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Main findings

  • Physical presence in communities helped providers to promote their services to target populations and build partnerships with community stakeholders.
  • Different demographic groups heard about Connecting Communities in different ways. For instance, 40 per cent of the Hardest to Help group heard about the programme through social media or an outreach event, compared to around 25 per cent of participants in other groups.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic induced a shift in the way Connecting Communities was promoted, with social media having a larger role. Participants recruited through social media tended to have a higher level of skill, digital literacy, and internet connectivity.

  • The content of action plans indicated different forms of support required by participants, and illustrates the individualised approach taken by the programme.

  • Intensive, individualised support – where the pace and nature of support was co-determined by advisor and participant – generated trust, which in turn yielded positive behaviour change towards employment and greater self-efficacy with finding work.

  • Where advisors had smaller caseloads, they reported finding it easier to provide personalised support to participants.

  • Volunteering opportunities helped certain participants develop their confidence, increase their sense of self-efficacy, and build work-relevant skills, but overall, there were not as many volunteering opportunities accessed as need identified. Volunteering opportunities were limited by the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Changing advisors and irregular contact from some providers frustrated some participants, which resulted in their disengagement from the programme.

  • The shift to online delivery due to pandemic-induced lockdowns allowed for continued provision, which participants appreciated. However, participants expressed a preference for face-to-face delivery, describing how this facilitated building trust and rapport with an advisor.

  • Different providers adopted diverse approaches to employer engagement, namely: (a) leveraging links from other contacts; (b) job fairs; (c) building relationships with local employers; (d) through advisors searching online for vacancies; (e) cold-calling employers; (f) reverse marketing; and (g) working with agencies.

  • Providers found it easier to provide employment support for those out of work than people in work. They lacked experience in providing in-work support and described difficulties in keeping in contact with individuals who were currently employed. There were also structural impediments to in-work support, such as the prevalence of zero-hour contracts and jobs with few opportunities for progression.

Promotion and marketing

Programme enrolment

Providers engaged with over 4,000 residents, of whom 3,255 became embedded onto the programme. In 2019, between 75 to 173 participants registered with the programme each month, and this increased to between 168 and 263 participants per month in early 2020, as implementation commenced. However, the nationwide lockdown implemented from 23rd March 2020 caused disruption to enrolment and in April 2020 enrolments fell to 46. From that point, monthly enrolment numbers increased, with the number of monthly enrolments over autumn 2020 at similar levels to those observed in 2019 (around 70 to 150 per month). Enrolments began to tail off from summer 2021 as providers began to conclude their delivery in settings where participation targets were already fulfilled. Two in every five participants in the MI dataset (40%) were enrolled after March 2020 in the context of the pandemic (N = 3,922; see Figure 4-1).

Half of participants (50%) were engaged through two sites: Shard End, Birmingham; and Washwood Heath, Birmingham (N = 3,966), reflecting their contract sizes (Table A-40).

After the lockdown in March 2020, there was a large fluctuation in enrolments for two of the cohorts. Between March and May 2020, the proportion of enrolments from the Hardest to Help group fell from 48 per cent to 14 per cent, and the proportion of enrolments for the Rapid Progression group increased from 29 per cent in March 2020 to 51 per cent in June 2020 (Figure 4-2). This change was by design, as WMCA removed the profile cap for engaging with Rapid Progression groups to reflect changing labour market circumstances and people losing work because of the pandemic. It also reflects a decline in face-to-face outreach during the lockdown, which was most effective for engaging the Hardest to Help group.

There was variety in engagement by cohort between lots. Over half of participants in Binley and Willenhall (56%) were in the Rapid Progression cohort, compared with 26 to 46 per cent of participants in other lots. Just over two-fifths of participants at Camp Hill (40%), Washwood Heath (39%), and Chelmsley Wood (39%) were from the Hardest to Help cohort, compared with 24 to 36 per cent of participants at the other settings. A fifth of participants at Shard End (20%) were in the Employed Progression cohort, compared with 8 to 18 per cent of participants at other settings (Table A-41).

Promotion activities

At the outset, providers emphasised the importance of building a physical presence in the community, having ‘feet on the ground’. As one provider expressed: ‘The pilot was about being visual in the community, and very much part of the community to reach out.’ Along with supporting partnership working, a physical presence was central to raising profile amongst residents.

Outreach activity to support promotion of the programme involved establishing networks of partners, including community centres, leisure centres, community cafes, libraries, schools, residents’ groups, foodbanks, and faith-based organisations. Some providers used co-location and/ or having a regular physical presence alongside partner organisations. Sharing spaces facilitated opportune encounters with potential participants, whilst also enabling participants to have exposure to other services available. Delivery providers viewed conducting recruitment in participants’ local environment as key to making them ‘relatable’. Almost universally, they considered building meaningful relationships with participants was easier in person, especially with people furthest from the labour market. Providers supplemented outreach activity with local flyers setting out the support that they offered.

This approach is reflected in the two most common ways participants heard about the programme: through leaflets or an event, or via another organisation such as a food bank (37% and 27%, respectively). Other ways participants heard about the programmes were through their local Jobcentre Plus (13%), their friends and family (16%), or other organisations (8%; N = 3,676; see Table 4-1).

