In-work progression: understanding what works

16 July 2017

The publication of the landmark Taylor review last week heralds a welcome focus on the quality of work as well as the number of people participating in the labour market.  This shift in focus is vital to understanding today’s patterns of inequality and disadvantage.  For while employment rates in the UK are at a historic high, insecure employment is on the rise, and one in five workers are low-paid – high by international standards.  Moreover, three out of four low-paid workers fail to progress out of low pay over a 10 year period.

Taylor is surely right to argue, then, that there should be a greater focus in national and local policy on supporting people not just to enter the labour market but to remain in work and to progress to better quality employment.  The current system is clearly not fit for this purpose.  While the employment support system helps people back to work quickly it is focused almost exclusively on job entry, while the limited public funding for adult skills is heavily targeted at young people and those with very low qualifications.

As Taylor notes, in-work conditionality under Universal Credit (UC) will give Jobcentre Plus an incentive to proactively support people to improve their earnings for the first time.  But waiting for the wider rollout of Universal Credit is clearly not sufficient.  The Government’s current trial of in-work progression support under UC tests only different frequencies of light touch ‘work search reviews’ – a variant on the JSA conditionality regime.

It is true, as Taylor states, that there is limited evidence about what works best in supporting people to achieve in-work progression, certainly compared to the established evidence base on active labour market programmes.  However from the trials that have been undertaken, we know which elements of support appear to be effective – flexible and personalised adviser support and coaching; skills provision linked to good job openings and supported by IAG; and sector-focused job brokerage targeting career pathways.

An in-work progression service needs to do four things, ideally in an integrated way:

  • Improve people’s capabilities to progress, such as their skills and experience;
  • Address people’s barriers to progression such as caring responsibilities, ill health and disability or language barriers;
  • Link people to better opportunities through job brokerage; and
  • Address employer practices to enable them to offer better career pathways.

L&W’s programme on in-work progression is building the evidence base in each of these areas further.  Our Ambition London work, for example, works with skills providers to offer more flexible delivery models and tools to enable individuals to make more informed learning choices.  The Step-Up initiative tests support models for a range of groups stuck in low pay, including people with language barriers, parents looking for higher quality flexible jobs and young people with insecure contracts in the creative sector.  The Glasgow in-work progression in the care sector initiative tests an approach that targets SMEs in the sector through business support.

There is therefore a wealth of emerging good practice to draw on – and our first year report from Step-Up pulls together delivery lessons for local commissioners of in-work progression support.  It is time now for central and local government, employers and key stakeholders to work together to develop more integrated and joined-up approaches to supporting earnings progression.

Kathryn Ray is Head of Research – Employment and Skills at Learning and Work Institute