In the 20 or so years I have been working to support unemployed people back into work, the political and economic landscape of the UK has changed considerably. After I graduated from university, I was unemployed for a while. Like every young person I had hopes and ambitions. It was 1991 and youth unemployment was rife.
Two decades on and youth unemployment is centre stage again in the UK's challenge to restore growth and create employment in many of the communities where the spectre of generational poverty and joblessness lurks.
In his blog about the Work Programme and high levels of youth unemployment, Patrick Butler of the Guardian raises a very valid debate. Why, when the current Government has launched a new Welfare to Work initiative (Work Programme) which promises a new way of responding to unemployment, are we faced with growing numbers of young people out of work? And why, when there are experienced national organisations and exceptional specialist charities who have worked well in supporting young people - and many other groups hit hard by recession - into employment, are some of these partners not receiving the referrals they might have expected from Work Programme? As a Prime contractor for the Work Programme with local delivery offices across the UK, this affects us at A4e as much as the partners we work with - so we understand and share their concerns.
I am interested in two things. What can be done on Work Programme to get it working really well as quickly as possible so we help those in need and deliver this service with our partners? And what more needs to be done with Work Programme to tackle youth unemployment?
The issues, in response to Patrick's blog, are complex but they are being addressed by organisations like A4e and our supply chain partners, DWP and Jobcentre Plus. Launching the largest, outcome funded, 'invest to save' active labour market reform in the world, at pace, is not an easy task. Four things are worth noting.
First, for a large, national programme - rapidly designed, commissioned and implemented - referrals are going better than I have seen in the past. Work Programme replaced all the other UK welfare programmes and that is a big change. This is no consolation for someone out of work and wanting to get support and who is not yet on a programme - so we all need to work smarter and better.
Predicting numbers of people going onto programmes is the 'Holy Grail' of all initiatives but in reality, the most important thing is how you manage fluctuations and variations. During set up, this is the hardest issue for us all to manage and I empathise with the experience of New Deal of the Mind. Having built up A4e from being a small supplier I understand how challenging this is. Numbers are still building and as more people requiring either sector specific support or specialist intervention support (like New Deal of the Mind) so referrals will increase to all parts of the supply chain.
Second, Work Programme is absolutely designed to bring specialist support to the fore. It allows organisations like A4e to work with all types of experienced organisations, many of them charities, to support people on the programme. No other government initiative has sought to work like this before with so many different organisations. A4e aimed to have just under 50% (49.5%) of our partner supply chain from the voluntary and charitable sector when we bid. We've reached that commitment, but we still have lots of partners we are working with to bring on board so that the total amount increases even more.
We have shared many challenges in getting the structures in place with suppliers to make this work - IT, workforce planning and training, security, financial capability, programme design and so on - but we have worked through this together, even when this has made our progress slower than we wanted. As people are referred to us, so the referrals will build to suppliers.
Third, listening to and responding to the challenges faced by partners and charities like New Deal of the Mind is hugely important for us. Our responsibility is to resolve many of the issues within our control and accountability to do so, so that we may support as many people as possible into work. We have regular contact with the Department of Work and Pensions on improving and shaping the programme and its operation. As Martin Bright is right to say, this is an issue we all need to address together.
We are ready, motivated and willing to support the hard to help with services and fund them. We take enormous financial risk into our organisation to fund working capital on Work Programme, but it's not about the money; we are incentivised because helping people change their lives for the better sits at the heart of everything we do. We don't walk away from intractable problems, and we develop solutions which really work.
So, what are we doing to address the valid issues raised in Patrick's blog? We are working hard to get referrals working across all customer groups with DWP. We are sorting the contracts and processes to get referrals to our supply chain - voluntary, charitable, public sector and private. We are making sure the finance is available to fund the services for harder to help. I will admit, we need to communicate better with our partners and move quicker. But we are listening to the ideas and suggestions from everyone we work with, and making sure this is taken into account when we discuss feedback with the DWP.
Onto that last, and crucial, point: what more do we need to do to tackle youth employment? This is a complex and demanding question which goes beyond the parameters of the Work Programme, but there is more we can do once the Work Programme is effective and productive. First, let's allow young people to access support earlier - at three or six months into unemployment before they accumulate more challenges and lose confidence and hope. If we do, more referrals can flow to organisations like Martin's. Second, let's join up our investment in skills with our welfare programmes, and let's explore elements like personal budgets.
We will get Work Programme working as intended - A4e will be as open as possible in sharing the good stuff and the stuff that needs to get better - we owe it to young people to get this right, and we owe it to them now.