Employer engagement is increasingly emphasised in the context of efforts to bring more disadvantaged people into work. One specific approach of employer engagement is Supported Employment, in which a job coach (job broker) interacts closely with jobseekers and employers, as intermediaries.
Supported Employment is gaining in popularity in an activation work context. Although the method is not new it is currently conquering new territories in terms of which institutions that adhere to the method and in types of user groups. Originally developed in the US targeting people with mental disabilities for potential labour market integration, the method is now used directed at a wide range of user groups such as young unemployed persons, people with various health impairments causing reduced work capability and other various reasons for being long-term unemployed.
In our paper we look at how Supported Employment has been adapted to a Norwegian public employment service (PES), targeting a user group consisting of young people who struggle with their labour market entry.
The Norwegian Employment and Welfare Service (NAV) introduced Supported Employment (SE) as an inhouse service. In SE, the client becomes directly integrated into the labour market in the sense that an employer serves as an arena for training the client. The client’s needs are thus seen in relation to specific employer’s needs.
Job coaches in the NAV emphasise building close and personal relations with local employers by spending time with them and taking an interest in their recruitment needs. This practice is linked to strict guidelines for Supported Employment and specific performance targets, including targets for weekly employer contacts, percentage time spent out of the office with employers and users and targets in the form of successful job matches.
Thus, the introduction of Supported Employment in the public service agency is hinged on the ability of job coaches to establish personal contact and to build relations with local employers. This means that the agency staff have a strong incentive to maintain good relations with local employers.
However, a significant risk is that employers typically view public employment services as primarily maintaining unemployed peoples’ income security, and not meeting employers’ needs. The public employment service’s role of assisting the weakest workers may thus hinder employer cooperation and job brokering.
The caseworkers in our study identified the clients most likely to be able to find work in terms of informally assessing the clients’ personal motivation for work. This practice can be characterised as creaming within the public employment service, as the users with fewer barriers to work are prioritised for the insourced Supported Employment service.
Reducing the risk of employers turning against the public service because of bad experiences with ‘unfit’ users, serves as an important reason for creaming users by their motivation to work. For the job coaches, working with clients who are considered motivated is felt to be easier for maintaining the relationship with employers.
Hence, although relational work directed at both employers and young clients may be held as the very advantage of employer engagement, relational work alone may prove to be a rather flimsy foundation for activation work, unless supported by some of the more structural approaches available in the demand-side toolbox.
Moreover, insourcing services such as in the Norwegian context, is usually seen as a response to the creaming and parking dilemmas of outsourcing and marketisation of employment services to secure a release of outcome payments. Payment by results is not a relevant issue when insourcing employment services to the public agency. However other factors contribute to the same unintended consequence of creaming.
First, because the outcome of employer engagement services is highly measurable in the sense of obtained employment or non-obtained employment, such services bear a risk of creaming users irrespective of the type of provider.
Second, the target group of clients, who in this case was young unemployed aged under 30 years, constitutes a rather homogenous group in which the great majority of the users had short educational records and empty CVs. Therefore, the young clients’ own motivation was just about the only asset left for the job coaches to sell to an employer.
Thus, although a central mechanism behind creaming is regarded to be heterogeneity in the user group we suggest that the public employment service can also cream users from a homogenous group. Creaming implies unequal access of clients to services. While mitigating the risk of creaming clients is a core challenge of outsourcing, this challenge remains equally significant in public, insourced provision of employment engagement services.
About the authors
Heidi Moen Gjersøe is Associate Professor at OsloMet.
Anne Hege Strand is Researcher at Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research.