Table 4-1. How participants heard about Connecting Communities

Per cent

Leaflets/ Event

1629 37

Jobcentre Plus

565 13


699 16

Other Organisation

370 8


1203 27

Total participants specifying how they heard about the programme


There was variation by cohort as to how participants heard about Connecting Communities (N = 3,821). Four in ten participants in the Hardest to Help group (41%) heard about the programme through another way, such as social media or encountering a drop-in/ outreach setting, compared with around one in four participants in other groups (23–27%), indicating the success of the community-based, focused outreach approach at reaching people most distant from the labour market (Table A-42).

A key issue facing providers and advisors with little to no experience of working with people in-work was how to access them. One provider hoped to get referrals from Jobcentre Plus of Universal Credit claimants working part-time, although few participants came via this route (Table A-42). Providers who were more active in helping people in work, found that outreach in supermarkets (where those in employment might be more likely to visit in evenings and weekends), through community providers, and by word of mouth were effective engagement routes. These routes were considered more effective than approaching employers, which might be considered another possible route.

Providers had different levels of success with engagement methods (N = 3,822). Over half of participants at Camp Hill and Cannock North heard about Connecting Communities through Jobcentre Plus (57% and 59% respectively), compared with less than a third of those in other lots (0–33%), reflecting the varied extent to which providers were able to partner with their local Jobcentre offices (Table A-43).

Impact of Covid-19 on programme engagement

Interviews revealed how the pandemic impacted programme engagement, leading to changes in the type of participants recruited and the way they were recruited.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, providers engaged a diverse range of organisations to refer participants to the programme, including community organisations, food banks, training providers, and health organisations. Having a presence at foodbanks, hosting job clubs, coffee mornings and jointly organising community events and activities with other organisations in the community were important in creating networking opportunities to recruit new participants. These activities have increased the flow of information from providers and created referrals.

As services moved online and many community centres closed for in-person activities, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities to recruit participants through unplanned interactions, or through joint presence at in-person events, diminished. Instead, following the start of the pandemic, participants more commonly found out about the programme via Jobcentre or social media. Participants recruited via social media tended to have higher skill levels (including digital skills), more recent work experience, and/ or more reliable access to the Internet.

Comparing how participants heard about the programme, before and after March 2020 when the pandemic started, identifies some interesting differences between participants’ pathways to the programme. The proportion of participants reporting that they heard about the programme from friends and family increased from 12 per cent of participants before March 2020 to 28 per cent of participants enrolling after this point. Referrals from trusted sources who knew the programme played an increasingly important role over time. In contrast, there was a fall in participants hearing about the programme via leaflets or an event (50% compared with 33%), as illustrated in Figure 4-3. Providers adapted physical engagement activities in line with restrictions where they could. Whilst providers returned to physical settings at different points in time, consideration was also given to community recruitment in other formats, such as outdoor walking groups, run by one provider.

Providers felt that social media became an important method for recruitment during the pandemic, especially as recruitment methods, such as referrals from other organisations, were complicated or prohibited by social distancing requirements. For example, one provider hired an administrator with a digital marketing background to support a Facebook presence and engage with participants in other social media sites. One provider reported success in targeted social media postings developed during the pandemic that aimed to attract furloughed workers who might be considering a job change (N = 3,773). Using social media was not without risk, however. Social media engagement meant that providers were reaching participants beyond the postcodes in which they operated. As such, some individuals expressing interest in receiving support did not meet the residence-based eligibility criteria.

Figure 4-3. How participants heard about Connecting Communities before and after the initial Covid-19 lockdown (percentages)

pre-covid - 33%

post covid - 29%

pre-covid - 9%

post covid - 10%

pre-covid - 12%

post covid - 28%

pre-covid - 13%

post covid - 17%

pre covid - 50%

post covid - 33%

Barriers identified at enrolment

The following section provides an overview of the perceived barriers to work that participants identified and discussed with an employment advisor. Information on perceived barriers was provided for 3,882 participants. Most participants identified employability support as an issue (91%), with confidence and motivation for work (53%) and a lack of qualifications or skills (41%) being the next most identified. Approximately a third of participants identified a lack of work experience (36%) or debt (30%) as barriers to accessing work or increased pay at work. It is also notable how speaking English as a second language (ESOL) was identified as a barrier for 14 per cent of participants (see Table 4-2. Most identified perceived barriers).

Table 4-2. Most identified perceived barriers

Per cent

Employability support

3548 91

Confidence and motivation for work

2070 53

Lack of qualifications / skills

1597 41

Lack of work experience

1398 36
Debt 1175 30

Health condition / disability

749 19

Lack of suitable local jobs

568  15

Lack of English language skills / ESOL need

555 14

Availability / cost of childcare

483 12

Availability / cost of transport

369 10

Total participants with identified barriers


Whilst each of the cohorts includes the same issues in their top six barriers, focusing on the top three demonstrates some variation in the order of barriers and the extent to which it is identified as a barrier. Lack of qualifications or skills and lack of work experience and lack of confidence and motivation were more likely to be identified as a barrier for the Hardest to Help group (58%, 73%, and 59%, respectively), and around a third of people in this cohort (32%) identified ESOL needs as a barrier to work. Support with debt was most likely to be identified among the Rapid Support Employed group (37%; Table A-44).

