It’s well known that across the UK job security and financial security are not equally felt - and this was the case even before the pandemic. Unfortunately, COVID-19 made the situation even worse, particularly those who were in already precarious situations such as those on zero hours contracts, or lower incomes.
Over the past 18 months, many people have found themselves on furlough, reduced hours or – at the extreme end – unemployed or made redundant, especially younger generations. Unless there are positive steps to change the current employment landscape across the entire UK, (the Chancellor’s recent messaging around a renewed focus on jobs creation and upskilling the UK workforce indicates that the government is well aware of a need for change), many young people face long-term unemployment which could have a hugely detrimental effect on their mental health making it even more difficult to return to employment or get their foot in the door in the first place.
One way of helping to break the cycle is offering people access to new digital tools and support to help find work and improve their finances at the right time, in the right place and tailored as much to their needs as possible. Unfortunately, the range of support options can overlap and cause confusion, which has created a lack of awareness both among individuals, as well as those within support networks themselves, about where and how this vital help can be accessed.
This is where there is an opportunity for the government - both on a national and especially local level - to step in and play an important role in engaging with providers of high-quality tools and services, directly linking them with communities and individuals who are struggling and would benefit from support.
This approach at a local level is incredibly important as it allows service providers to cater to the specific needs of the community - whether that is a response to the ethnic make-up of the local population or the disappearance of particular industries or regional large employers.
Connecting the dots - how government should be connecting services with people
The Social Market Foundation was commissioned by Nesta Challenges to create a report setting out details of how central and local government can and should step up to change people’s lives for the better in the wake of COVID-19. Guaranteeing a Rapid Recovery was published in the same week that we announced the winners of our Rapid Recovery Challenge, an innovation funding challenge designed to improve access to jobs and financial support through helping innovators scale solutions that deliver personalised, tailored support to those hardest hit by the pandemic. The report found that a change of approach is desperately needed to support communities to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Government approach to supporting the signposting of innovation and useful tools and services on jobs and enhancing financial resilience needs to go further. This lack of coordination makes it harder for innovators to scale up, reach their potential audiences, limiting their impact as it can be all but impossible to reach the “critical mass” needed to be successful. This is currently having a disproportionate impact on a regional level as the recovery remains unbalanced.
A new approach is vital, the Government must be more hands-on in developing and supporting networks that engage with communities at a grassroots level, to coordinate efforts to guide people to improve their job prospects, access financial support and, in time, reach a level of employment and financial stability and security.
It is this grassroots approach which will be vital in supporting communities more effectively. Local government is often able to be more agile than central government in driving change and has a better understanding of local communities to make a positive difference.
One method of doing so (as is suggested in the SMF report) which is growing in popularity and prevalence is social prescribing. This method would enable GPs, nurses, and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of non-medical services such as community projects, to support and boost their health and wellbeing. Again, this is likely to be much more effective on a local level, where primary care professionals are able to react to the community’s needs and are more likely to have cultivated existing relationships with local non-medical services. In addition, tools, such as those developed through the Rapid Recovery Challenge could be prescribed as part of the service. Social prescribing could play an important role in restoring financial resilience given the links between employment and health and wellbeing.
By unlocking access to innovative solutions (designed using co-production techniques and with maximum efficiency in mind) through social prescribing, far greater numbers can be supported. Whilst social prescribing is available to some extent at the moment, medical professionals are understandably stretched incredibly thin and need greater support to standardise this approach. Local government, however, is well placed to respond to the region’s needs than initiatives introduced centrally. NHS England is currently rolling out new 'social prescribing link workers' to primary care to boost capacity – this is a much-needed step and hopefully a sign of positive things to come., These roles will be most effective once these workers have established regional relationships with key stakeholders and support channels.
As mentioned, navigating the landscape of service providers can make it difficult for individuals to seek suitable support. Local Government is best-placed to connect services, guide those in need to the most effective support and transform the sector into a much more efficient model. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to bolster financial resilience and improve access to the jobs market across the entire UK.
Leveraging innovation to level up a post-pandemic UK?
For the government to fully support people across the UK, the development and rollout of effective and innovative tools is needed in all regions. We’ve been hearing about levelling up for a couple of years now but the wide economic gap across the UK remains, and arguably has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
So how can the UK ensure a balanced recovery from the pandemic? The answer could be combining the levelling up agenda with a more impassioned desire for driving innovation. This has been central to the Rapid Recovery Challenge, which has supported 14 innovative organisations to develop vital tools which will provide a much-needed boost to over 1,000,000 people across the UK by 2023.
The two winners of the prize, Hastee and Udrafter, epitomise exactly what the challenge set out to do. Hastee developed a tool allowing users to take better control of their finances, giving them access to pay and reducing the need to revert to high-cost credit. In turn, this minimises financial stress and improves financial health.
Udrafter’s solution was focused on job access and security, offering graduates and students paid internships and work experience which will be vital to support them in securing future work. As we all know, this group have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic as many young people work in the industries that have suffered the most. Without work experience, it’s often hard for graduates to get a foothold in the industry and secure a role in their chosen field. Younger workers are also at higher risk of losing their jobs in times of financial difficulty – the ‘last in, first out’ approach sees many young people let go right at the beginning of their careers. Udrafter’s platform helps to rectify this issue and provide much-needed support.
The tools created by all the challenge participants will provide vital support to the UK’s underserved communities and regions and hopefully set an example of what can be done through collaboration and innovation on a national scale.
Tris Dyson is managing director at Nesta Challenges