05Housing associations and skills provision

Beyond the Government provision outlined above, housing associations are also actively involved with skills and employment training. While a housing associations’s primary objective is to provide housing, they play a much broader role than this, supporting residents with financial management, skills development and employment and job search advice. Their work and experiences offer insights into how skills policy could be improved.

Many design, deliver and fund their own programmes to do this. The skills support offered tends to focus on supporting tenants gain basic and level 1 qualifications. However, some housing associations also assist with career development and in-work progression.

Housing associations provide this support in part to ensure that their tenants can pay their rent.13 Recent welfare reforms – such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax – have reduced tenants’ income from benefits, meaning tenants need to increase their financial independence. As such, the majority of programmes are open to residents only, although some housing associations do provide training to the wider community through the social enterprises that they fund.

Based on the long-term nature of the relationships housing associations have with tenants, they are able to offer on-going support that is tailored to local labour market needs. In addition, strong local networks and knowledge of the local economy allows them to identify local employment and training opportunities. This section looks at the work specific housing associations have done to reduce the level of low skills and high unemployment in the cities they operate in to illustrate the range of programs the sector offers. Lessons for skills and employment policy are drawn out from these in three key areas:

  1. Generating demand for jobs
  2. Flexibility and local tailoring
  3. The use of data and evaluation

Generating demand for workers is vital – cities can use their networks to create and fund job and training opportunities

Work and training programmes that provided people with a ‘real job with a real wage’ – and so pay the national minimum wage, have a contract of employment and an official job description – have been found to have better outcomes than other training programmes. In part this is because they do not have the stigma associated with being on a scheme.14 As major employers in their own right, housing associations are able to offer ‘real’ jobs. Roles are provided not just in house but also within housing associations’ supply chain. Given housing associations spend millions on contracted services and suppliers, this enables them to offer a large variety of roles. Their integrated role in the local community also means they are also able to develop strong relationships across the public and private sector, allowing them to identify job and training opportunities outside of their own organisation.

Lesson 1: Cities can use their supply chains to create and fund work and training opportunities

Case study 1: A2domionon, London and the South East

A2domionon creates employment and training opportunities for its residents by negotiating with contractors and developers to obtain work placements for residents in construction, electrician and gas fitter roles. When applying for a contract, developers are asked to offer a number of placements to residents and the agreed number is written into formal contracts. A2domionon encourages and supports tenants to apply for these roles, which typically last 2-3 months. The housing association also provides in-house work experience in business administration. Of those that undertake a placement within the housing association, 90 per cent continue to work at the association at the end of the placement.15

The housing association’s strong local and national networks have also helped to identify funding opportunities for skills training beyond that available through limited central government funding. By employing Partnership and Funding Managers, whose role is to build relationships both locally and nationally to seek out funding opportunities, A2domionon is able to fund all its employment and skills programmes through outside organisations. In particular, outside funding has allowed the housing association to offer residents a free Digital DIY training service, which provides people with basic IT and internet skills. With around a quarter of all jobs now advertised online only16 and many tenants not having access to the internet and / or having poor IT skills, this service helps tenants overcome the severe disadvantage they face in not just securing work but also searching and applying for jobs. Training is offered with the support of UK: Online, who also provide free lesson plans and online webinars for tenants to work through.

Lesson 2: Strong local networks are vital in creating job opportunities

Case study 2: Wakefield District Housing (WDH)

Wakefield District Housing runs a number of in-house programmes, including work placements, weekly drop-in centres, work clubs and digital training. But it has also worked to develop close links to local organisations. It uses these to stay informed of local vacancies and to actively create work experience and employment opportunities for its residents.

As part of a workless provider’s network set up by the council, it meets with other organisations on a regular basis to feed into Wakefield’s jobs and growth plan. This network includes Jobcentre Plus, Work Programme providers, Wakefield College, the National Careers Service, local employers and the LEP. Part of the group’s role is negotiating with businesses moving into the area to take on a certain number of local unemployed people. Being part of this network means WDH is aware of new opportunities coming up and can work with tenants to apply for them. The housing association also encourages organisations in its supply chain to give career talks in schools, making young people aware of some of the job opportunities available to them and what skills and qualifications they will need to enter these jobs.

