Elizabeth Taylor, Chief Executive Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), and Damien, Earlybird’s Head of Sales, sat down recently at an ERSA regional event in Brighton. During the Q&A Elizabeth discusses her remarkable journey in the employability sector which started in the 1980’s and shared the key focus areas for ERSA this year, including what UK Shared Prosperity Fund must do to adequately replace the European Social Fund.
Q: Welcome to “Employability Chats” Elizabeth. You have been Chief Executive of ERSA (Employment Related Services Association) since 2019 and have worked in the sector since the 1980’s. Tell us about your journey so far?
I had just graduated in my early 20’s. I'd been working running a very small business in Leicester, and had the opportunity to go and work at the business advice centre as a Youth Employment Advisor, helping people set up social enterprises under an urban funded programme. This was all just after the riots in some cities in the early 80s. My job was working with all ages, but it had a real youth focus. I think my passion for youth employment has never really gone away even as I’ve got older. I worked with some of the most disadvantaged communities in Leicester and Leicestershire. I ended up working with redundant miners up in the North Leicestershire coalfields, which was completely different to that inner city work. But one of the things that happened was we were talking to people about starting businesses, and a lot of them had business ideas that weren't viable and then they were looking at employment. We then got a reputation as somewhere to go. People just came to us for anything to do with employment and careers advice, not just business startups. So that sort of expanded my challenges and expanded my knowledge.
I learned a lot about getting people into work. I studied part time for a master's degree in Human Resource Management, because I wanted to put everything in that wider employment context. In the late 80s, I started managing European Social Fund programmes. So the whole journey since 2016, and what would happen at the end of European Social Fund money has connected with a thread right through my life.
I started as a business adviser, doing employment advice, delivering training courses, writing training courses, managing contracts. Then I moved to the Northwest of England where I'm originally from (I have a Northwest accent). We then started delivering what were then employment services contracts in our own right, then became a subcontractor for nine different Primes. So I went from very small, very local, very tailored, written to meet a need in a local community, through to working on New Deal, New Deal disabled people, Word Choice, Work In Health Programme, everything. So I think I've got a really good reach in the sector. And in many ways, I think, all those experiences is what I've carried forward into the job at ERSA
Q: ERSA is one of the UK’s most important membership bodies for those who deliver employment support. What would you say are the 3 main focus areas for ERSA this year?
Firstly, what I think is really important is what I will term our policy work, which straddles two of the focus areas. One of them's about talking to politicians, and to policymakers about what comes next. The other side of that is the whole comms piece about the importance of the sector This sector, established in the late 70s and early 80s, is a sector for all times and for all challenges, including high unemployment, or high employment, labour market shortages, the changing face of work,the cost of living crisis and the need for people to have better work. So I think it is essential to effectively convey the message about the sector's capabilities and contributions.
The second thing that I think comes really close to that is to engage with commissioners, whether it's the Department of Work and Pensions, DFA, Ministry of Justice, all local authorities of all shapes and sizes now with the SPF commissioning model. To actually demonstrate that the sector has the answers and hopefully for them to listen to the sector before they design contracts, rather than just put them out there. I actually believe in the employment support sector, that whatever is put out there, we can adapt to the challenge. Given the wealth of experience within the sector, our voices need to be heard.
Finally I think the other focus area for us is continuing to build a community of good practice. Getting people to network, to share ideas, to meet the challenges together.
Q: You are a shining example of someone who has built a career in the employability sector. You are passionate about people within the sector building “careers” rather than just having a job. What tangible things can be done to help deliver this?
There's obviously the whole piece of work that our sister organisation the IEP does, but I think alongside that is the whole thing about sustainable businesses in the sector. And about a recognition that the sector is always needed. It's a sector for good and bad times. I think that when people embark on a career in the sector, they need to know that there's going to be sustainable work. I've been continuously employed since I was 14 when I washed hair at the hairdressers. I've always had a job. But when I started working in the sector in 1983, I never thought I would always work in what is broadly the same sector. I think that there's a lot of people starting careers in the sector now, who can't necessarily say that long term this is what they'll do till they retire. I think a lot of that is because of the sector growing and shrinking with programmes. It rose with the New Deal then it dropped a bit and rose again with the work programme, probably at the highest at that point. And then it dropped again. And I think we are needed more than ever, and we need to have strong businesses and there needs to be some good market stewardship that keeps businesses in the sector. But businesses need to diversify a little bit as well so they look just beyond just employability.
Q: When we spoke together recently you talked about employment projects being “embedded in community”. Can you explain what this means and give us some examples from your experience?
