Earlybird “Employability Chats”: Q&A with Stuart Duffey

July 5, 2023

15 minute read 

In this week’s Q&A, Stuart shares his journey in the sector which started with Ingeus in the Northwest of England to launching, almost 6 years ago, a specialist recruitment agency for the employability and skills sector. We discuss the need for innovative strategies to ensure job seekers possess the skills required by employers and the power of technology in addressing employability challenges.

Stuart Duffey - Director, Coyne Recruitment

Q: Welcome to “Employability Chats” Stu. You are a Director from Coyne Recruitment which specialises in roles for the Employability and Skills sectors. Can you tell us about Coyne Recruitment and how they came to specialise in this space?

Thanks for having me. Coyne recruitment is a specialist recruiter for the sector. We recruit from the frontline through to Chief Executive so the full remit across the skills and employability scene. The reason we work in the sector is that my business partner & I used to be managers and directors of Prime providers. We were hiring managers as well as candidates when we were made redundant. The biggest thing we saw was that the recruiters within our space, unfortunately, the vast majority of them were not very good. 

When I was working at  Ingeus I always remember recruiting in Norwich for an Employment Partnership Coordinator - not an easy job to fill, a really strong skill set of going out and engaging with employees and talking about the challenges of taking candidates from being unemployed into employed work.  I always remember, I had nine interviews booked for the day and every person who turned up didn't know how to say “Ingeus”. We got all kinds of weird and wonderful words, and that was just the tip of the iceberg that the recruiter never took time to even talk to the candidates about what the company was called, never mind what the job entails, what the company was about, what the visions and values of that organisation was. That always stuck in my mind. We're using some really poor people and paying them quite considerable amounts of money to find us a solution. I spoke to lots of my peers from other businesses and they had very similar experiences. 

When I was, unfortunately, made redundant, it was a little bit like, right, I can go and find another job and I had quite a few opportunities to do so. But, I had this itch to work for myself and I thought I really am quite passionate about the welfare to work and employability sector. You and I have met a number of IEP events and one of my big purposes is to professionalise the sector and it’s great that Scott and the team at IEP are helping the sector to do so.  Also, the sector needs a professional recruitment partner and my career prior to working in employability was in very white collar professional recruitment. So it's putting the two and two together, and that's a little bit of where Coyne recruitment was born from me and Dan.  We joined forces with a guy called Andrew, who had set up a recruitment company to do healthcare - we came in and said right, we're not doing healthcare anymore, we're now doing skills and employability. That's where we've been since almost six years ago in September. 


Q: What about your own journey - what came first for you in your career, was it recruitment or employability and skills?

I was going to say unfortunately recruitment, but then that's got me to where I need to be now.  After university I went and had a completely different lifestyle career. I went and worked overseas and then came back from overseas and was like, what am I going to do?  Am I going to use my degree in history and archeology and become the Scouse Indiana Jones or  am I going to find a career path? 

I fell into recruitment and went for a couple of interviews and I eventually ended up in one of the most prestigious recruitment organisations in the world, Page Group. I very much grew with that business, was there for a long period of time, moved from being a Trainee Consultant up to being a Regional Manager. Then I was poached to go and work for Randstad which is a big organisation in the world of recruitment. 

I was actually at a local networking event covering what was going on in and around the Liverpool City region at the time, and I bumped into one of the directors of Ingeus, a guy called Barry Fletcher. We got talking and he told me a little bit about the Welfare to Work sector and it piqued an interest and I went away from the event. 15 months later an opportunity came up at Ingeus and I thought I am going to put my hat into the ring. It's a bit scary, it's a bit different but there are transferable skills. I ended up at Ingeus in a regional role looking after the employer services team across the Northwest that was on the work program and I completely fell in love with the employability market and what the guys on the coal face were doing. I always think the people who are doing frontline delivery in the employability and welfare to work sector are the absolute heroes. Yes we need the people with the strategy and the foresight and the service delivery and everything behind them but what they are doing day in and day out is so difficult to pour in a bottle. I remember touring around the offices in the Northwest, from Preston, St Helens, The Wirral, Liverpool and just seeing the impact that they were having on people I passed in the street. That experience is a hook and if you speak to lots of senior people in our sector they sort of fall into our sector and then the fire keeps them. 

At the end of the week I often catch up with friends who are Directors at other recruitment companies and they always say you can make loads more money doing recruitment in IT or Finance but I don’t like IT or Finance. I love speaking to people in our sector and what they do, and what they deliver. So that's where the passion to stay in that sector came from once I was in it.  That's what Coyne recruitment is still doing, being part of and servicing that sector. Consulting the sector and hopefully attracting people and talent to come in and bring their skills for the participants that we serve.


