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Supporting effective personalisation in employability services


Personalisation has become a buzzword in employability. But has the employment sector achieved personalisation and, if not, what should it look like?

A wealth of studies evidences the effectiveness of a personalised approach to employability services. The term frequently litters policy documents. Yet, seemingly, current public systems are not capable of delivering it.

Reform is needed to adequately respond to the unemployment crisis facing the UK. Technology designed to deliver, track and measure personalised employability outcomes, while leaving work coaches with the autonomy to establish the best path into work for their clients, can enable effective services to be delivered at scale and with speed.

Here we explore how, where and why the right technology can enhance a personalised approach to employability.

Universal Credit and personalisation

Between 2002-2006, job centres and benefits offices were combined into Jobcentre Plus (JCP) offices. These were intended to provide an employment-first gateway to the benefits system. Integrating employability and benefits services has been pinpointed as a cause of benefit cycling. Claimants move through cycles of low-paid work and unemployment. This was exacerbated in 2011 when JCPs started to measure staff performance by the number of people moving off benefits rather than the number moving into sustained employment.

Universal Credit was introduced in 2013. It was a ‘digital first’ system that consolidated existing benefits and offered greater personalisation. Claimant commitments replaced the Job Seekers Agreement which ‘‘had become little more than a checklist”. The concept was for jobseekers and work coaches to co-design a path to employment.

However, a survey from the DWP found that only around half of Universal Credit claimants felt that their personal circumstances had been taken into consideration. Just over 60% felt their commitment was achievable. The Social Advisory Security Committee (SSAC) investigated the effectiveness of claimant commitments. They found that many had not been sufficiently personalised. In some cases generic requirements were being ‘cut and pasted’ from a central document.

The study acknowledged that, given the pressures work coaches face, this is understandable but cannot be called giving claimants bespoke plans. And the pressure is only set to increase as unemployment rises, despite the DWP hiring 13,500 new work coaches. It is therefore imperative that a more efficient and effective system is implemented to support work coaches to deliver a truly personalised service.

The negative impact of sanctions

Criticism has also been levelled at the reliance on sanctions to motivate jobseekers. Professor Peter Dwyer, director of the Welfare Conditionality Project, found the threat of sanctions for non-compliance with the terms laid out in the claimant commitment fostered a “culture of counterproductive compliance and futile behaviour”. Some claimants simply learn “the rules of the game” rather than becoming genuinely engaged with work.

He reflected, “The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative”. Imposing rigid rules on jobseekers, threatening them with financial consequences, and relying on a system which doesn’t allow for flexibility has the unintended effect of increasing stress and demotivation.

Instead, personalised employability support should be tailored to the individual and flexible around their needs. Jobseekers who feel that their circumstances, goals and skills, as well as market conditions, have been considered are much more likely to find and sustain employment.

Evidence-based personalisation

Measuring work coach success on the number of claimants moving off benefits is not helpful. However, there is a distinct lack of data collection and analysis in place to measure the effectiveness of JCP’s approach to getting claimants into work, which centres around the claimant commitment.

The system being used across JCP offices is not capable of gathering the insights required to understand how effective claimant commitments are. This is due, at least in part, to the difficulty the system has with the free text boxes used in a claimant commitment. However, the technology does exist to effectively analyse free text and it should be used here. To deal with the scale of unemployment the UK faces, a culture of continuous improvement relies on data needs being applied.

According to the SSAC, the shortcomings of the DWPs centralised system has led some JCPs to create their own system to analyse the quality and effectiveness of claimant commitments. This takes away valuable time from already stretched work coaches. In addition, the lack of a standardised approach means methods cannot be compared across the UK. The right data could provide valuable insights and enable effective measures to be copied across areas with similar demographics and market conditions. This will increase the effectiveness of the whole system.

In a recent report conducted with public service think tank Reform, Mark Jennings, Managing Director at Accenture, commented:

“At the moment, work coaches use an array of techniques to help claimants back into employment, but nobody is recording the results of this mass experiment. That is a wasted opportunity that urgently needs to be rectified.”

Automating and standardising data collection and analysis to identify what works, as well as areas for improvement, will be essential in addressing widespread unemployment. Technology cannot, and should never replace human intelligence. However, it can form an invaluable tool to support work coaches, improve decision making and provide a standard to measure effectiveness.

Techniques to enhance personalisation

Analytics is not the sole benefit of improving the digital tools used in employability. Giving work coaches access to comprehensive systems that allow them to better manage their caseload and track the progress of individuals saves valuable time. Digital services accessed by jobseekers, when created well, enable users to access training and advice at any time.

During recent months, a similar transition has been accelerated across the education sector with clear benefits. The flexibility of online study enables learners to progress in their own time and to monitor progress, increasing motivation.

What’s more, carefully programmed nudges have been found to enhance commitment to employment-related tasks. The Behavioural Institute found that “compared to an automated fact-based message, a personalised, behaviourally informed text that incorporated reciprocity (the tendency to respond to a positive action with another positive action) by including ‘I’ve booked you a place. Good luck.’ increased attendance at job fairs from 10.5% to 26.8%, improving employment prospects.”

Using sophisticated employability technology will allow work coaches to make use of insights like these by pre-programming timely communications and recording the outcomes against client profiles, so they can develop an understanding of what works.

Furthermore, a study by the University of Edinburgh used an online platform to give jobseekers recommendations for jobs they may have missed that matched their career interests. They saw call backs for job interviews increase by 50% and, interestingly, found that this approach most benefited people who had been out of work for longer and who typically had a much narrower job search.

This shows that using intelligent algorithms that take into account aspirations and skills can encourage jobseekers to broaden their search, thereby increasing the chance of their finding work. Allowing technology to contribute frees up work coach time to deliver deeper, more targeted support where it is needed.

The evidence shows that personalisation can enhance the effectiveness of employability initiatives. Identifying and implementing digital technology that enables work coaches to create, track and analyse personalised employment pathways should be a priority for providers.

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