's time to scrutinise the effectiveness of employability schemes.

The effectiveness of employability schemes, which attempt to equip the unemployed with skills, experience and qualities valued by employers, has been brought into question. A pilot of the coalition government’s new employability initiative[1] found that over a 91 week period, participants worked an average of just 10 days more than those who received support under the previous system introduced by New Labour. This follows a House of Commons Committee report which recorded that after the Work Programme was in operation for fourteen months, only 3.6% of participants had moved into sustained employment.[2]

Interestingly, the Committee’s report also noted that the government attributes the performance of such schemes solely to the technicalities of how they are managed. In other words, schemes that are designed and run well will be successful, and those that are not will fail. On the contrary, the broader influences on, and implications of, employability schemes deserve serious scrutiny.

It is only over the last 30 years or so that there has been such a strong emphasis on employability. This is generally regarded as the result of the revolution in Information Technology which, it is argued, has led to a greater onus on workers’ skills and knowledge. But at least as important is the revolution in economic thought brought about by the Thatcher administration. Her government decisively shifted the emphasis away from the government’s duty to create job opportunities and on to the responsibility of individuals to make themselves employable.

Consequently, the question of whether there are sufficient jobs for people who want to work has fallen down the political agenda. But it is a critical question. Answering it would require detailed modelling but as a very rough indication it is not encouraging that the most recent data records 59,000 job vacancies in Northern Ireland,[3] compared to the 122,000 people who want work.[4]

Job availability is also important because, without enough vacancies, employability schemes risk generating a significant side-effect. That is, by heightening competition for a limited number of jobs, they help keep wages down. Indeed this may be one of many reasons why wages have stagnated at the lower end of the labour market over the last thirty or so years.

At the same time, wages have soared at the top of the labour market, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. This is also significant because economic inequality in one generation tends to be reflected in various inequalities in the next generation – including in educational attainment and in employment status.

Despite this, widening inequality has been generally welcomed as encouraging and rewarding success, and as discouraging and punishing failure. And this is another issue. With the onus increasingly on the individual to equip him or herself to compete for jobs, unemployment has become increasingly attributed to personal failure - a source of blame, shame, and censure. And the belief that unemployed people need to be punished for their deficiencies helps explain why the carrot of employability schemes has gone hand in hand with the stick of social security cuts and sanctions.

This mentality also feeds a vindictive and puerile discourse - promoted by many in government and in the media - of ‘the feckless unemployed’. Though sometimes described as ‘tough love’, it is neither compassionate nor helpful. Encouraging unemployed people to view themselves as failures is unlikely to help them maintain their self-belief and motivation. The message that unemployed people are lazy will only reinforce the reluctance of employers to recruit people who have been out of work for a long time. And downplaying the wider influences on a person’s employment status means that those issues go unaddressed.

Employability schemes can make a difference, and their design does matter. But employment levels are shaped by a whole range of factors, including job availability and inequality. The reluctance to even acknowledge this wider context means that uncomfortable ideological and political questions can be avoided, but it will not help to get employability schemes working.


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The opinions, views or comments in this blog do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.


[2] . ‘Sustained’ means employment for 3 or 6 months, depending on the benefit claimed.

[3] This figure is for June 2013. It understates the real level of vacancies but it is difficult to estimate the real level with confidence.

[4] 68,000 people are officially unemployed and a further 54,000 people want to work but are not actively looking for a job. Interestingly, people who are on employability schemes are categorised as employed and so are not included in this figure.

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