Want to work, want to employ; accessing benefits, recruiting and retaining staff – the prosperity conundrum.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Ingun Borg, Principle Research Officer from the Department of Work and Pensions, talk at the Eating Affordances and Decent Helping conference in Sheffield. I thought I was fairly well up on multi-agency work and the dynamics involved in the labour market. What a novice I proved to be sat there in the audience! Universal Credit and its impact is far reaching and has the ability to threaten or offer-up economic opportunity, depending on how well it is understood and implemented across the board – right from the public sector through to industry. There are jobs (hundreds of them) out there in Greater Manchester in the food and beverage sector alone. Surveys carried out by local housing associations show it is the number one area young people want to work in. But what if they have families? And why, if we have ready and willing people and employment opportunity, does there feel such a stalemate?

Could this be due, in part, to the change from ‘in-work’ benefits to the Universal Credit system, the new way of bringing together and simplifying the benefits system?

In-work benefits have now been swallowed up by the Universal Credit system, the new in-work ‘conditionality’ now links to working hours and is likely to affect around 1 million workers. In order to claim Universal Credit, individuals and their partners have to comply with an earnings threshold in order to receive their payments, and this forms part of their ‘progression’ contractual obligations. In essence, the government wants people to earn more and is pushing for upwards progression, out of dependency.

Claimants have various options to try and satisfy this; ask for more money for the same job, ask for more hours, get a better paid job or seek alternative/additional employment with more hours. This leads to more insecure work and can prove very tricky for families to manage. Families have to become better and better at operating and functioning, developing household strategies that enable them to be able to live and work, getting ever more complicated with more employers and more ad hoc working (due to factors such as zero-hours contracts and working multiple jobs). These strategies have a knock-on effect on their families and wider social networks. Grandparents, neighbours and friends who act as childcare, logistics providers and extended carers are all impacted.

The importance of these local social networks in enabling employment entry and sustainability cannot be underestimated. For lone parents this is even more tricky with the whole family involved to enable the parent to provide for their family. ‘Household coordination points’ and infrastructure of everyday life such as the ability to access a car, utilise or afford breakfast/after school clubs or simply being in the locality of your employer all determine where and how many can work. This all serves to put added pressure on the workers and ultimately employers need to be able and willing to accommodate this challenge in order to be able to access the full spectrum of today’s labour market.

Around two-thirds of Universal Credit claimants are in work. So when planning the next recruitment drive for living wage staff on zero-hours contracts maybe there won’t be quite so many CVs landing in employers’ inboxes. Will the tide shift, whereby large corporate organisations have to support their staff on an individual basis at local level, finally be picked up through new HR strategies? And will we see more and more over 50s seek to provide this necessary buffer, leaving work prior to national state pension age in order to support their own families’ childcare needs? What will be the economic trend look like, the health and social care burden? Looking at whole systems approaches, this blog started on the back of being able to afford to eat or being able to access food of an adequate nutrition and ended with ageing badly for those most disadvantaged. Not through our usual direct cause and effect route, such as diet-related ill-health but something far more complex and ugly.