I would say from my experience, that when we want to reach out to people who aren't typically engaged with the Jobcentre, there needs to be trusted relationships. For many people that's based on organisations that are known. Organisations where their family members or friends have been. Organisations they know deliver housing advice, finance advice, drugs and alcohol support, so they have really good networks. And I think that if we've got the challenge around economic inactivity, and we want to have trusted conversations with women, returners, or parents or people with care responsibilities, but good reputations, and the fact that you know the other go to places can. Now I don't mean any disrespect to the larger organisations in the sectors when I say that. I think that the good models of some of the larger organisations where they bring in their community partners really work. And there is innovation. I've seen things happen with Fair Start in Scotland, where they use social media to connect with people who perhaps didn't know about those large organisations. But, we've got to be more than an alternative Job Centre. We've got to be more professional, but at the same time, more community based, and that's where we will meet the challenges we've got going forward.
Q: ERSA has been working hard behind the scenes on the recent replacement of the European Social Fund for employment, skills and anti-poverty programmes. There were recent big announcements around its replacement, the UKSPF (UK Shared Prosperity Fund). What must UKSPF deliver to replicate its predecessor.
I think there's two sides to this. In terms of a recognition by those who've got shared prosperity funds, of the importance of people and skills. And not every local authority has put people and skills in their investment plans. We've had the restriction lifted so that “people and skills” money can be spent in 2023 but not every local authority will do that. So, we're going to get a big gap, a time gap. But, we've also got a funding gap between the level of investment that came from Europe, the match funding that we got not only from the government, but local authorities and national lotteries that enhance the pot of money for employment support. So we've two things we need to do, we need to keep proving what we can do. We need to tell good stories, but we need to back it up with good quantitative evidence. We need to prove the value for money that has been through some of that European Social Fund. I think that we need to keep knocking on the doors of local authorities, not only to tell them about the organisations, but to tell them about the communities and the people that have been served through ESF and can be served through SPF. I think we need to have conversations with employees about their challenges, and to then demonstrate what we could do through SPF people and skills. And we need to link that in with the wider agenda. The good of local commissioning is that every place is different. Seaside towns are different to Twin cities which are different to rural areas. What we need in Cornwall won't be the same as what we need in Cumbria. And that's what we need to really do with SPF, is shape it to address regional local needs.
Q: There has been much talk around an increase in “economic inactivity”. What do you think is currently driving it and what can the sector do to influence the outcomes in a positive way?
The first thing is we've got to recognise that some economic inactivity is by choice. Some people have been in that fortunate position that they could financially make that decision to leave the labour market. There are older people who have had enough of a pension pot or whatever. That is a completely different challenge to the people that have left the labour market, not necessarily by choice. They may be people who've got barriers that are not immediate to themselves. That may be around childcare, or they've got care responsibilities, or they've got health issues. So I think we've got to take a very individual or tailored approach to talking to people about what their issues are, both personal and the wider family circumstance around them. I think that really should determine employment support, not one size fits all. And a lot of it will be about reassurance. I think trying to force people to consider employment or force people back into work or force people into a particular job role won't work with people who are economically inactive because they're economically inactive for a reason.
Q: New tech tools for the sector’s improved operations is an area of interest. In conjunction with the important human to human interactions, what role do you think technology can play to help deliver better outcomes?
I think there are many things that we learned during the COVID lockdowns. We learned that there are things that could be done online. I think we've got to continue from that. But, I think alongside that, we've got to really address digital exclusion, and the people that can't access everything online, otherwise we won't get the benefit of tech today. I think that employment support is a service that's best delivered by humans. There is nothing like that interaction where you look somebody in the eye, but it can all be made more efficient with good tech that optimises that experience. I think the really important thing is that we've got to make sure that everybody's got a smartphone or a tablet or a computer. But they know how to use them as well. So I think if we're stepping forward in the brave new world, which I really sincerely hope we are, we've got to have all that other stuff behind to make sure it's all accessible so it doesn't become easier for some than others. People will have more difficult conversations on a call than face to face and will feel like it's more private than if they are sat in a large office. I think it's a recognition of the place for both tech and human interaction.
Q: In the spirit of work life balance, what does Elizabeth Taylor enjoy to keep things balanced outside of work?
I travel as much as I can. I'm very lucky that I live with close access to the Peak District, sometimes I'll have a night away there. I like football - I support Blackborn Rovers. I’ve also got grown up kids who play sports so I like watching them as well.
Q: If you had a magic wand and could make one change for the sector in 2023 and beyond what would it be?
Some long term contracting. There is a beautiful thing in Wales called Clause 30. Clause 30 is something that the Welsh Government put in contracts so that if the circumstances change to the economy such as we have another pandemic, they can adapt the contracts. It makes delivery and adjusting things easier. So long term contracts with something like clause 30, but not locking all the money into the long term. Being able to commission at a local level as well.