Personalising Support for the Long-Term Unemployed: Can Digital Do the Job?
Long-term unemployment is set to rise significantly in the UK in the post-COVID period. This has serious consequences. The long-term unemployed – those who’ve been out of work for more than six months – tend to have lower overall well-being, be in poorer health, and earn less once they find jobs. Communities with high levels of long-term unemployment have higher levels of crime and violence.
The most effective means of getting the long-term unemployed back into work involves personalised assistance. Personalisation means understanding an individual’s particular circumstances (including their mental and physical health, housing situation, caring responsibilities, skills, and interests) and providing them with information, support, and referrals that are reflective of their specific barriers to entering the world of work.
Personalisation is even more important when supporting persons with health problems and those living with disabilities. These individuals face varying barriers to seeking, securing, and maintaining employment, and one-size-fits-all assistance to them does not suffice.
But while personalisation through one-on-one support has been proven to work, employability and employment services are increasingly being delivered via digital channels.
In many ways, digitisation is a sensible way to adapt those in-person services that can easily be automated, reducing costs and scaling as needed. Over a hundred government job centres have been closed in the UK in the past four years. Job centres were already stretched when trying to meet demand in an era of extremely low unemployment before the coronavirus pandemic hit. They are likely to be particularly so now, and digital solutions are already relieving some of the pressure.
“Digitisation of many services has really accelerated during the enforced lockdown period, resulting from COVID-19,” explains Mark Cosens, Director of Cosens Consult, who’s been working in the employability space for the past 15 years. “Better ways for people to function in their homes have had to be developed at a scale not seen before. In the UK, Jobcentre Plus has moved a large proportion of its job search services online and to telephone-based support. This all looks to be setting massive precedents for how employment services will operate into the future.”
But automation isn’t always an obvious boon, and a shift to digitised services can present challenges, especially for the personalised employment support that has proven so effective.
“Having run employment programmes for many years, my concern was always how someone’s chance of successfully securing employment might depend on the quality of service delivered by the work coach they were assigned,” says Tony Carr, Director of 4Front Partners and an employability expert. “Digital approaches, as with person-to-person services, need to be targeted to individual circumstances.”
To what extent can digitisation maintain personalisation? Digital services will never be able to offer precisely the same thing as in-person services, but that does not mean they cannot offer a personalised service and be a net benefit. The question is, how?
“We assume that everyone has a computer, and can readily navigate digitised services, but this is not the case.”
It is crucial that increased digitisation does not lead to greater exclusion of marginalised groups. Many individuals who struggle to find work also have barriers to using digital services – from not being able to afford an internet connection and having low digital literacy to concerns regarding online privacy due to their personal circumstances.
Some vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals may not be able to engage with remote services without training and support. Some older people, those with chaotic lives, sufferers of mental health conditions, isolated women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and those with learning difficulties may not connect at all.
“We assume that everyone has a computer, and can readily navigate digitised services, but this is not the case,” explains Cosens. “Even where there is access via a public space or venue, like a library, not everyone will know where to go, or how to use the facilities. Smartphone use to access services is also curtailed when people who are living in poverty run out of data or have no internet functionality.”
There needs to be awareness of the limitations of digitisation and the needs of people who will struggle to use such services. Computer training, affordable local access to internet connections, and referrals as to how to access these services are all needed forms of support. But even then, that might not be enough. Many will need alternative solutions, such as in-person and regular phone service assistance.
“We do need to remember the many people who don’t, can’t, or won’t connect,” Cosens says. “We will still need people to provide a wrap-around, face-to-face service for many of them.”
Use big data but adjust for biases
Digital services can offer personalised support by gathering the ‘right’ information about an individual’s circumstances, needs, interests and skillsets, and combining it with data on what might be the most suitable route to employment. Using evidence from big data sets (and continually questioning assumptions), digital support services can offer targeted, highly effective support.
But while gathering data is useful, as algorithms churn out recommendations such as training to consider and jobs that may be of interest for job seekers, employment services need to be aware of biases inherent in data sets themselves and in how algorithms are built. Algorithms can perpetuate inequalities and discrimination when they do not correct for biases and prejudice in the data that they use.
For example, many algorithms perpetuate a gender bias. If BAME women in Bradford have not historically worked in specific fields, the AI needs to adjust for that and ensure that it does not base recommendations for female job seekers on historical trends that are not reflective of women’s work potential.
Use digital to connect humans to humans
“Digitisation does not mean removing the human from the job seekers’ experience,” says Chris Blackwell, Founder of Purpose Led Performance, who has run some of the largest employment programs in the UK.
“When an individual’s needs and circumstances are considered, it may become clear that they could greatly benefit from wellbeing support. A digital platform could be used to create human connection to bolster mental health – for instance, by creating virtual communities for job seekers with similar challenges or goals – where otherwise it might be very difficult for the person to find such a community.”
In the next 10 to 20 years, digital services will probably never quite match what is offered through human interactions. Unless a laptop can read the fear in my face as I consider the prospect of a new job or a bot can congratulate me on sticking to my job search in a way that truly lifts my spirits, there will always be a role for truly personal personalised assistance. But with careful planning, we can make digitisation work for job seekers who need the support the most.