Some issues were more commonly reported in certain lots. These differences are likely to reflect the content of conversations that advisors were having with participants as well as local need. For example, two in five, or 42 per cent of participants in Glascote, Tamworth cited the availability and cost of transport as a barrier. In Camp Hill, participants were more likely to report lack of qualifications and skills (75%), lack of suitable local jobs (58%), or lack of flexible working options (20%) compared to those in other lots. Participants in Washwood Heath were the most likely to identify lack of English skills or ESOL needs as a barrier (36%); most participants (92%) in this area also identified debt as a barrier. The availability or cost of childcare was more likely to be reported as a barrier by those in the Shard End lot (38%) compared to other lots.

Interviews with participants also illustrated a diverse range of support needs. These needs primarily related to low skills and poor qualification levels, but issues concerning physical and mental health, immigration, childcare, domestic abuse, debt, and housing also arose. In addition, not being able to drive, or to afford public transport, limited the ability of some participants to search for work outside of their immediate local area. In addition, during the pandemic, lack of access to a computer and/ or the Internet became an increasingly important barrier. Whilst some participants who did not have a computer could access the internet through their smartphones, this access remained limited.

Whilst some interviewees had higher skill levels, other barriers – particularly a lack of (relevant) work experience – were crucial factors in explaining why they struggled to find work. For instance, some older interviewees had high skill levels, and had had professional careers, but found it difficult to return to the labour market after leaving jobs due to ill health. Health conditions meant that some participants were advised to shield at the height of the pandemic, which limited their ability to work. Other participants put their job search on hold because they had to home-school their children (see Box 4-1).

Box 4-1. A parent with a young child who found out about the programme in a community venue and put job search on hold during the pandemic
  • Aged 25-34, Belinda had a son of primary school age and was recruited by the programme in its first year. After leaving school at sixteen, Belinda looked for work but struggled to find anything. She subsequently had her son. Once her son started nursery, she completed a level 3 qualification over two years at college. After finishing the course, she looked for work in the field but was unsuccessful since she did not have much practical experience.
  • Belinda had learnt about Connecting Communities after meeting project workers looking for participants in the local library about 11 months prior to the interview. They asked if she was local to the area and looking for work and if she needed help. Belinda then booked an appointment to meet with them. Since joining, she had received a lot of support from her advisor and felt more confident about looking for work. Support included ‘fixing’ her CV, improving her confidence with applying for jobs, and learning how to sell herself to companies. Belinda paused looking for work after the first lockdown was introduced, due to needing to home-school her son.

Forms of support agreed and accessed

Following an assessment of barriers to work, the advisor and participant jointly would develop an Action Plan that identifies next steps. At a future meeting, the advisor and client would then review the latter’s progress and complete an Action Review, which would in turn lay out steps taken to complete agreed actions or career goals and pinpoint any further barriers.

Information on agreed actions was provided for 3,594 participants. Most participants agreed to create a CV (89%) as one of their actions. The next most common actions were to apply for a job (77%), identify possible jobs that match their skills (74%), research possible careers or jobs (71%), and attend a job interview or practice interview skills (65%). It is also notable that approximately a third of participants sought support for travel to work, and financial and digital inclusion (35% and 30%, respectively). This information is summarised in Table 4.3.

Table 4-3. Agreed actions
Per cent

Create a CV

3203 89

Apply to a job

2750 77

Identify possible jobs that match their skills

2652 74

Research possible careers/ jobs

2548 71

Attend a job interview/ practice interview skills

2339 65

Attend mentoring session(s)

1396 39

Attend other specialist support

1264 35

Access support to travel to a work opportunity

1253 35

Enrol on a training/ learning programme

1222  34

Attend coaching session(s)

1169 33

Access support for financial and digital inclusion

1062 30

Access support with their current work

707 20

Take part in volunteering

672 19

Arrange/attend a work experience placement

594 17

Attend pre-employment training

587 16

Other involvement with an employer

17 <1

Attend employer taster

8 <1

Total participants with agreed actions


There were some differences in the agreed actions between cohorts. This is unsurprising, given that the programme served groups with significantly different degrees of labour market attachment and support needs. These differences are to be expected and indicates that advisors have developed tailored action plans and support packages in response to participants’ individual needs. For example, the Hardest to Help group were more likely to seek support by enrolling on a training session (55%), attending coaching sessions (51%), accessing financial and digital inclusion support (49%), or undertaking volunteering (39%). In contrast, the Rapid Support Employed group were more likely than other groups to access support with current work (65%), attend pre-employment training (43%), or support to travel to a work opportunity (44%).

The most frequently completed actions broadly reflects the actions agreed (Table A-46), but there are some exceptions.

  • Notably 17 per cent fewer participants accessed support for financial and digital inclusion than had identified this as an action initially.
  • Sixteen per cent fewer participants than had agreed to enrol on a training programme realised this intention.

More positively 15 per cent more participants attended a job interview or interview skills practice than had agreed this action at the outset. More participants also attended coaching sessions (26% more), than had previously agreed to do so. These examples illustrate the ways that support needs and actions will change over time, as well as potentially indicating blocking points and lack of capacity in referrals and ongoing support.

Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on support

The pandemic and associated social distancing restrictions struck in Year 2 of the programme. Subsequently, all providers moved to a virtual delivery model. This contrasts with how previously providers emphasised the value they placed on building up a strong visible presence in the neighbourhoods at community venues. As part of the switch to virtual delivery, providers moved from offering face-to-face meetings to phone, text, and web support, expanded the range of online workshops available (for example, offering mental health awareness and employability skills courses), and placed greater emphasis on emailing participants with job alerts. Some providers pivoted themes and resources in emails to respond to the altered context and differing client needs (eg greater focus on mental health support, coping with isolation). As social distancing requirements were lifted, some providers returned to full face-to-face delivery whilst others continued to work predominantly remotely.

The context for programme delivery also changed because of the pandemic. Providers and participants reported the availability and types of job opportunities changed. Several participants, who found work in the second year of the programme, found that their employment offers were withdrawn as firms furloughed employees. However, additional opportunities emerged in certain sectors; several participants moved into roles in the care, retail, environmental cleansing, and warehousing sectors, as roles were created in response to increasing demand in the pandemic.

Interviews with participants recruited in the second and third year of the programme, when most meetings were virtual, suggested that they had managed to form good working relationships with advisors despite not seeing them face-to-face, but they also indicated it would have been easier to build rapport in person. Amongst participants recruited in the first year of the programme, some participants had disengaged from the programme by the third year of interviews. This was particularly the case among participants with no internet access or with caring responsibilities.

Strengths and weaknesses of support

Figure 4-4 summarises key contexts and mechanisms which either supported positive outcomes from the programme or led to participants’ continued unemployment.

Figure 4-4. Contexts, mechanisms, and outcomes related to employment outcomes


Practical support from authority

Greater access to human, financial and material resources

(can lead to)

Presence of specialised staff


Ability to provide individualised employment services

individualised approach to employment services

  • Addressing wider hindrances to employment
  • Provision of tailored job alerts (including volunteering opportunities)
  • Positive rapport between jobseeker and employment adviser
  • Providers loaning computer equipment to resource-constrained jobseekers 

Trust in employers and employment support providers 

Job seeker engagement

(can lead to)

  • Successful matching of jobseekers with employment opportunities
  • Self-efficiency amongst jobseekers
  • Positive behaviour change towards work


Opportunities for peer learning


  • Shortage of employment advisers 
  • irregular contact with employment advisers 
  • Lack of mentors and role models

Inability to provide individualised employment support services

Jobseeker disengagement

Continued unemployment


Provider and participant feedback indicated that an important strength of the programme was the individualised, intensive nature of support. Individualised support and the opportunity for the pace and nature of support to be co-determined by the advisor and participant, generated strong trust between advisors and participants. This was crucial to engaging participants and enabling them to address wider barriers to employment (see Box 4.2). Tailored job alerts, as well as promoting opportunities to learn from other participants and participate in volunteering, helped participants to improve their confidence, find relevant job opportunities and develop work-relevant skills. In turn, this contributed to achieving successful outcomes, such as positive behaviour change towards employment, greater self-efficacy with finding work, and successfully entering employment.

Advisors supported participants by helping them to recognise their skills and experience outside of employment, by developing their CVs and by ensuring their applications were ‘sharper and more tailored’. Several older residents who had had long careers before losing work valued help from their advisor with drawing up a CV. Since CVs were not as common when they entered the labour market, they lacked knowledge of how to structure a CV.

Other providers supported participants through weekly one-to-one meetings with participants to develop Maths and English skills. Specialist staff within provider organisations contributed to participants receiving individualised support. Many residents interviewed contrasted the approach taken by their advisor with that taken by advisors at other organisations, such as Jobcentre Plus. Several residents explained they received little substantive support with looking for work from Jobcentre Plus and felt that the staff ‘just want to see people quickly’. Advisors cited the small caseloads on the programme, which were limited to around 50 participants, as important in giving them the opportunity to offer participants more personalised and intensive support.

Participants indicated they benefitted from some opportunities to learn from other participants through meetings at job clubs or coffee mornings, for example. Opportunities to engage with other participants appeared more limited when support moved to virtual delivery, but some participants enjoyed meeting others during online courses. In addition, taking part in volunteering opportunities (for example, in charity shops) helped some participants increase their confidence and develop work-relevant skills.

Box 4-2. Mother with challenging childhood values supportive attitude of advisor
  • Aged between 35 and 44, Jess was fostered from a young age. She was expelled from school and passed her GCSEs at college. Jess had her first child as a teenager and moved frequently. Jess received Carers’ Allowance for many years to look after one of her children, but started looking for work as her child became an adult and she realised she would lose her Carers’ Allowance. Jess gained employment in the hospitality sector but left due to health issues.
  • Jess found out about the support available when an advisor approached her at a Community Hub where she volunteered. When Jess first found out about the support, she felt she didn’t need help as she was working. She later phoned the provider and arranged to meet. Her advisor helped her to redesign her CV and identify suitable roles to apply for. Jess received help by phone and in-person. She turned down help from her advisor contacting employers as she preferred to do that herself. Jess trusts her advisor a lot, describing her advisor as ‘absolutely lovely, really caring, so helpful to everybody’. She thinks trust is very important as you must be able to be open and honest with your advisor. She values how her advisor is very empathetic, understanding that she has a ‘past’ and that she is trying to change her future.

Despite the strengths of the programme, several challenges, with regards to provision can be identified. Frequent changes in advisors and irregular contact from some providers, particularly smaller providers, led some participants to become frustrated with the programme, resulting in jobseeker disengagement and a loss of confidence and momentum with achieving progress in line with the ToC (see Box 4.3).

