Reducing poverty and increasing skills: the role of in-work provision

8 December 2017

As seems to be post-2015 norm, it’s been an eventful week in the world of politics and, as usual, the rumblings-on of Brexit seems to have drowned out other important happenings…

So just in case you missed it, this week came confirmation from JRF of a worrying trend in Britain: the continued reversal of the fall in poverty witnessed over the past 20 years. The report explains that the factors which secured previous reductions in poverty– rising employment, state support for low-income families and the contained impact of rising rent – are simply no longer in effect.

As a result, in-work poverty is rising, with an astonishing one in eight workers now living in poverty. London is no stranger to this issue, with the combination of low pay and spiraling housing costs blighting a record number of Londoners. One endeavor to overcome this issue is the West London Alliance Skills Escalator pilot, an ambitious pilot aimed at tackling low pay amongst residents living in private rented and temporary housing who are in receipt of Housing Benefit.

The west London-based pilot, which Learning and Work Institute were commissioned to evaluate and the report of which we publish today – provided an innovative programme of tailored support and funded skills provision. The main objectives of the pilot were to help residents overcome obstacles hindering their progression, improve their skill-set and knowledge of opportunities and increase their earnings – reducing the pressure of low pay and high housing costs, and the consequent need for in-work benefits.

To achieve this, the pilot focused on personalised support through regular one-to-one adviser meetings and the provision of learning, training and employment opportunities through the development of a network of key partnerships. This included partnerships with the housing team to enlist eligible residents, Jobcentre Plus to coordinate and market the support offer to in-work Universal Credit claimants, services to provide further wrap-around support and local employers to source job opportunities for clients.

Over the course of the pilot:

  • One-third of clients participated in a range of training and learning opportunities, including courses for English language, fitness and wellbeing, accountancy, childcare and IT;
  • One-fifth of clients increased their earnings – with an average monthly earnings increase of £479, a larger increase than what would have been achieved without the pilot;
  • Clients experienced a range of additional benefits, including improved finances, housing, standard of living and family relationships; and
  • Clients also found that participation with the pilot had improved their personal situation, giving them a changed perspective and a renewed sense of direction.

On top of the local successes achieved through the pilot, the findings reveal important lessons about the use of employment support for low paid workers, demonstrating the value of expanding provision, beyond job entry, to support those who are already in employment to escape low pay and stalled progression. The main lessons which underpin the successful design and delivery of this type of support include:

  • A flexible support offer which responds to the needs and circumstances of in-work participants, specifically fitting around the time pressures of people in work with additional responsibilities and tailored to the barriers faced, and utilising skills provision to support and secure earnings progression;
  • Integrated partnerships between key stakeholders, including local authority teams, Jobcentre Plus and external services, to develop a model of support which can respond to the wide-ranging challenges faced;
  • The importance of engaging employers to recruit existing employees in low pay; to access work opportunities for clients including placements and trials; and to help support improved working practices through specialist advice and business support to support the development of better progression routes for employees.

At a point when just one in six low earners manage to progress onto consistently higher wages within ten years, the scale and urgency of low pay and stalled progression seems ever-present. The Skills Escalator pilot adds to a growing evidence base on in-work provision and demonstrates that only through the pursuit of an innovative redesign of the support landscape, involving stakeholders from both the public and private spheres, can we respond to the challenge facing us today.

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