Saturday, 25 February 2012

Will work experience placements work?

So lots of companies are getting cold feet about the Government's flagship 'back to work' initiatives - the Work Programme, which places people in work whether they like it or not, and unpaid work experience, which is not supposed to involve any compulsion at all. Or that's supposed to be the case, though stories of semi-compulsion, threats and Burger King (above) announced it was pulling out of providing work experience as of today - not that it had taken anyone on yet anyway.

The work experience element of the plans was always unlikely to pinpoint and attack long-term joblessness. Proper work experience schemes are well worked-out with third sector partners, targeting poorer neighbourhoods and families without work. They provide training, mentoring and support: witness Marks and Spencer's sterling efforts. But the whole point of hastily-announced work placements, for low-cost, high-yield retailers such as Matalan, is that they'll get help during busy periods - and then leave those people on their sofas when things get slacker. 'Training' opportunities on these schemes are often lousy. Comparing them to a month in college, as the Prime Minister has and Ministers insist on reiterating, is an insult to everyone's intelligence.

Will it work, despite these flaws? Well, we'll have to wait and see on this particular scheme.

But two things are for sure and beyond dispute: rates of labour force participation among those who have and haven't been on these schemes are very similar a few months down the line. And without macro-economic growth and stimulus, the job market will continue to get worse for the next year or two, meaning that all these programmes are swimming against the tide. Experience in the USA and Canada leads us to one conclusion: these types of programme need the provision of proper training, and a buoyant labour market.

Conclusion? They will probably never meet their UK targets.

Which is a shame, because there are the seeds of some good ideas in here. You might, of course, say the same about Higher Education 'reform' in England, the creation of elected police commissioners, GP commissioning in the National Health Service and the expansion of apprenticeships - all good in principle. All being botched - at a time when, incredibly, the Department of Work and Pensions says it might or might not commission desperately-needed research. 'Possibly', they say.

All we public policy experts can do is sigh and hang out heads.

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