Box 4-3. Carer who became disenchanted when provider contact declined
  • Aged between 25 and 34, Shannon lives with her mum whom she cares for. Shannon was registered with a large Connecting Communities provider and was looking for a flexible role that would fit around her caring responsibilities. At the time of interview, she had been out of work for several years. Shannon found out about the support available when her provider had a presence at a local community centre.
  • When Shannon joined, she was quite hopeful that the support would enhance her job search and enable her to work on specific skills (eg interview techniques). Shannon was assigned a work coach, who she thought ‘nice’, who helped her with her CV, and gave her advice on job search. However, she had not received wider help because of limited communication from her provider.
  • Shannon described it as ‘a bit annoying’ that she has had to chase meetings with her work coach and had not met with her provider for weeks in the run up to the interview. Shannon contacted them by phone to schedule a meeting to discuss a job application but did not get a response. It was not until a few months later that she was informed by a different team member that her work coach was on leave. Shannon felt they should have communicated this with her sooner.
  • The only regular support she had received were job alert emails. However, Shannon felt some were ‘random’ as they related to different sectors to those she was looking to work in. Shortly, before the interview, she received a text from her provider saying they had applied for a role for her. Shannon would have liked an opportunity to discuss role with them as she did not think it was relevant.

Some participants struggled to find volunteering opportunities to put into practice skills they had learned through courses (eg bookkeeping). Whilst all participants had a dedicated employment support coach on the project providing structured guidance on their goals and to help them to achieve their full potential, most participants did not have other mentors who shared their knowledge, skills and experience to foster personal growth. Job alerts from providers were valued by participants but several suggested that the alerts they received were too generic, not being tailored to the sectors they were looking for work in.

There was widespread support across the participant interviews for expanding the use of guaranteed interviews in motivating participants to engage in training. Several participants had found work through similar schemes previously. Interviews stressed that schemes should enable participants to gain insight into the organisation to help them stand out for the job at interview. Moreover, participants thought that it is important that schemes offer a reasonable chance of gaining employment at the end.

Most participants stated that they wanted to find work, but circumstantial barriers (eg childcare, being a young carer, lack of quality roles in desired sector, poor health) limited their ability to progress towards employment. Some participants suggested a need to expand opportunities to move into quality employment.

Overall, providers responded flexibly to the pandemic, continuing to provide support to participants remotely, through expanding their focus on wellbeing and wider support, as well as supporting participants wanting to work in sectors with growing vacancies. Participants valued the convenience of speaking to advisors by phone, but several suggested they did not enjoy phone calls as much as face-to-face meetings and thought it was harder to read body language virtually. Many, particularly lone parents, or those living alone, missed the opportunity to ‘physically get out’ and meet their advisor.

The closure of community centres/ libraries, where many participants with limited connectivity at home previously accessed the internet, exacerbated challenges. The switch to online support and staff changes meant that several participants who had been receiving one-to-one support prior to the pandemic, were unable to continue receiving such support once the pandemic began. Providers described how making contact and engaging some participants, especially those that were further from the labour market, became more challenging due to changes in their motivation to work and lack of digital skills and/ or access to information technology. Fears of catching Covid-19 stopped some participants from engaging whilst home-schooling children when schools were closed during the lockdowns took priority for some participants.

Young participants with good digital skills and access to the Internet via computer or mobile phone adapted easily to the switch to virtual support. However, some of these participants still missed aspects of face-to-face support, even if they found virtual support more convenient. Some participants who are particularly motivated have taken advantage of virtual learning portals to complete training, engage with the programme, and make progress towards ToC outcomes. Loaning computer equipment to participants was important in enabling participants without a reliable computer to engage in online support, particularly training courses during the pandemic.

Online courses can be very positive in increasing confidence among participants with stronger digital skills, who are motivated to learn and find work. Offering support via phone was important in maintaining contact with participants who did not have reliable internet access. Some participants with reliable internet access preferred meetings via virtual platforms to phone calls because virtual platforms enabled them to develop their digital skills.

Job brokerage and working with employers

What is appropriate at the neighbourhood scale?

Employers have a central role in an employment intervention as gatekeepers to jobs. In an intervention focused at the neighbourhood scale, a key question concerns what the extent of employer engagement should be, and with whom links should be made. The context for this is that many existing organisations are involved in employer engagement activities and additional approaches to employers may result in ‘turning them off’, resulting in disengagement for some employers.

At the outset, an interviewee from a local authority felt there was a conundrum at neighbourhood level as to whether it was desirable for providers to engage directly with employers or whether it was more appropriate to link in with other ongoing activity concerned with engaging employers (eg via the local authority). This interviewee was clear that providers should focus on local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and microbusinesses. Except in the case of large employers in the immediate neighbourhood, they argued that providers should otherwise link up with other existing employer engagement activity. Within Connecting Communities, there were no explicit contractual reward for engaging with employers, albeit a payment for a participant starting work implies an incentive to engage with employers. Some interviewees considered that the lack of an explicit output in the contract relating to number of employers engaged with was a good thing because the result of any such rewards would be providers ‘trampling over each other’ to engage with employers within physical reach of residents from more than one lot, with negative consequences all round.

