By Alessy Beaver
While successive governments have touted ‘work as the best route out of poverty’, the rising tide of working poor across the UK tells another story. The growth in high risk, low remuneration jobs – typified by the gig economy, zero-hour contracts and other forms of casualised labour – has meant that work doesn’t always pay.
While this is obviously bad news for many workers, already struggling against cost-of-living hikes and pared back welfare, it also represents a unique challenge for employment support providers trying to deliver change and prosperity for their communities. Currently, the bulk of employment support in the UK focuses on moving unemployed and economically inactive candidates into work and training – a valuable objective; but given that unemployment is at a 40-year low while in-work poverty remains persistent, there is a strong case for a shift in focus to respond to this growing area of need.
The Step Up project is one such example of what a shift in focus might look like. Piloted between 2015–18 by a group of six charities embedded in communities across London, Step Up trialed different approaches to helping low-paid workers to progress into better paid work. You can find out more about the respective models in Learning and Work Institute’s providers’ report.
For Thames Reach, a London-based homeless charity committed to ending rough sleeping and preventing homelessness, delivering an in-work progression project was an obvious move. Not only does good quality, well-paid work have a profound effect on the wellbeing and quality of life of those we work with, it is also key to sustaining an exit from homelessness or preventing it in the first place. Consider that the difference of moving a full-time worker from a minimum wage (£8.21ph) to a London Living Wage-salaried job (£10.55ph) is worth around £4000–5000 per year – likely to be a significant chunk of that worker’s housing costs in London.
What did we learn?
Light touch doesn’t work: Delivering in-work support was more time and resource-intensive than we had anticipated. We had assumed that because candidates were already in work, they would have the requisite knowledge and skills to progress into new jobs with just a ‘light touch’ approach. This assumption turned out to be far off the mark. In fact, in-work clients faced many of the same barriers to getting new work as clients on pre-employment programmes, including low levels of confidence and motivation, basic skills deficits (chiefly literacy, ESOL, and digital), and poor job-searching strategies. They also faced the additional challenge of having less time to address these barriers by virtue of being in work. This had implications for our support delivery – it meant we had to be more flexible around scheduling support including offering appointments outside of typical working hours and delivering activities multiple times in any one day to ensure clients with differing shift patterns could benefit from the same provision. The knock-on effect of this was that it took more time to achieve employment outcomes than on pre-employment projects – on average it took 4.3 months to deliver an employment-related outcome across the Step Up pilots.
One-stop shop: It is important to view progression holistically. While the primary aim of Step Up was to help workers escape low pay, there are various comorbidities around low pay including debt, housing insecurity, food poverty, and poor physical and mental health – all of which can affect the viability of someone engaging with support and ultimately progressing. Having an effective needs assessment tool that can help unpack these barriers and put in place relevant support from the first meeting is imperative. In the case of Thames Reach’s provision, this included access to in-house benefits and tenancy support, foodbank vouchers, and referrals to trusted external agencies.
Defining progression/better work: While better paid work is a good starting point for progression, it should not be the only consideration. What constitutes ‘better work’ was broadly defined by our pilot’s participants and included jobs closer to home with little or no travel time/costs, jobs with more flexibility, and jobs that offered training/defined progression opportunities such as apprenticeships. In some cases, clients even opted for a cut in pay to move into such jobs. Commissioners, funders, and ETE providers should avoid narrowly defining progression as ‘more hours and more money’ as it doesn’t capture the full spectrum of softer outcomes that might constitute better work for participants.
While the Step Up pilot wrapped up in September 2018, continuation funding has been secured from the Walcot Foundation by three of original providers: IRMO, High Trees and Thames Reach. These organisations will continue to deliver support until 2021 and have formed a partnership to address some of the key gaps identified by Learning and Work Institute’s evaluation of the pilot.
One of the most significant innovations being trialed by this partnership is the introduction of a dedicated employer-facing worker, funded by Trust for London, who will build relationships with local employers to source training and progression opportunities for clients across the Step Up network. Additionally, this role lends additional capacity to the partnership to allow it to create promotional content for Step Up (to drive up referral numbers), to implement a job-matching database to deliver job brokerage at scale, and to act as a channel of information to the Better Work Network on in-work support and employer links.
Alessy Beaver, Step Up Co-ordinator, Thames Reach