This piece of writing is part of a series of blogs designed to stimulate discussion around the five key elements of the ERSA Manifesto: commissioning, complex needs, skills, employer needs, youth employment. Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

There is a growing body of evidence which clearly demonstrates that addressing skills needs helps individuals to not only get into, but also progress, in work.  Consequently, skills provision is increasingly being recognised as a vital element within employment support programmes.

However, concerns have been raised by employment support providers about the lack of direct access to funding for skills provision and the challenge of taking the alternative approach (i.e. to work in partnership with a funded skills provider). In an attempt to deal with the challenges of working in partnership, a sector led group including NIACE and ERSA produced a guide to support more effective collaboration between employment support providers and skills providers, tackling some of the myths, misconceptions and issues about partnership working. The guide includes information on:

Year on year cuts to the Adult Skills Budget, through which skills provision for unemployed adults is funded, has led to skills providers being reticent about committing to increase their work in partnership with employment support providers. Despite a steady increase in the participation of unemployed learners aged 19+ in skills provision, primarily through increased Jobcentre Plus referrals, to 645,800 in 2012/13, participation dropped to 581,900 in 2013/14. The Skills Funding Agency announcement that they estimate a 24% cut in skills provider budget allocations for non-apprenticeship delivery in 2015/16 is inevitably going to result in a further large decline in participation.

Particularly worrying to Work Programme providers should be the fact that the participation of people on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has always been much below that of people on Job Seekers Allowance. This is despite people claiming ESA being more likely to be long term unemployed and therefore being more likely to need to refresh their skills.

Policy makers consider localised approaches as a potential means of making reduced funding go further through greater efficiencies. But this will not happen of its own accord. To support the effectiveness of localised approaches, NIACE and Inclusion have recently recommended that local partners, Jobcentre Plus and local Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) should work together to develop protocols on joint working, including information sharing covering employment and skills. We have also recommended that Local Enterprise Partnerships should take on an oversight role to ensure that local skills providers prioritise long-term unemployed adults to ensure that adequate volumes of skills provision are made available to them.

Although diminishing budgets are worrying, the really positive recent development is the increased involvement of housing associations as funders and providers of skills provision for unemployed adults. Housing associations have got involved because welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax and reductions in young people’s eligibility for housing benefit have affected their residents’ ability to pay their rents. Housing associations have therefore tried to do what they can to provide employability skills, ICT training, and work experience in the hope that more of their residents find work. It is difficult to estimate the increased volume of skills provision through housing associations but many of the schemes are supporting hundreds of learners each year so they are making a significant contribution. Perhaps we can inspire other types of institutions to fund and supply skills provision similarly by helping them see more clearly where it is in their interests to do so?

Rob Gray, Head of Pre-employment Skills, NIACE