Alongside these services for tenants, WDH also offers community employment support through Wakefield District Housing Academy. This service is possible due to its close relationship to Jobcentre Plus and involves providing ten work placements every six months. The Jobcentre and WDH’s Community Employment Advisors refer 30 individuals who would be suitable for a work placement and WDH selects ten. Typically these are given to people who have skills and qualifications but have difficulty finding a job due to a lack of work experience. The programme is about to recruit its sixth cohort and has had an 80 per cent success rate in moving participants into further employment, either within WDH or with other employers.15

Long-term relationships and local delivery allow for tailored individual support to help participants move into employment and for continued support to be given to help people remain and progress in work

A complaint often levelled at official Government skills and employment advice is that participants are passed from one advisor to another who is not familiar with their history. This not only prevents any relationships from being built up between advisors and jobseekers, but can also lead to participants being referred onto similar courses and programmes to those they have already participated in, having little to no impact on their skills level.15 The relationships housing associations have with their residents are, by their nature, long-term. As such, staff are known to residents and those receiving employment advice have an established point of contact who is familiar with their history and personal circumstances. This allows them to devise a pathway to support individuals into work and to develop a clear career plan.

In addition, in order to offer programmes that increase local skills levels and employment a clear understanding of the challenges and strengths of the local labour market are required. Housing associations have a good understanding of the local market they operate in and, as programmes are self-designed, they are able to respond to the distinct challenges their cities face.

Lesson 3: Working with the unemployed to develop training and employment programmes can help ensure programmes address the specific needs of the target group.

Case study 3: Wolverhampton Homes

In consultation with its tenants Wolverhampton Homes developed LEAP (the Learning, Employment and Achievement Programme), designed to identify and overcome the specific barriers residents face when in moving into work.

During meetings with tenants the main issues raised were the inability to get a job due to lack of work experience or references, and difficulty finding work experience due to a lack of demonstrable skills. Wolverhampton Homes now uses its position as a major employer in the area to offer work experience and skills training for its tenants and their families. It has developed an in-house, eight-week unpaid work experience programme that can lead onto a 12-month apprenticeship, open to all residents aged 16 and over with at least a level 1 in Literacy and Numeracy. Basic skills training is offered to those who don’t meet this requirement through referral to local training centres. Those who successfully complete a work experience programme or an apprenticeship are given a reference and a training certificate. Work experience opportunities are also available in grounds maintenance, garage repairs, renovations, and painting and decorating through the housing association’s social enterprise, Wolverhampton Works.

Transport and childcare costs were the other key barriers identified by tenants. The housing association now ensures that all programmes are delivered with no fees to the tenants and has found this to have a significant impact on attendance.15 As such, all transport costs are covered by Wolverhampton Homes or funding from the Jobcentre, and courses are offered between the hours of 9:30am – 2:30pm, allowing parents to take part without incurring child care costs.

To date Wolverhampton Homes has delivered training to over 500 tenants, provided 140 eight-week placements, 75 apprenticeships and over 50 permanent jobs. And this year 78 per cent of all the housing association’s entry level vacancies went to LEAP participants.15

Lesson 4: Providing and clearly communicating an incentive to undertake training and offering long term support to complete this training may increase take up and completion of support offered.

Case study 4: The Bromford Group

The Bromford Group operates a Bromford Deal, in which tenancy is dependent on individuals taking part in some form of work, training or volunteering. As part of this deal individuals sign up to both a tenancy and a package of support designed around their own specific skills needs. These needs are assessed by the housing association’s Tenancy Ready programme, which requests information on a prospective tenant’s employment status, income and work history. Potential tenants also complete a self-assessment questionnaire covering a wide range of life skills, from cooking to setting up direct debits. Tenants are then placed onto one of three deals, each of which offers different levels of support. This assessment and tailoring is done to provide a more efficient use of resources but does have the issue of potentially missing vulnerable tenants if classified wrongly.

