Hidden assets: Return long term unemployed to the workforce

04 April 2024
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Addressing the UK’s skills gaps and labour shortages is one clear route to driving much needed sustainable growth into the nation’s economy. In the post-Brexit, post-pandemic UK, employers are having to work hard to find, recruit and then retain the workforce that will be critical to future success.

A new future for skills

The UK workforce has been changing dramatically over the last few years as a result of post-Brexit changes to immigration and the impact of the Covid pandemic increasing the number of those with long-term illnesses.

Yet with pressure increasing on businesses to drive growth, a new approach is needed to attract, recruit and retain the talent needed to meet the UK’s future goals, particularly regarding decarbonisation and the broader energy transition.

Amey is no exception, particularly across its facilities and asset management portfolio which provides the skilled and committed teams required to maintain and operate vital services across the UK, from schools and colleges through to prisons and complex research centres.

As set out in our ESG Strategy, Amey is committed to enhancing the wellbeing of the people and communities we impact. The most powerful way we can do that is to help people back into the workplace. We also believe in ‘Embracing Difference’, recognising the value of different perspectives can bring.

Tackling economic inactivity

A quick glance at the latest Office of National Statistics 2023 Labour Market data highlights the challenges. The headline figure shows that the UK unemployment rate sits at 4.2%, up on pre-pandemic levels. It also shows that our overall employment rate of those between 16 and 64 years old currently sits at just 75.7%. While the overall number of working-age people not in employment hasn’t increased a great deal since the pandemic, it stands at around 8.7 million people – this is certainly not an insignificant number, particularly for a nation looking hard at where to find the right skills needed to drive sustainable growth into the economy.

Real solutions focusing on real people

The latest figures show that greatest contributor to economic inactivity is by those suffering from long-term sickness, rising from around 2 million at the start of 2019 to 2.5 million by January 2023.

Understanding these trends and putting in place strategies to help combat the realities of this workforce change is critical for businesses like Amey who are highly dependent on having a trained, committed and flexible workforce available.

What is clear is that there is no single, simple solution to this on-going skills challenge; nor is the problem to be solved by the public or private sector alone.

As a UK wide organisation working in a range of locations, sectors and communities, our experience has shown us that we must work on multiple fronts with multiple initiatives to target a variety of demographics and specific life situations so as to entice and enable people back into life changing careers.

Identifying the UK skills potential

Our strategy is to invest in programmes that target the real issues preventing a return to work. That means focusing on different groups with different interventions.

This starts with a strong commitment to promoting disability inclusion and equality. By achieving Disability Confident Leader status and becoming a Visibly Better Employer in 2023, our focus has been on creating an inclusive and accessible work environment for disabled individuals. To do this, we have chosen to form a series of partnerships, some of which include:

• Maximus - through their Work in Health programme to help people with long term illness or disability back into the workplace.

• DFN Project Search: providing internships to candidates with learning difficulties.

• Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB): working to help people with sight loss into employment, using new tools and reasonable adjustments.

It is worth also highlighting that long-term sickness in the UK’s workforce accounted for 28% of total inactivity in January 2023, up from 23% at the start of 2019. This makes it the most common reason for economic inactivity.

And since much of this increase can often be linked to a post-pandemic deterioration in mental health, we are committed to creating working environments that support staff and actively enhance individual and team wellbeing.

Focussing on social mobility

While the UK’s economic inactivity total has certainly been driven by an increase in those with long term illness, a number of other key groups have been rising such as former students seeking work, those returning to work after a break or looking after family and those who feel actively discouraged from work or believe that no jobs are available to them.

Typically, many of these people are in less socially mobile communities, and for whom unemployment has often turned to unemployability.

Amey has been targeting these communities via a number of different programmes and partnerships with government and other organisations to demonstrate the very real opportunities, not just to work, but to build new and fulfilling careers. These programmes include:

• Sector-Based Work Academy Programme (SWAPS): A government backed partnership programme to job seekers the chance to learn new skills, gain work experience and help individuals to build their confidence and job prospects. A recent pilot in Amey’s Bradford schools project, resulted in two permanent job opportunities offered and a further four interviews booked.

• People Plus: This organisation provides a range of employment and skills services and as part of this partnership, Amey supports workshops and provides training courses to assist individuals to build confidence in their interview and job seeking skills. The most recent cohort saw 12 candidates put forward for interviews on our Glasgow schools contract.

• Amey’s ‘Journey to Work (JtW)’ initiative: Candidates attend employability workshops covering CV and interview skills and are given the opportunity to apply and be interviewed for jobs on the day. Amey and its partners also offer work experience and to date, some 84 people have found jobs after attending these events.

There is the wider call for all organisations to ‘open doors’, which is why Amey are actively supporting the likes of Business in the Communities’, Open Doors inclusive recruitment campaign.

Attracting the next generation

The UK’s economically inactive cohort also covers a range of specific groups such as young people, those returning from a career break, older workers, or prison leavers and former military personnel seeking help to reintegrate. Our strategy has been to provide help specific to their needs.

As such we have now developed a range of programmes, each with the overarching aim of building employability skills but targeted at and playing on the motivations and needs of the different individuals.

For example, many young people and ex-students leave education with little idea of what working life is like, or crucially, what skills they have to offer potential employers. In response, Amey supports a range of initiatives to assist including:

• Amey’s ‘HeadStart’ programme: Six-month placements to help boost the long-term job prospects for young people aged 18-28 by providing them with tailored on-the-job training and employment opportunities.

• Movement to Work: An employer-led initiative to tackle youth unemployment in the UK for which Amey has partnered with MTW to help young people find alternative routes to employment.

• The Duke of Edinburgh Award: An eighteen-month programme equipping young people for everything life will throw at them in the aftermath of the pandemic, so they are confident, resilient and ready for the future.

Building skills

Many of the facilities management roles carried out by the Amey team require specialist skills. But they also usually require the kind of confidence and life experience brought by older members of the workforce.

So, alongside youth focused activities, we have also identified a raft of initiatives targeted at upskilling key older groups that might have been or are at risk of falling out of the working population – either through lack of appropriate skills or lack of knowledge about how to change career direction.

This starts by helping individuals who have taken an extended career break, often due to reasons such as caregiving responsibilities, illness, or other personal reasons, back into work. Alongside this, as signatories to the Age Friendly Employer pledge, we:

• Recognise the importance and value of older workers.

• Are committed to improving work for people in their 50s and 60s (and beyond).

• Are prepared to take action to help them flourish in a multigenerational workforce.

Working with partners such as Maximus and their Restart programme and STEM Returners, many highly skilled workers have been returned to permanent employment.

As signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant and achieving Gold in the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme, our armed forces programme is designed to attract, onboard, and retain veterans, spouses, reservists, and cadets.

The goal is to leverage their skills, knowledge, and leadership abilities and offer support, work placements, mentoring and role matching to bring them into a new civilian world of work. In 2023, working with partners such as BuildForce and the Forces Transition Group, Amey hired 66 individuals from the armed forces community.

Similarly, we work with bother serving offenders and prions leavers providing them with skills and employment opportunities. This is run in partnership with Inside Job and New Futures Network, who promote our employment opportunities by helping candidates get into work and reduce reoffending.

We invest in these initiatives because we and our customers recognise the value of encouraging a diverse workforce, that tackles inequality and that supports all individuals back into the workplace. For Amey, recruiting from a range of backgrounds makes us a stronger and more resilient business.

And we are proud to say that these initiatives are reinforced by our Gold Award from Investors in People, which demonstrates our continued support once these individuals are part of the Amey team.

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