To tackle unemployment, start by empowering jobseekers

Supporting and empowering jobseekers has better results than the current “economic” approaches used by jobcentres up and down the country. BasPhoto/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever lost your job, you’ll know how overwhelming and difficult it can be. One day you’re in work, the next you’re not – and so starts the hunt to find another job.

This can be particularly tricky if you lose your job when the labour market is sluggish and when there’s been a slump in job vacancies – as is the case at the moment. Indeed, recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of people in work has seen its biggest drop in more than four years – and that the number of job vacancies has declined too.

Traditional solutions to tackle unemployment include increasing the number of jobs available – perhaps through subsidising private sector employers – or making jobs more attractive, by increasing minimum wages. Alternatively, unemployment can be made less attractive – by increased monitoring, or decreased generosity or duration of unemployment benefits. But a lot of the studies in this area show that such methods are not that effective. Increasing minimum wages doesn’t seem to have the desired impact on employment rates and punitive measures that aim to encourage people to apply for more jobs also seem to be limited.

A new approach

In our research, we worked with more than 110,000 participants to take a different approach to finding work. This included tackling two major barriers to employment: low morale and the challenge of looking for a job effectively. Across two studies, we tested the impacts of a bundle of interventions aimed at overcoming these barriers with a group of jobseekers.

We worked with 15 Jobcentres across one county to roll out a version of our approach over the course of a year. Our approach used evidence from psychology and behavioural economics to design a process that put jobseekers in control of their journey.

We started with simplifying the upfront paperwork and reduced the number of signatures required from 14 to two. We also made sure all legal documents were written clearly and accessibly. This made it easier for jobseekers to understand what was going on and also meant we could spend less time on paperwork and more time on supporting people to find jobs.

We also changed the nature of Jobcentre coaching meetings. Where previously conversations were backward looking – “What have you done in the last two weeks?” – they became forward looking – “What do you think you could do in the next two weeks?” This change helped improve jobseekers’ focus on searching for work and also ensured concrete plans were made – for example, “I’ll apply for five jobs on Wednesday morning.” Coaches helped jobseekers make these plans and encouraged them to write them in a booklet.

We also made sure coaches asked jobseekers how many jobs they thought they could apply for before the next appointment. This replaced the existing practice of reminding them that a minimum of three jobs must be identified.

Help over compliance

It took a month or two for the new approach to take hold and start delivering results – proof that new ideas don’t make a huge difference overnight – but taken together, these small tweaks made a big difference. Meetings between jobseekers and their coaches, for example, became much more focused on making concrete plans and helping the jobseeker, rather than on whether or not they’d complied with the rules.

To measure the success of our work, we looked specifically at how our changes impacted the length of time people claimed unemployment benefits for at one Jobcentre. We found that people enrolled in our new approach were about 3% less likely to still be claiming unemployment benefits at 13 weeks – this is the period of time the Department for Work and Pensions uses to measure success. This effect may seem small, but for an intervention that’s practically free, it’s nothing to be sniffed at. We also found that Jobcentres that were performing least well before the study experienced the biggest benefits from the new approach.

The change of approach helped more jobseekers find work. Shift Drive/Shutterstock

There also wasn’t any evidence that the people working with our approach were getting jobs that would otherwise have been taken by the people using the old approach. This means that the intervention seems to genuinely increase the number of job vacancies that are being filled – rather than swapping jobs around between people.

It seems that approaches that focus on supporting and empowering jobseekers – rather than on compliance – seem to show as much, if not more promise than the current “economic” approaches used by Jobcentres up and down the country. All of which is important, particularly given that losing your job is considered to be one of life’s most stressful experiences.