To give tenants the best chance of meeting their deal, a wide range of long-term support is offered. A skills coach works one-on-one with tenants to develop a plan setting out goals they must meet to be classed as fulfilling their deal. These goals can include training they need to undertake; volunteering to gain work experience and skills; or moving into paid work. All tenants are also automatically registered with Bromford connect, an online community that posts jobs, training and volunteering opportunities, including apprenticeships and six-month work placements with the Bromford Group. Jobs clubs and jobs fairs are also organised with the support of local employers, enabling residents to find out about local employment opportunities and the skills required for these jobs. The Bromford Group provides regular feedback and guidance to help those on the deal reach the agreed goals, and all are made aware at the time of signing up that if they don’t make sufficient effort to complete their Deal, their tenancy may not be renewed.

Initially the Deal was focused on new tenants, but is now being rolled out to existing tenants. Around 5,000 tenants are currently on the deal and so far 25 per cent have been helped into work, training or community volunteering in order to build up their skills levels.21

Lesson 5: Intensive support needs to go beyond just moving people into work, especially for those with low level qualifications that may need advice on how to progress out of minimum wage jobs

Case study 5: The Guinness Partnership (East Midlands and the North of England)

The Guinness Partnership runs a range of initiatives to help people find employment, including offering apprenticeships through its social enterprise that are open to tenants and the wider community. Alongside this it also offers in-work support. This includes careers and further training advice designed to help people move up the career ladder, and funding to enable residents to undertake this training. This is provided through Guinness’ self-funded Aspire Awards, open to residents aged 16 and over. Awards have been given to cover the costs of course fees and materials in qualifications such as a Diploma in Accounting. The awards are presented annually and last year more than £20,000 was awarded to 25 tenants.22

Beyond additional training, self-employment can also provide a route out of minimum wage jobs.23 In recognition of this, Guinness runs an eight-week self-employment training course in partnership with the Work Programme provider Avanta. The course costs £500 per person, with the majority of the funding provided through the Work Programme and Skills Funding Agency. However, to enable tenants that don’t meet the requirements to receive training under either of these streams to take part, Guinness contributes around £5,000-£6,000 to expand the number of places available. When the course has been completed tenants can run a business from their own home. Typically businesses set up include child-minding, using part of the home as an office, hair or beauty treatments and cleaning services.

The housing association also offers a package of support to help tenants overcome multiple barriers to sustained work through its Tenancy Sustainment Team. The team provides advice, counselling and referrals to specialist organisations on a range of factors that can be the root cause of unemployment, including literacy problems, substance misuse, domestic violence and health problems.

Lesson 6: Local flexibility is required to deliver targeted support based on identified local needs, helping to reduce pockets of high unemployment

Case study 6: Great Places, Manchester

As well as offering work experience, apprenticeships and mentoring services to all tenants, Great Places provides targeted support to identified disadvantaged groups of tenants. The housing association has a high proportion of black and ethnic minority tenants, whose main challenge to entering the labour market is often a lack of English language skills. 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 run in partnership with the Pakistani Community Centre and local employer Azura Soft Furnishings offers employment and skills training for Pakistani women in Oldham. Participants are given the opportunity to learn IT, basic English and sewing skills at Azura’s factory to prepare them for a job in this industry.

The housing association also provides free community interpreter training and over the last two years has helped 75 people qualify with an interpreting qualification. This not only provides individuals with a recognised qualification but also directly benefits the housing association, as once participants have gained this qualification they assist Great Places in communicating with residents whose first language is not English. Participants are asked to provide English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) training to residents, initially on a voluntary basis, in return for the free training they have received.

Data sharing and robust evaluation of projects are needed to implement successful programmes

While housing associations collect a range of data on their tenants including, to varying degrees, information on qualifications, employment status and employment history, their ability to collect full information is restricted by limited resources. Currently, only 42 per cent of housing providers in England have reliable data on the levels of employment among tenants.24 This prevents them from identifying who would most benefit from their support, leading them to spend time and money advertising to encourage tenants to refer themselves. Lack of data sharing is also a source of irritation to the unemployed, who frequently go over the same questions with all the different organisations they are referred to.15 Sharing of data between local organisations working on skills and employment issues (including housing associations, Jobcentre Plus, Work Programme providers and Local Authorities) would give each organisation a fuller picture of clients and ensure support and recommendations are complimentary.