Provider approaches to employer engagement and key features of successful collaboration

One possible strategy would have been a centralised process of formal ongoing promotion of Connecting Communities to larger West Midlands employers and sharing of employer vacancies/ contacts. In practice, for the most part, the providers worked individually on building partnerships with employers. The main exception to this was some joint working arising organically between three providers operating in relatively close geographical proximity in East Birmingham and North Solihull.

Overall, there was marked variability in the extent and success of employer engagement activity between the lots. The extent to which employers were involved in partnerships through providing support to job seekers tended to be limited.

Seven key approaches to job brokerage and building partnerships with employers were adopted across the lots, with most lots adopting a variety of approaches, including:

  • leveraging ongoing links from other contracts;
  • jobs fairs;
  • building close ongoing relationships with local employers;
  • advisors searching online for vacancies;
  • cold calling employers;
  • reverse marketing; and
  • working with agencies (which handled recruitment for some companies).

Leveraging ongoing links from other contracts was a way to generate access to job openings. Examples included making links to employers via a National Careers Service contract and taking advantage of the pre-existing Sector-based Work Academy Programme (SWAP). There were examples from one provider of SWAPs resulting in jobs with a local hospital and in the security industry. The ability to draw on such links varied by provider – with larger providers and those with more recent experience of employer engagement within their organisation being in the best position to adopt this approach. More generally, targeted pre-employment training and opportunities for guaranteed interviews were appreciated by participants.

Jobs fairs – initially taking place physically and subsequently virtually – were used as a means of bringing together employers and individuals looking for employment. The value of jobs fairs was seen as providing insights into opportunities that were available, perhaps encouraging them to try something new. In addition, jobs fairs also made employers aware that candidates for jobs were available, who, even if not immediately job-ready, might become so quite quickly with targeted support.

Building ongoing close relationships with local employers enabled providers to promote the importance and value of ‘local people for local jobs’. The number and variety of local employers varied by lot and this approach embraced both relationships with large local employers (for example, Birmingham Airport), local supermarkets (including local outlets of national chains in cases where there was some local discretion over recruitment), and small businesses. The extent to which the providers were proactive in building close relationships varied.

In one lot, participants were beneficiaries of an ongoing relationship with a major employer in the waste and environmental cleansing sector, with whom the provider worked in partnership on an annual seasonal recruitment drive. The employer utilised the lead organisation (over DWP or other providers) in recruitment, and this resulted in over 20 people being recruited. There were also examples of efforts to enhance the visibility of Connecting Communities locally paying dividends in building close relationships with local employers. This was exemplified by a local plumbing business approaching one provider, leading to them working together to fill various roles, including apprenticeships. Such close local relationships enabled the provider to become a ‘partner of choice’ in sourcing candidates for vacancies, sometimes facilitating the whole recruitment process and providing ongoing support to recruits when in employment.

Cold-calling employers was an approach adopted across lots with varying degrees of sophistication. A less structured approach involved advisors and/ or participants searching online or calling employers about vacancies. This could be quite haphazard, albeit when advisors did this the results of searches might be circulated to colleagues. During the pandemic, when there was greater emphasis on use of social media, a somewhat more structured approach reported by one provider adopted was to research employers online and then to contact them by social media to find out about vacancies and the skills and attributes they required from candidates, and then use that knowledge to place suitable participants. One provider interviewed considered that a degree of complacency had set in around searching for vacancies on online job sites and that there was merit in ‘old school’ techniques of candidates cold calling employers in person (see Box 4-4).

Box 4-4. The value of ‘old school’ techniques
  • An older participant who had lost her job in catering during the Covid-19 pandemic was eager to stay in the catering sector, but eventually came round to looking at other roles when it was put to her that people on furlough were at the front of the queue for being taken back on.
  • ‘I suggested to her, “why don't you print off 50-odd CVS, I will identify the companies, you could go and walk in with a CV, and you can literally spend a day doing that will pay for your day saver. Just go and spend the day doing it”. And she did. And she got two interviews from it’.

Reverse marketing (ie an individualised approach to employment support involving ‘selling participants’ to employers and searching for suitable vacancies that would ‘fit’ the participant) was an approach used by many of the lots as a component of building ongoing close relationships with local employers and cold-calling employers. Importantly, a relational reverse marketing approach was one element within a wider repertoire of approaches to employer engagement and job brokerage.

[The approach used] is ‘trying to actually reach out to the employer, whether that be to the employer direct or to the agency, and actually sell your participants ... explaining that you’ve got matches that they’re looking for. ... always look [at] a bit of a backdoor way to put your participants forward. And create that freedom; they should go to [you for] direct support with their recruitment.’

Generally, reverse marketing involved the advisor taking ownership of the participant’s employment journey. Sometimes it involved using individual advisors’ pre-existing contacts with employers. One provider reported that it was important to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in finding out what participants want and then contacting employers directly. Part of the rationale for reverse marketing was that it enhanced the chances of job retention through its emphasis on ‘fit’, and the successful matching of jobseekers to opportunities (as shown in Figure 4-5). In the words of one provider: ‘It is easy to get somebody a job, but it has to be the right job’.

Working with agencies, rather than with employers directly, became a more common approach during the lifetime of Connecting Communities. This was particularly the case for accessing the increased opportunities in distribution, warehousing, and the care sector, which became available during the pandemic. One provider emphasised the value of working closely with agencies to anticipate upcoming vacancies, to prepare participants for work becoming available and to enable them to make early applications.


