Social Protection Minister Joan Burton’s ‘Pathways to Work’ is an ambitious plan to expand services available to the unemployed through welfare offices. The plan is based on the philosophical view that a person’s first day of signing on could also be their ‘first step back to work’ according to the Minister.
With Ireland in the midst of a serious unemployment crisis, a crisis which gives rise to many negative economic and social consequences – for society as a whole and for individuals and their families; an ambitious plan is needed. She undertook to introduce a better approach to how the State engages with and supports the unemployed to get back into the workforce.
‘Pathways to Work’ sets out how the government intends to get people back to work and it is a key element of their strategy to get Ireland working again. Delivered alongside the measures in the Government’s Action Plan on Jobs to help create new employment opportunities, their aim is to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s when unemployment remained high even after economic recovery took hold.
The ‘Pathways to Work’ plan and approach will build on existing Government policies to ensure that as many new job opportunities as possible are filled by those on the Live Register. The government said: ‘Our challenge, in ‘Pathways to Work’, is to ensure that the creation of new jobs results in a reduction in unemployment – particularly long-term unemployment – so that individuals do not become permanently disenfranchised within our society.’
‘Pathways to Work’ has five strands:
o More regular and on-going engagement with people who are unemployed
o Greater targeting of activation places and opportunities
o Incentivising the take-up of opportunities
o Incentivising employers to provide more jobs for people who are unemployed
o Reforming institutions to deliver better services to people who are unemployed.
The proposed major overhaul of the State’s social welfare offices started in May of this year in Dublin with the aim of completely transforming the function of the social welfare offices. The establishment of a single “one stop shop” public employment and benefits service in the National Employment and Entitlement Service (NEES) with clear targets for rolling out a new approach. Up to now social welfare offices have merely processed benefit payments for clients, but in the near future more than 700 Fas (now called SOLAS) officers will shortly be relocated to the State’s dole offices. This will allow those receiving unemployment benefits to collect their payments and simultaneously check out opportunities for retraining and jobs. The plans which are modelled on how welfare offices such as the Pole Emploi in France, the UK Jobcentre Plus offices and the Centre-link employment offices in Australia operate will see the current ‘Victorian’ layout of the dole offices being transformed to create spaces fit for one-to-one counselling and job coaching.
The overhaul is much needed and welcomed given recent reports and findings. Under the National Employment Activation Plan (NEAP), all dole claimants were meant to be referred automatically to FAS by the Department of Social Protection (DSP) when their claim reached the 13-week point on the Live Register. When the ERSI merged the customer Live Register data with the FAS events’ file, they found that a substantial proportion of qualifying claimants were not, in fact, referred. They found that one in five was still not interviewed by FAS almost five months after becoming unemployed.
Ireland is facing an unemployment crisis last seen in the deep recessions of the 1980s. There are now over 439,500 individuals on the Live Register, over 183,800 (42%) of whom are on the Live Register for a year or longer, with many previously employed in the construction sector. In the 1980s it took almost a decade for a return to economic growth to result in a reduced Live Register. Even in the early 1990s, during a period of double digit economic growth, the rate of unemployment fell by less than 2% from 14.7% to 12.8% between 1992 and 1995. Today, the average period spent on the Live Register is an unacceptable 21 months.
The Government is now determined that those who are unemployed will be provided with appropriate advice, support, education and training to take advantage of new job opportunities as the economy recovers. The recently published Action Plan on Jobs envisages the creation of a net new 100,000 jobs by 2016. The ‘Pathways to Work’ approach will enable as many of these new jobs as possible to be filled from the large numbers of people who are unemployed.
The government’s ambition is to develop a new approach to engagement with people who are unemployed which meets international best practice and which can be compared favourably with similar systems anywhere in the world. This includes measuring the performance of the ‘Pathways to Work’ approach as a whole, as well as of the effectiveness of individual engagement programmes. The government also plans to commission research and develop measurement methodologies to ensure that we have at our disposal the most appropriate and up-to-date metrics to ensure effective implementation and monitoring of progress under ‘Pathways to Work’.
An example of one of the ‘Pathways to Work’ for somebody recently made unemployed and in need of retraining:
o A person who is unemployed can contact a NEES Call Centre or attend their local NEES office.
o A NEES Community Service Representative reviews a person’s claim and uses the customer profiling tool to determine their likelihood of finding a job. They are then profiled as having/not having a high probability of finding a job. The CSR explains benefit entitlements to them and puts their benefits into payment.
o In some cases NEES will insist on them attending a Group Information Seminar with other job seekers.
o A follow-up one-to-one case management interview will follow after 3 months.
o If they are still on the live register after three months, their NEES case worker will provide them with a personalised service focussing on job search and CV building. The case worker will also assess whether they are actively seeking work and they will be reminded of their obligations in this regard.
o After six months they may be referred to an employment services specialist.
o They may be requested to attend a specific training course or work experience programme.
‘Pathways to Work’ is an ambitious and well thought out plan. Is it fit for purpose? Time will tell whether it is strong enough to go head to head with its adversary – rising unemployment figures.