Tackling unemployment: Q&A with David Kirkham

David Kirkham is strategic manager for Nottinghamshire: City and County Employment and Skills Board, a business-led social partnership formed to promote sustainable employment and economic inclusion. In 2009 he led the development of Nottinghamshire Fit for Work Service. He was previously a civil servant for 11 years with the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)


Q. Given the current economic situation and outlook in the UK and beyond, should we be reining in our expectations of the role local government can play in getting people back into employment? Is a reality check required?
A. I think we need to examine where we need to intervene. Over the last 15 years we’ve seen a gradual transition from mainly state delivered welfare to work programmes to a private sector-led system. The latest iteration of back to work support – the Work Programme is actively designed as a ‘black box’ approach. This means that government wants the service provider to shape the way services work, with payment made according to their results. Arguably this has considerably reduced the amount of direct influence local government has in getting people back to work; however, there are ways to innovate, which make the most of what local government can leverage in order for national work programmes to work. Fit for Work is a stand out example of this. It’s a preventative model and is locally designed and, given the early indication that the Work Programme has not engaged with health related work support as expected, there is a case to intervene.

Q. Creating employment is a key aim of D2N2 – the local enterprise partnership for Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derby and Derbyshire – how can the local authorities in those areas ensure that vulnerable groups are targeted in sub-regional strategy and that job creation isn’t just focused in ‘high end’ employment?
A. There needs to be a balance between social and economic inclusion alongside the higher end employment growth and economic development. Our LEP is prioritising a growth strategy that aims to create competitive advantage in our economy, its economic focus is on the more knowledge intensive and high end employment but we are working to establish priorities that also focus on entry level employment. We know from our own labour market intelligence that the service and social care sectors provide the greatest market share of employment in Nottingham and Notts and social care is the fastest growing. In terms of economic development we cannot afford to miss these factors out.

Q. Are you concerned that the Work Programme’s focus on payment by results will lead to ‘cherry-picking’ at the expense of those furthest from the labour market?
A. This is a risk that has been raised before and there is certainly an important role for DWP and other stakeholders to play in mitigating the chances of this happening. The Work Programme has been modelled to incentivise performance towards sustainable employment for those hardest to help, for example individuals who have come from previous incapacity benefit support onto JSA and into the Work Programme, via new health assessments. We are starting to see, via the quarterly information publicly made available by DWP, that the programme has significantly focused on the more ready to work, but the situation has improved since last autumn. In reality the Work Programme’s performance is greatly dependent on the performance of the economy overall. I believe the risk of ‘cherry picking’ increases the weaker the labour market is overall and the greater the propensity for it to offer short term and unsustainable work.

Q. What additional support/policy changes would you like to see from government to assist local authorities and their partners in the task of getting people back into employment and training?
A. This is a topical question – it will be interesting to see if the new focus on City Deals produces anything that can be used as a test-bed to assess where localities can intervene, with the right powers, to add value. The previous government ran the City Strategy programme which aimed to find the answer to this question; much of its evidence is current and very relevant to the City Deal policy. Several areas nationally, including ourselves here in Nottinghamshire, tested co-commissioning as an environment in which local areas can work directly alongside national stakeholders to invest and influence employment and training services. I think the emerging policy of social investment bonds, payment by results and early intervention practice like the Fit for Work pilots should be keenly looked at through local partnership engagement.

Q. What are the lessons learned to date at a local level from the Fit for Work pilot for both health and regeneration partners?
A. The design and development of the Fit for Work pilot in Nottinghamshire has provided a useful opportunity for regeneration partners, such as the local authorities and Jobcentre Plus, to work closely with health, both at a strategic and delivery level. This has happened in advance of the move of public health, and its budget, to local authorities. Working together on the pilot has provided all parties with a greater understanding of the issues, not only for those in work/at work who are struggling with health issues, but also for the significant numbers of people who remain not in work with health issues in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

Q. How can the experience gained from Fit for Work pilots be applied to support those struggling with health issues in work, i.e. so called ‘presentees’?
A. Although the Fit for Work pilots have been asked to focus on those who are in work and off sick, there is a strong case for supporting those that are struggling in the workplace, i.e. presentees with workplace health support. In many instances the cost of these individuals struggling on with either mental or physical health conditions can be considerable at both a personal and organisational level. Notts Fit for Work provided group based workshops in the first phase of its pilot activity during 2010/11 and these were very successful at providing individuals with the tools to manage their own health and wellbeing. This approach was well received by employers as well as the individuals, as in many instances, workshops were directly linked to reductions in sickness absence rates.

Q. How can the experience gained from the Fit for Work pilot be applied to supporting those out of work and struggling with health issues?
A. The case managed approach of the Fit for Work pilots has a number of parallels with the support being provided through the Work Programme and the various health interventions offered through its primes. This level of group based and one to one support is not however available to the majority of those individuals who have been out of work for less than 12 months. In many instances, these people require practical help and advice on how to manage their health issues, to seek and get back into work, and most importantly to sustain that job. The experience developed by case managers providing the Fit for Work pilot is transferable to this client group, including, importantly, the close liaison with GPs and other health professionals involved in supporting an individual.

Q. How can employers, particularly SMEs, be assisted to ensure that health and wellbeing is part of their productivity agenda?
A. Local evidence from the Notts Fit for Work pilot has shown that many SMEs recognise the need to include health and wellbeing as part of their business planning. However, business priorities fluctuate and SMEs in particular need practical, timely support to ensure that they can maximise productivity and, at the same time, be a good employer whether they are providing care, transport, retail or manufacturing. Many still do not have dedicated HR support and seek help as and when necessary from a range of professionals, including business support organisations such as the local chamber of commerce or Federation of Small Businesses. It is therefore essential that the reality of the business costs of not supporting employees’ health and wellbeing is high on the business support agenda at both a local and national level and that sources of help can be easily accessed when required.


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11 years ago

As an NFP who is a youth specialist in the federal Job Services Scheme in Australia we are monitoring with interest as it is likely these trends will be mirrored to some degree in Australia. Global, private providers took out contracts last time, cherry picking while we struggle to deliver a contract to support those with multiple barriers in an area of very high socio-economic disadvantage. We’re getting young people into work or training outside the contract using add-ons we deliver ourselves as we also run an apprenticeship centre, training organisation and health clinic. But the role of medium NFPs is not valued despite our closeness to our community. Government preference is for ‘fewer, larger’ providers, which could ultimately knock out small providers but we won’t be here when it goes pear shaped!

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