Challenges encountered engaging employers

Challenges encountered by some, or all, of the providers in engaging with employers fall into three categories:

  • Those unrelated to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Those related to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the changing nature of employment opportunities.

  • Those related to operational and timing issues associated with Connecting Communities compared to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact.

In the first category, there are challenges in engaging successfully with local employers when decisions about local jobs are not made locally, and there is no discretion to alter selection criteria imposed elsewhere in the organisation. This is the case for some (but not all) local establishments that are part of larger chain. Other challenges faced can be traced to some providers having a relative lack of experience and/ or placing insufficient prioritisation on engaging employers.

Overall, there was marked variability in the extent and success of employment engagement activity between lots. The more successful lots emphasised that relationships with employers were ‘very important’. By contrast, amongst those that were less successful in meeting their outcomes, one provider noted that the ‘relative lack’ of employer engagement had shown them how important employer engagement is. In some instances, there was also an issue of a lack of time that employers were able to devote to employer engagement activity. This is a perennial issue when advisors deal with the whole of the participant’s journey: an approach which some providers prefer to provide an individualised, relational experience. When there is investment in employer engagement as a specific separate function – which was the explicit route taken in one of the lots – it is likely that more time is devoted to it, leading to increased provider awareness of a broad range of employment opportunities. However, a close ‘fit’ between a participant and a job can be difficult to achieve unless there is also investment in providing individualised employment support services.

The second category of challenges relates to the pandemic and its impact on the changing nature of employment opportunities. In some local areas, large local employers – such as Birmingham Airport and Drayton Manor Theme Park – were hit badly, as were the hospitality and non-essential retail sectors. There was a clear shift to opportunities in the care and distribution sectors. Opportunities in the construction sector held up well. The impact was such that some employers were ‘too busy’ to engage in the way that they might have done previously, while others were closed and/ or had no vacancies in the initial lockdown. Providers adapted activities during the pandemic to focus on where employment opportunities existed.

A third category of challenges relates to operational and timing issues associated with Connecting Communities and the pandemic. Providers’ initial activities focused on engaging participants. When more emphasis on employer engagement was expected, the pandemic hit. By the time vacancies were reaching record highs in 2022, as the economic recovery gathered pace, Connecting Communities was winding down.

In-work support

In Connecting Communities, in-work progression for those in employment can be achieved through a 10% increase in wages. A participant could attain this by working for the same hours for 10% higher pay, or through increasing hours of work for the same pay, or through a combination of higher pay and more hours. Such progression may be achieved with the same employer (ie a move within the internal labour market) or by changing employers (ie a move within the external labour market; Sissons et al., 2016).

Features of effective in-work support

For some participants in-work support involved the provider helping them to know when, and how, to approach their employer about the possibility of a pay increase and/ or working more hours. However, this was not a viable option for some participants. Indeed, one provider noted that facilitating a change in employer, often by helping the participant to identify transferable skills that could help them obtain a new role or type of work, was crucially important for those participants whose confidence could be damaged by a lack of prospects for progression in their current job.

In the MI, 221 participants in the employed cohort were identified as progressing in-work. However, information about whether progression had occurred at the same or a different employer was only available for around half of these participants (N = 101). In addition to this, two providers had only recorded cases where progress had been at the same employer, and two providers where progress was at a different employer, so it was unclear whether these providers were failing to report the other outcome (Error! Reference source not found.). However, within this limited sample, around two-thirds had progressed at the same employer (67%) and a third had progressed by moving to a different employer (N = 101). While not representative, this data indicates that in-work progression was happening in both same employer and different employer contexts.

For participants in the hardest to help and hard to reach cohorts, job entries could be designed to build in in-work progression opportunities as they settled into employment and became more confident. An example of this approach came from one of the providers working with a care agency to design jobs that began with 10 hours worked per week and increased four hours per fortnight for the first six weeks.

Success in facilitating in-work progression for participants in the employed cohort depended to some degree on ‘listening to people’ and ‘choosing the right moment’ to engage with them on progression (as described by an advisor), which is indicative of an individualised approach to employment support (see Figure 4.6). This refers to the fact that, for some participants, the time for progressing in work must be ‘right’ in relation to non-work factors (eg a child reaching an age when a parent feels able to take on more hours in a job/ move to a different job).

One advisor commented that what worked for in-work progressions was ‘calling people regularly, whether the participant themselves wanted to progress, and listening to what they want (although this can be wanting less hours and less stress)’. There was general agreement that the emphasis should be on raising the awareness of the participant that in-work progression is an option, so encouraging a positive behaviour change towards work (see Figure 4.6).

