Supported Employment
by Paul Hazelden


The government is keen - rightly so - to get unemployed people into work when possible. I suggest that we need to think a bit more carefully about what is required if this is to become a reality for many people.

An Analogy

Some years ago, there was a generally simplistic approach to homelessness: you too a homeless person, you put them into a flat, problem solved.

These days, we know it is not that simple. Not for many people, anyway. If you stick a needy person into a flat and forget about them, they will often struggle to pay the bills, feed themselves, and may invite other dysfunctional people around to keep them company. The end result is that they are kicked out for not paying the rent, or the place is trashed and becomes impossible to live in.

To prevent this, we have a wide range of supported accommodation. The support may come from someone on site, or from someone who visits on a regular basis. But, however it works, the support is provided because the people need it, and because (in the long run) it is cheaper to provide support to someone and enable them to remain in their flat than it is to sort out all the problems that go with repeat homelessness.

In the Same Way

So, some people need a place to live but cannot cope with maintaining a flat on the same terms as other, more successful, people in the marketplace.

In the same way, some people need a job, but cannot gain or keep employment if they are competing on a level playing field. There will always be other people who are better (more cost-effective) employees. It will never make economic sense for an employer to employ one of these folk.

At least - for the employer, it will never make economic sense. For the country, it makes pefect economic sense to get needy people into work.

Suitable Jobs

(This is an updated version of one part of the response I made in October 2008 to the DWP consultation on their paper "No one written off". The full response provides more details about the features a successful welfare system must have, structured around the DWP paper. An updated version of one section can be found in the paper on Revising the Welfare System.)

As well as changing the people to fit the jobs available, we must also seek to provide the sort of jobs that the unemployed people will be able to do, and find fulfilment in doing. We must work to provide jobs that involve physical work, and being outdoors. We must provide jobs in engineering and light industry. We must provide jobs that do not involve computers and require social skills.

To be blunt, we must provide jobs for the sort of men who want to spend their nights down the pub and would never dream of changing a nappy. Not because we like and wish to encourage such attitudes and behaviour, but because there are a great many people like that, and we need to solve real problems, as opposed to the problems we wish we had.

If the only major employer in an area is a Call Centre, then we can try to train everyone to work in a Call Centre. But it makes more sense to try to provide different kinds of work for people who are not naturally suited to call centre work.

We must provide far more subsidised jobs: supported employment, along the lines of supported housing In a market economy, every employer is under pressure to deliver the greatest profit possible from the workforce, which means they all want the most productive employees.

In this environment, very few will choose to employ people who need a great deal of support and who will take time off to sort out their ongoing problems - not on economic grounds. Some people with mental or physical disabilities will never be able to compete on the open jobs market, and equalities legislation can only go so far. People with ongoing emotional problems or who are trying to get free from addictions will not be as productive at work as those without these problems. But they need work too - they need it even more than 'ordinary' people.

For this to work, we will have to be deliberately counter-cultural in some ways. The aim of industry at present is to make the workforce more productive through increasing automation and moving towards high-tech jobs. But this only makes sense if your aim is to make the greatest profit possible.

If your aim is also to employ as many people as possible in good and worthwhile jobs, then increasing automation is not always the right answer. Instead of investing in a new digging machine, why not employ a few more people with shovels? While the digging may take longer on paper, a team of people can continue to dig in rotation all day, when a digger will repeatedly stop for comfort, tea and lunch breaks, and the people may well be able to start sooner because you do not have to prepare the site in order to transport the digger to the right location before you start. The economics of using people rather than machines may prove to be surprising.

On the other hand, I have personal experience of employing people from a background of homelessness and addiction. Some have moved on and need very little support more than other staff. Others have managed to be comparatively stable for periods of time, but the underlying chaos of their lives, and the knock-on effects of their past mistakes have impacted their work, disrupted the staff around them, and taken up far more management time than could be justified.

Aspire in Bristol seek to employ ex-homeless people, and their experience is exactly the same as mine: these employees are less reliable, and their problems disrupt not only their own lives but also the lives of the people around them. While a few organisations will employ such people for various reasons, it is completely unrealistic to expect that most will find such employment unless employers are given a financial incentive to counter the very real costs.

The good news is that because working is so good for people, it is very cost-effective to subsidise jobs for people who would otherwise be on benefits. The NEF have done some robust work in this area recently, demonstrating the economic benefits of supporting employers to enable chaotic people to gain and retain employment.

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Copyright © 2009 Paul Hazelden was last updated 25 July 2009
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