Life after furlough: are government job schemes enough?

With the furlough scheme having now come to an end, the government has announced additional support for employers in the form of an extension to the Plan for Jobs. Moving forward, it will be down to businesses to take advantage of the support available, which is hoped will play a vital role in tackling skills shortages and unemployment levels. But with little knowledge so far around how they work, where do businesses start?

The furlough scheme was introduced last year as an emergency measure to support businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been widely successful at keeping a vast number of jobs active.

Many employers were quick to make strategic staffing decisions which in some cases led to redundancies. But despite this, the support that furlough provided has reduced the wider impact of these job losses.

However, with significant skills gaps and labour shortages across a number of industries, it is clear that the battle against unemployment is far from over.

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At last week's Conservative Party conference, the chancellor announced a £500 million expansion of the Plan for Jobs, which will offer further support to those leaving furlough or to those over the age of 50 and looking for work.

He also announced his renewed support for other government job schemes, such as Kickstart and JETS, which will be open until March 2022 and aim to support young people and those on Universal Credit looking for work.

The news of this support has come at a crucial time. Buried beneath the noise of the pandemic, the Kickstart and JETS scheme have had slow starts and a lack of publicity, meaning that knowledge and accessibility remain the biggest hurdles to their wider adoption.

With many businesses still unsure of how the schemes should be utilised, it now falls to the government to educate employers and demonstrate that it is a viable route to take. 

It is evident that the job market is not short of active roles, but the labour and skills shortage spanning a variety of industries is making it increasingly difficult for employers to fill the gaps.

Employment schemes provide businesses with a unique opportunity to be creative with who they hire. Relatively low risk by nature, there is minimal loss involved for employers and employees that chose to sign up to them. With the funding only available for a limited time, employers must be quick to act.

The schemes could be particularly beneficial to those working in the construction and hospitality and leisure sectors, where staff shortages are most prevalent.

Many construction companies rely heavily on agencies when it comes to recruiting staff to work on site and using the employment schemes available to a greater extent would allow them to have a more permanent workforce.

For hospitality and leisure, the same applies for overseas workers and young people, in particular students. With further restrictions on visas, the future of temporary workers is very much unknown and employers must look to secure more permanent placements moving forward.

Employment schemes offer employers the opportunity to do so, hiring people based on their work ethic and drive to succeed. By tapping into a new group of workers looking for employment, businesses can play a vital role in tackling the current issues facing employment across the country.

These initiatives are not designed to be damaging or high risk, they are there to encourage employers to take chances on employees who will now be out of work with the closure of the furlough scheme and give unskilled workers the opportunity to flourish in a new career.

However, it is down to the employer to carefully consider the terms and conditions of each scheme and ensure they are making the right choice for both parties.

It is vital that employers continue to approach all recruitment process with care and consideration, and this includes job schemes.

While there is no obligation to continue with an employment arrangement if does not work out, employers must still be mindful of usual risks such as discrimination and whistleblowing related claims that can arise from day one.

Claims against employers can be brought even from job applicants and new starters, so following a good HR practice throughout is key to avoiding any nasty surprises further down the line.

While the government’s employment support schemes are a step in the right direction for low-skilled workers, further support may be needed in future for higher-skilled workers, where there are equally challenging skills gaps.

It is likely that this will need to be reconsidered and approached more carefully with extensive training programmes involved.

At present, there is no evidence of businesses being caught out by employment schemes, which proves that given the chance, they are fulfilling their role of getting people into low-skilled work. With very little to lose, now is the time for businesses to use this government funding and these schemes wisely, while they are available.


Rhys Wyborn is employment partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau