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The Queens Speech saw the Government recommit itself to achieving the highest employment rate in the G7 – a move which necessitates increasing the skills level of the working age population. Within cities, there is a clustering of low skills and high unemployment in social housing – over 10 per cent of social tenants are unemployed, compared to just 6 per cent of those living in private rented accommodation and 1 per cent of those who own their own homes. And of the 3.6 million children living in poverty in England, 1.3 million are living in social rented housing.
As such, housing associations have direct, long-term contact with a key target group of skills and employment policy. Our report Delivering Change: what housing associations can tell us about employment and skills looks at the experience of housing associations in supporting individuals into work and highlights three factors that need to be at the forefront of skills and employment policy design:
1. Generating demand for jobs
Work and training programmes that provided people with a ‘real job with a real wage’ have been found to have better outcomes than other training programmes. Housing associations use their position as large contractors of services to provide a variety of ‘real’ jobs within their supply chain. For example in London A2domionon negotiates with its contractors and developers to create work placements for residents in construction, electrician and gas fitter roles. Developers’ applying for contracts are asked to offer a number of placements to residents and the agreed number is written into formal contracts. This direct creation of work placements is something which could be replicated across other public sector organisations.
2. Flexibility and local tailoring
Local flexibility, coupled with a clear understanding of the local employment market, is needed to identify and target pockets of low skills levels and high unemployment.
Housing associations knowledge of the area they work in and the long-term nature of the relationship they have with tenants, means they have first-hand information of the main barriers locals face in finding, and remaining in, work. In addition, their local positioning means they are able to develop relationships and partnerships with other organisations across both the public and private sector, from local authorities to Job Centre Plus to employers. This local knowledge and connections are then used to design skills programmes that target local barriers.
For example, in Manchester, the housing association Great Places has a high proportion of black and ethnic tenants. Great Places developed the Great Communities team, which is devoted to carrying out research and setting up initiatives to meet the needs of these migrant communities. One such initiative runs in partnership with the Pakistani Community Centre and local employer Azura Soft Furnishings, offering IT, basic English and sewing skills training for Pakistani women to ensure they have the skills needed to find employment in their local area.
Outside of housing associations, other organisations including local government have good local knowledge and networks, but their ability to use these is limited by the overriding central nature of skills and employment programmes. More flexibility and less ring-fencing needs to be built into Government programmes to allow cities to use provisions to adequately address their specific challenges.
3. Use of data and evaluation
Housing associations collect a range of data on their tenants, including qualifications held and employment status. But they lack the large resources needed to collect full details on all tenants. Hyde Park, for example, has strong data on the main household tenant, which they use to target who they advertise their programmes at. This leads to increased enrolment on programmes and costs and time savings. However, the housing association has far less information on other members of a household, meaning they rely more on tenants referring themselves.
Relaxed rules on data sharing between local organisations would give organisations a fuller picture of clients and ensure all parties in a position to help are aware of an individual’s circumstances and the support being provided by other organisations. It would also means that those seeking skills and employment advice would no longer have to go over the same questions with each different organisation they visit, which is not only repetitive for the individual but a waste of limited resources.
It is also essential that sufficient resources are devoted to robust assessment of programmes. Evaluation is a key part of policy design and central and local organisations need to invest in strong assessments to understand what works in different cities and why. This involves looking beyond the number moved into employment or training to determine the long-term effects of policies, such as if the individual completed their training and whether they were able to hold down a job. This requires those delivering programmes, both centrally and locally, to set aside money for evaluation when designing programmes, ensuring evaluation is in-built from the start. Without this the ability to improve programmes is limited.
Improving the skills level across the country is a significant challenge. The experiences of housing associations illustrates that ensuring places have the flexibility to respond to the challenges they face and to create solutions based on sound evidence is key to overcoming this.
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