Stepping up: learning ‘what works’ to progress low paid workers

by Hannah Murphy


13 03 2018


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While there is much to celebrate about the record high rates of employment, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to the types of employment that people are in. And rightly so, as people in working households now account for the majority of those in poverty, outnumbering those from workless households. It is increasingly apparent that too many jobs in the UK offer a combination of poor pay, prospects and quality.

On top of this worrying trend, recent analysis found that just one in six low paid workers escaped low pay over a ten-year period, which indicates substantial barriers to progressing into better paid work. These conditions challenge the established notion that getting into work guarantees a sufficient standard of living, particularly in the longer term.

To address this, it is essential to understand the experiences and barriers faced by those in low pay, and test approaches to support low paid workers to progress their earnings.

Last week at City Hall, we launched the evaluation of ‘Step Up’  – an innovative pilot developed by Trust for London and Walcot Foundation. The pilot was designed to trial different approaches to in-work progression support and share learning.

Step Up has been delivered by a consortium of voluntary sector organisations which each designed a distinct support model or targeted a specific group of low paid workers. For example, one provider delivered flexible jobs brokerage for working parents while another provided a construction course in Spanish for Latin American workers.

Over the last two years Step Up has supported 179 low paid workers to improve their employment situation (by gaining a new job, an additional job, an improved contract, or a promotion). On average, those who achieved an employment outcome increased their hourly wages by 15% and weekly earnings by 42%.

Step Up also generated rich learning about effective support for low paid workers. Step Up found that effective in-work progression support should be: i) flexible and tailored to the aspirations, capabilities and needs of individual participants; ii) co-ordinated with wider support provision; and iii) able to support participants to prepare for, find and take up new jobs.

The pilot also delivered important lessons for the design and delivery of support to help low paid workers progress, including:

  • In-work progression support must be sufficiently resourced to provide one-to-one, flexible services to meet working participant’s needs.
  • Despite already being in employment, employability support (such as CV, application and interview support) is a necessary offer to help individuals progress.
  • Outcomes look different to those achieved by traditional into-work support. A progression may have to satisfy several factors aside from financial gain (such as location, security, progression prospects, vocational preference).
  • A wide range of partnerships are necessary to identify and engage low paid workers; address a range of individual barriers; and engage a wide range of employers. Opening hours, eligibility rules, cost and availability of provision can all inhibit access for working people. Engaging partners and mapping available support (such as skills providers, specialist support organisations, JCP, employment agencies) can help to plug potential gaps in wider support.

The Step Up launch event brought together several of these key stakeholders – employers, housing providers, local authorities, DWP, employment and skills providers and vitally, low paid workers themselves. The event shone a light on promising initiatives and employer good practice which support low paid workers to progress their earnings.

It is clear that there is still much to learn about ‘what works’ for effective in-work support. However, there is a need and willingness to rise to this challenge, indicated by £8 million announced by the Treasury to invest in and test a wide range of approaches.

To provide meaningful and robust support for people trapped in low pay requires ongoing shared learning of best practice. Therefore, Learning and Work Institute and Trust for London are excited to announce the ‘Better Work London Network’. This network will bring together those involved in researching and delivering initiatives to tackle low pay and support progression for those in employment.