Figure 4-6. Contexts, mechanisms, and outcomes related to in-work support provision

Presence of specialised staff

Ability to provide individualised employment support services

Individualised approach to employment support

Continued provision of in-work support

Increased job retention

Positive behaviour change towards work


Keeping in touch with participants in work to provide ongoing support can be vital in helping them sustain employment in a new role and aid in identifying opportunities for progression, as well as supporting them with non-work issues, as illustrated by the example below:

Box 4-5. A parent with a young child appreciating an advisor checking up on her job

Suki reported that her advisor had been in touch with her a few times over the year since she had been working in the care sector. Suki had appreciated how the advisor was ‘helpful in the sense that she is always checking up on me and how my job is and how my life is and if I’m alright and things like that. It’s just nice to know that someone is checking in on you’. Suki was grateful also that the advisor had helped her with a housing issue. Her hours of work had increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic from 20 to 25 hours per week, which was ‘good’. At the time of the interview, the participant had found out that she would need to find an alternative role in a new sector due to vaccination requirements in the care sector (Suki was reluctant to be vaccinated). Suki was looking for a customer support role in a call centre and felt she was doing okay in finding jobs she could apply for. If Suki had not found a new role before her current role came to an end, she planned to contact her advisor again – Suki ‘trusts’ her advisor and felt the support that she had received had been ‘good’.

Strong relationships with the participant and the employer were effective in facilitating in-work progression. This support might entail advising a participant how and when to make a request for more hours and/ or a more senior role, and support with their CV. An ongoing relationship with a participant and an employer could also help in identifying and sourcing training that would enable a participant to progress to a more senior role. Indeed, where provided, in-work training was, in the words of one provider, ‘incredibly useful in building good relationships with employers’.

Challenges in providing in-work support

As intimated above, one challenge in the provision of in-work support is that not everyone wants to progress – whether according to the definition used by Connecting Communities or otherwise - at least not at all points in time. Individuals have different attitudes towards progression in work: for some, progression may be a long-term rather than short-term goal; for others it may not be a priority at all (Green et al., 2016). Indeed, many low-paid workers have purely functional relationships with their jobs, with very few expectations of their employer and their own prospects in the company (Hay, 2015). For some participants ‘progression’ could be about moving to a job with more predictable hours or to one which offered a better quality of life, whether or not this involved higher pay. ‘Progression’ could be ‘horizontal’ in the short-term (ie moving to a job with similar pay) to gain experience for a ‘vertical’ move (ie one involving higher pay) subsequently. Given that participation in Connecting Communities was voluntary, there was no compulsion for participants to progress.

At the outset of there was a lack of experience of in-work support amongst the providers. Yet, providers reported that some of the most valuable learning for the future came from supporting in-work participants to progress.

An initial realisation (and surprise) for those providers who were most active regarding in- work progression was that, particularly in the local area, there were many roles with little or no opportunities for progression. This led some providers to conclude that most employers were not particularly interested in upskilling in-work participants because they had a relatively large number of jobs that did not require additional skills; hence in these cases they tended to place emphasis on in-work progression in the external labour market. Construction was one sector identified where there were good prospects for progression. Zero-hour contracts also presented a structural obstacle to in-work progression; there is no obligation for an employer or agency to provide more hours.

From a practical perspective, at least prior to the pandemic when the main emphasis was on face-to-face support, it was more difficult to keep in touch with those in work than with those out of work. Keeping in touch with those in employment often had to be by phone or email. However, it was recognised that keeping in touch was particularly important to retain the motivation of those participants in jobs that they did not particularly like, while looking for an alternative position. It was also the case that some participants did not see the need for support once in employment and so shunned contact.

The impact of Covid-19 on in-work support

The providers were largely untested about achieving in-work progression at the outset, reflecting the relative lack of emphasis on this in previous employment support programmes. The pandemic meant that for some in-work participants possibilities for in- work progression diminished as business reduced, while for others, especially in care and distribution, there were opportunities to increase hours. In general, the pandemic made it more difficult for providers to reach out to employers.

During the pandemic, some participants became more focused on their immediate circumstances. One small provider felt that they were beginning to make headway on in- work progression before the pandemic, but ‘lockdown halted progress as people were harder to reach and became more focused on their immediate circumstances’. Another provider noted a ‘dip in positivity’ and greater risk aversion to change current circumstances.

However, another provider considered that by changing everyday routines the pandemic had given individuals, particularly more mature individuals, a chance to re-evaluate what they wanted to do – perhaps making them more ‘open’ to considering a change of role or sector:

‘Covid-19 was an opportunity for employees and ex-employees to re-evaluate whether they want to do the kind of work they have done before. I think you're going to begin to struggle to get people who want to do airport work now - it's the hours, it's the priorities, the childcare; it's given them a chance to re-evaluate whether they actually want to do that anymore – in a way that there is not space to do so in an ordinary routine.’

Another provider reported examples of participants moving from hospitality to the NHS to ‘give something back’. A different provider highlighted that for some participants moving sector to a role with reduced responsibility and/ or with a more people-oriented focus than their previous role had provided more enjoyment or fulfilment. The experience of an individual moving from a managerial position in the leisure sector to a care role is illustrative of this.

One provider reported having been assisted by furlough (where an employee is laid off but remains employed) and greater investment in social media skills during the pandemic increased outcomes for the employed cohort. The strategy adopted was to put out a call on social media targeting people on furlough and encouraging them to look for a new job, so providing a role model for others that securing new employment is possible; ’it’s a small proportion, but that small proportion impacts in the local community.’ Aside from social media campaigns, it was reported that being on furlough meant that some individuals sought a new employer to gain more income. Again, this is illustrative of the pandemic as a trigger for individuals to re-evaluate their situation.

The examples discussed above illustrate how the pandemic had different impacts on different individuals, leading some to be more risk-averse and others to become more open to seeking a change. These behaviours were either hindered or facilitated by personal and contextual factors.