Data on the evaluation of skills and employment programmes is also currently limited, particularly at the local level, with few initiatives looking beyond the number of people who have moved directly into work or training. Comparisons with the number of participants that could be expected to move into work in the absence of a programme are infrequent, as are studies that look at how long participants remained in work, if training was successfully completed and what the individual then moved onto.26 Such information is vital in determining the most effective way to upskill the population. Funding to enable providers to carry out robust long-term impact evaluations needs to be included in programme design.

Lesson 7: Data sharing would allow for a more proactive approach and coherent package of support to be offered to the unemployed

Case study 7: Hyde Plus, South East, the East of England and the East Midlands

Hyde Plus has strong data on tenants registered as the main person responsible for the rent, as a meeting is automatically set up between the main tenant and an employment adviser when they move in. Information on age, employment status, benefits claimed and education level is asked for. This allows Hyde Plus to tailor who they advertise their programmes to, contacting residents (through text messages, phone calls, emails and Facebook) who are most likely to benefit from, be interested in and meet the eligibility conditions of specific programmes.

This more targeted approach saves Hype Plus both time and money and has led to higher enrolment on programmes offered. These programmes include grants of up to £200 and scholarships to cover residents’ course fees; work placements that are part-time to allow individuals time to also actively job search and not lose Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA); and general employment advice such as job search help, interview support and career advice.

However Hyde Plus holds little information on other members of a household, and collecting this detailed information on all residents would be a major investment. Sharing of information gathered by different organisations would allow service providers to be less reliant on self-referrals and to offer support more quickly when an individual becomes unemployed.

Lesson 8: Funds devoted to evaluating the long-term outcomes of programme participants are a crucial part of design and delivery.

Case study 8: Jobs-Plus (America)

The Jobs-Plus programme was established in America in 1996 and is one of few initiatives looking at the long-term effects on participants. Beginning as a pilot in six cities, the aim was to increase the number of public housing residents moving into work.

The pilots consisted of three key parts. The first was employment-related services provided through the public housing organisations. This included help with job search, coaching to move closer to the labour market, vocational training, subsidised supported-work positions for those furthest from labour market and advice on moving into self-employment. Secondly, changes in rent rules were introduced that provided financial incentives for tenants to move into work. These included smaller increases in rent payments as earnings increased and ensuring residents were aware of other in work benefits they were entitled to claim. Thirdly, community support was provided. This involved recruiting a number of tenants to explain the programme to their neighbors and encourage them to use the Jobs-Plus services. Residents received payment or rent reduction in return for this.

An evaluation of the trial involving more than 5,000 participants was carried out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Rockefeller Foundation and the education and social policy research organization Mdrc. The outcomes of public housing developments taking part in the trial were compared with similar developments in the same cities not participating in the programme. Tenants involved in the pilots earned an average of $1,141 more per year than residents in comparison developments. Participants were also found to continue to earn more even after the programme ended – of around $1,300 a year three years after the pilot ended.27 The evaluation also found that it was necessary to fully implement all three parts of the initiative. Those that failed to do this saw smaller increases in earning among tenants.

Based on this strong evaluation and long-term impact, the programme continues to receive funding and is being replicated in other cities, both in America and in other countries.28


  • 13 Centre for Cities interviews
  • 14 Fishwick, T. Lane, P. and Gardiner, L. (2011) Future Jobs Fund An Independent National Evaluation, CESI
  • 15 Centre for Cities interview
  • 16 UK Online Centres (2012) UK Jobs and the Internet
  • 17 Centre for Cities interview
  • 18 Centre for Cities interview
  • 19 Centre for Cities interview
  • 20 Centre for Cities interview
  • 21 Bromford Group (2014) Customer Annual Review 2014
  • 22 Centre for cities interviews
  • 23 Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2012) Welfare to Self-employment
  • 24 Rallings, M and Coburn, J (2014) Strategic approaches to employment: Responding to change in the sector. Lessons from an action-learning programme, HACT.
  • 25 Centre for Cities interview
  • 26 Green, A. Atfield, G and Adam, D. (2013) Local worklessness policy analysis case studies, DWP Research Project No. 844, DWP Research Report No. 844
  • 27 Riccio, J (2010) Sustained Earnings Gains for Residents in a Public Housing Jobs Program Seven-Year Findings From The Jobs-Plus Demonstration
  • 28 mdrc (2008) Helping Public Housing Residents Find and Keep Jobs