Q: We both recently attended the IEP summit and dinner in London on June 15th. There were broad, interesting discussions and debates during the day and into the evening. What were your key takeaways from the event?  

It was a fantastic event. It’s the fourth year and I've been lucky enough to have been at every single one of them and they just keep getting better and better and better.  I think the seminars, the keynote speakers were just brilliant. Sarah O’Connor from the Financial Times talking about AI  - it was brilliant and scary in equal measure. That was a key takeaway around technology and how we need to harness and utilise technology and invest in it. How we need to consult commissioners and the powers that be of how and when technology fits into employability and welfare to work and where it should fit. Where the human side of things needs to be, but where the tech can support that.

I thought Andy Haldane from The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was brilliant as well, talking about quite complex economic challenges but giving context in real life and making it understandable. The insights about the labour market and economic space that we're in now, and we're trying to use economic tools from 20 or 40 years ago.  You don't use the same tool that your Grandad used to change a plug so why are we doing that? I was lucky enough to sit next to Christina Beatty (Sheffield Hallam University) at dinner and we went down quite a few rabbit holes. She was one of the responders to one of the seminars. 

Another one of the big takeaways that knit the two sectors that I serve in skills and employability was the green skill set and the current skill gap. Everyone's talking about it. Everyone knows it’s so important and there are opportunities and challenges there. I've been to quite a few events now where it’s been talked about from both a skills and employability side and I still don't see any solutions coming through. 

It's upon us…if there's a Labour government next, they talk about huge amounts of investments into green energy, where are the skills? Where are the people? And even if it's not a Labour government, we need to get on top of this. I just don’t see where the solutions are. I’ve got a few ideas myself but they're not going to fix them. We need to really collaboratively work with one another, give pathways from academic education and vocational education, utilise the candidate pools for people who come and join employability programs like Work and Health Programmes and Restart. Say, look, this is a pathway, this is an opportunity for you and for long term employment. It's not only going to help your financial security and give you skills for life. It's going to help the environment. It's going to help society. I think it's such a big takeaway and I hope it continues being top of the agenda and that we see more solutions in the coming weeks and months.


Q: We chatted together at the IEP summit about recruitment challenges for the sector and it was raised again at an ERSA event I attended in Leicester last week. What roles are organisations having challenges filling and what key reasons do you think sits behind these challenges?

That's a big question, Damien, it really is, and there are so many compartments for the reasons of those challenges. Providers at the moment are struggling to recruit right across the board. Certainly those delivering frontline staff that we talked about before. The funding that some of the Primes and therefore the Subprimes get for running these programs, it’s simply not enough to invest in quality technology, to invest in quality curriculum and interventions and ultimately to invest in people and develop people with the skill set. We're still paying frontline employment advisers the same salary as what I was paying them back in 2013/14. In 10 years there has been no salary improvement.  These guys do such a phenomenal job working with somebody over a six, nine, 12 month period. Getting them to be job ready and putting them out into the world of sustainable employment. The economic effects that this has has not been quantified back down to what that person does.

Other factors are economic challenges like the pandemic, like Brexit and government spending. We are always going to have to box within that as a sector. But, attracting new people with transferable skills to come in and pay them less than what they might be earning in something that they've trained to do is a challenge. I know Scott and the IEP in particular want to make our sector a career choice and I think we will see that soon from the fantastic training from the team such as Helen puts together. People find out about employability, from either being unemployed or seeing job updates, and they need the big Prime Providers to sell that as an opportunity or businesses like mine to go out and sell the sector but it's so difficult with the financial constraints and I think that ultimately that’s the core,  it's financial. It's going to be a tough one to square. 

What leaders within our sector need to do is that they need to go and consult commissioners properly. Go and speak to them and say for this level of service this is what it's going to cost financially and these are the reasons why. I think for a long period of time commissioners locally and in central governments have come with a pot of money and said we want these outcomes and here's what you need to do and this is how much money we're going to give, and I think they've been a bit too much. 

There will be senior people who will say that doesn't happen and that there is lots of dialogue but certainly from where I see it and lots of people in the sector see it, there is a philosophy that we’ll just take this pot of money and we'll see what we can do and hopefully we can get performance and hopefully we can help people. I think it needs to flip a little bit now, we need to go in and say for this premium service to help these people who are really struggling, who really need our support, this is what it's going to cost. This is what we're going to need to pay people.


Q: If we can focus on challenges recruiting frontline roles for a moment - I chatted to a contact from one of the larger providers a few months back and they shared with me that the challenge with attracting and retaining frontline staff was being driven by the high amount of admin which takes frontline staff’s time away from being able to support participants which is what frontline staff really love to do. Does that resonate with you in your experience?

