What Building Better Opportunities teaches us about stimulating labour market participation

Locally led, well-resourced and longer-term programmes could see us out of the current crisis in labour market participation, writes Graham Duxbury

Locally led, well-resourced and longer-term programmes could see us out of the current crisis in labour market participation, writes Graham Duxbury

13 May 2023, 8:00

Plugging the participation gap in the labour market is one of the highest priorities for government and the number one issue on the list for many employers struggling to fill vacancies. Whether it’s ‘the great resignation’, the effects of a post-pandemic health backlog, the impact of Brexit restrictions or a combination of all three, it’s in all of our interests to ensure those who want to work are able to and that the work on offer is fulfilling and financially viable.

Most commentary on the issue, as reflected in the major announcements in the Chancellor’s spring budget, has focused on how people who have left the labour market can be supported or enticed to return, for example by better integrating work and health support in Workwell Partnerships or through ‘returnerships’ for the over 50s.

What this overlooks is that, for years before the current crisis, we were failing adequately to support tens of thousands of people who were already struggling to find work, and that those people are now likely to be further back in the queue for support. This will have a particular impact on young people who have the added disadvantage of a lack of work experience on their CV.

The fact that 1.7 million people who are currently not working say they would like to while government programmes designed to address that gap (including traineeships, apprenticeships and the Restart scheme) are underspending suggests that we may be looking in the wrong place for the answer.

Unpalatable though it may be for some policymakers and politicians, one place we could look is Europe – or at least to the programmes that until recently were supported by the European Social Fund.  One of these is Building Better Opportunities (BBO), a national programme of LEP-level interventions co-financed by the National Lottery Community Fund. 

There are important lessons for commissioning employability programmes

The programme was specifically designed to target those with most barriers to employment and placed as much emphasis on building resilience as it did on acquiring qualifications and finding work.  The programme began in 2016 and will wind up this year having engaged more than 150,000 people of all ages and abilities, often through partnerships led by voluntary-sector organisations.

Groundwork has been involved in BBO as a programme lead and a delivery organisation. We have with more than 12,000 people across in 11 areas of England – from young people leaving care to refugees and those with long-term health conditions.  A recent analysis drawing the lessons from these programmes points to a number of common ingredients that have contributed to successful outcomes.

What connects them all is the centrality of coaching to the delivery model – a trusted keyworker able to provide support and to listen when that’s what’s needed, but also prepared to push and challenge when the time is right. This is nothing unusual, but what made BBO so effective was the ability to deploy this resource in the context of a (relatively) long-term, (relatively) well-resourced programme, meaning coaches could afford to be patient and properly tailor their approach.  

Moreover, in each area coaches were connected into a partnership of locally-based organisations. This means they were able to draw on a wider infrastructure to help with barriers such as homelessness but also identify opportunities. For example, one programme helped young people find their voice by securing time in a local music studio.

Few will lament the bureaucracy and stifling audit regimes that accompanied this and other ESF-funded programmes. However, there are important lessons to be learned about what works that should be applied to the way our sector prepares young people for adult life and the way in which skills and employability programmes are designed and commissioned.

The government recently announced a relaxation of the rules around the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in an attempt to bring forward more proposals to support skills and employability. This was too late in the day to make an appreciable difference to plans in development, but it does mean that these bids should be prioritised next time around.

Local authorities should engage meaningfully with colleges and training providers in preparing their proposals, which can only be strengthened by the lessons learned from programmes such as BBO.

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