‘Better Jobs, Better Futures’ for Employability and Skills in Swansea

Learning and Work Institute will deliver The Employability and Skills Wales Convention on 6th December 2017. This is a flagship event for the sector that will once again address the challenges and opportunities faced by policy makers and providers, but it will also shine a light on innovation and best practice. The convention comes at a critical time. With the all age employability delivery plan announcement imminent, the Work and Health Programme moving closer to implementation, and the new apprenticeship policy being delivered, the landscape for employability and skills continues to change.

Over the coming weeks leading up to the convention we will be publishing a series of blogs which will address and discuss the key issues around the employability and skills landscape in Wales. To mark the first one in the series, we start off with a written blog piece by Catherine Jenkins – Employability Partnerships and Programmes Manager from Gower College Swansea. This blog focuses on the ‘Better Jobs, Better Futures’ programme, outlining evidence based analysis of the labour market and the need for individually tailored support models and intervention to develop the workforce in Swansea, particularly around in-work progression. 

When we launched the ‘Better Jobs, Better Futures’ programme there were two questions we were asked more than any other; “Why do we need another employability programme in Swansea and what makes it different to all of the others?”

Of all the questions I’ve been asked about the programme, these were probably the easiest to answer. With the constituency of Swansea East having one of the highest rates of unemployment in Wales at 8%, and Swansea as a whole experiencing high levels of part-time and low-level employment, it was clear that a more radical approach was needed, and one that embraced the wider challenges faced not only by those furthest from the labour market but also those nearer to, and already within, employment.

Whilst the prospect of significant investments like the Swansea Bay City Deal promise more high-skilled, high-paid opportunities for future generations of workers, for too many of the current workforce in Swansea the reality of low-skilled, low-paid and often insecure employment presents limited options to escape the low-pay / no-pay trap. So perhaps no surprise then that Swansea suffers from persistently high levels of short-term unemployment as people struggle to gain and sustain rewarding employment, with just under 75% of those unemployed having been so for less than 12 months.

However, much of the existing employability support in Swansea, as indeed across Wales, has tended to focus on the long-term unemployed and economically inactive, whereas support for those nearer and within the labour market has been much more limited and often focused on very specific cohorts, no doubt influenced by concerns around levels of so-called ‘deadweight’. Whilst these concerns are understandable, and the welcome continued decline in Wales-wide unemployment rates would appear to support a greater focus on addressing inactivity, the labour market situation in Swansea – and our experience on the ground – suggest that there is a very real need to direct support to these groups. Indeed, one could argue that our success in progressing more of the long-term unemployed and economically inactive into work is heavily, some might say entirely, dependent on our ability to create entry-level opportunities by supporting those nearest or within the labour market to progress.

Perhaps then the question should be less about who we support, and more about what that support looks like and how effective it is at meeting the needs of a wider range of individuals.

Of course, this isn’t always an easy or comfortable question to answer, but thankfully there is an increasing body of evidence which presents a strong case for change in certain areas and on which we drew heavily when developing our ‘Better Jobs, Better Futures’ programme.

This evidence told us that there is a need for more flexible and individually-tailored support, as opposed to generic, cohort-based interventions, which are no doubt easier to plan, fund and deliver, but often fail to secure sustained employment outcomes.

It also told us that support needs to be geared not only towards supporting individuals into work, but also to enabling them to remain and progress within employment. Too often, support ends at the moment an individual enters employment, or very shortly after, but many people require much more intensive and prolonged support to successfully make the transition into work and, crucially, to move quickly into better work. Such a shift will require the removal of long-established lines of demarcation between in and out-of-work employment support.

The evidence also strongly emphasised the need for combined supply and demand side intervention to stimulate and support greater in-work progression as a means not only of addressing increasing levels of in-work poverty, but also of creating more backfill entry-level opportunities.

So we were clear from the evidence base, and from our analysis of the labour market in Swansea, that our approach needed to do three things:

  • firstly, it needed to operate a cycle, or pipeline, of support which recognises the interdependencies between in and out-of-work employability provision, which seeks to support individuals from initial engagement through to in-work progression, and which supports more underemployed people to move up in order to create more good quality entry-level jobs for others to move into;
  • secondly, it needed to provide more flexible, individualised and sustained support to those moving into entry-level work to help them to remain and progress in employment, particularly where these jobs are fragile or insecure; and
  • thirdly, it needed to adopt a dual customer approach, working with both employers and employees to maximise the chances for in-work progression through more intensive workforce development support and provision of in-work career advice and guidance.

The result is our new ‘Better Jobs, Better Futures’ programme, which will provide an innovative suite of support to those in and out of work in Swansea, in parallel with targeted workforce development support for businesses, and in doing so will provide a very different model of employability support to meet Swansea’s labour market challenges. We hope that the early lessons learned from this programme prove useful to partners, stakeholders and, of course, to government as it implements the Employability Delivery Plan and the new ‘Working Wales’ offer in the months and years ahead.

More information on the programme can be found at www.betterjobsbetterfutures.wales