It does, particularly for frontline advisers and job coaches who have been in the sector for a long time. Contracts like Restart for example is a real challenge with paperwork and admin point of view. It’s very frustrating because it is condensing the amount of time they can spend supporting people. There have been lots of new entrants into the market with programmes like JETS and Kickstart after the pandemic and some of those guys were recruited with not all the transferable skills. We need to invest more in training because we don’t do enough as a sector. Individual businesses are great but as a sector we don’t do enough which then hinders retention. In regards to attraction, we need more storytelling about what a great sector it is and what the progression routes are. At the recent IEP event looking around the room, almost all the middle and senior leaders have been in employability and started as advisers. We need to say you could be CEO or Chief Executive. We do that at Coyne but we need to work collaboratively between the Primes, IEP and the rest of the sector to do more of this. More storytelling.  


Q: In regards to admin and processes, there was keen discussion at the IEP summit around new tech such as AI which can optimise processes, and that organisations should be open to piloting some of these new tools. What role can tech play for our sector without removing the important human to human connection which we know is important?  

Technology is really important and we can do so much with some of the software tools that are now available to us. Tools making paperwork easy. Can we use AI? Can we engage with businesses such as yours who can make that compliance and paperwork easy and then allow that human element to empathise and understand the situation the participant might be in. Then create a plan and work through for that person because you know that some of the work has been done by good quality, compliant technology. We can be mindful of using tools which allow meetings remotely so we aren’t shackled by geography. But we do need to be mindful of the participants we are serving and not everyone will have access to a laptop or smartphone and not all of them will be savvy. We were talking about the over 50’s and that is a real buzzword at the moment. Not all people over 50 know how to use these tools. If we invest in technology, the sector will need to be flexible with some groups to support them. The future of using tech and digital tech - we need to embrace it but make sure we invest in good quality technology. We should embrace it but be mindful of how we mix that with the fantastic human values that run through the core of the sector.  


Q: What tech tools do you and your team like to use in your role to help you?

We embrace technology at Coyne. We use lots of tools from the mobile telephone and lots of other applications including Google Meet, Zoom, Teams, Whatsapp. Linkedin is a fantastic tool for us. I’m big into ChatGPT at the moment. It’s a bit of an obsession at the moment looking at ways it can help with things like marketing, how we reach people and what hooks people in. I spend lots of time after hours thinking about those things and how I can use AI to support me so I have a better work life balance. I can then spend more time on the phone helping people and consulting. We just launched a new website that has more interaction coming through. The team at Cyberfrog who helped us build it did a phenomenal job. We are also looking at some other new tools at the moment - we have demo’s with some companies from the USA and Australia about how we interact with people so watch this space as there is going to be even more on the horizon.   


Q: In the spirit of celebrating a healthy work life balance, what do you enjoy doing outside of work? 

Everybody who has ever met me or spoken to me knows that I am an avid  Liverpool Football Club fan and follow them everywhere. Last season wasn’t great but hopefully we will bounce back and I’m excited for the new year. I’ll continue to do that and post pictures from wherever I travel to see the Reds. I’m lucky I have a fantastic family, my wife is a primary school teacher in a difficult area of Liverpool and does an amazing job. My 10 year old daughter is a little diva and has got into acting so I find I spend lots of time ferrying her between Liverpool and Salford where she does lots of TV and theatre stuff. Family life is a great breakaway from work and I enjoy my other job of being a Dad. 

I’ve also got holidays on the horizon - Cyprus at the beginning of August, Venice at the end of August and New York in October so plenty of trips I'm looking forward to.    


Q: If you had a magic wand and could make one change to help the sector deliver better outcomes, what would it be?

I would love to wave the magic wand across the cabinet office, the DWP and all the other different government paymasters and see if we could link it all together. Can we link childcare costs and availability and the NHS and access and DWP. If they could collaboratively work together to pull a programme together that brings all of that ecosystem together, all of those services then I would say watch us go as a sector. We have then got the ability to help someone who comes in struggling with childcare, looking for  a job, not able to get to a dentist and is looking to add skills to get a better job. If we had a programme like that that is all paid for and budgeted for and hit some of the goals those individual departments are trying to achieve then this sector becomes the pedestal sector in the whole country. 

If I could use the magic wand a second time then I would love to see a programme that is “intervention performance” based rather than “financial performance” or “job outcome performance” based. This comes from my time in Manchester on the pilot scheme of Working Well. If we were asked to put the right interventions in place at the right time then again watch us go and really make a difference. 

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