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New benefit claimants expect to return to their old jobs – but may be disappointed

Ben Baumberg Geiger

There is a crucial question for those thinking about employment support for the large new wave of COVID-19 benefit claimants: are people expecting to go back to their previous line of work, or even their old job itself? Or are they expecting to have to do a completely different type of work?

Of course, things may turn out differently to claimants’ expectations; predicting the path of the next few months is a formidable challenge. But to be successful, those supporting claimants will need to respond to individuals’ differing circumstances, which will be more diverse than previous crises. They will need a nuanced understanding of customers’ starting points, including their skill level, employment-related and wider challenges – and also their hopes and expectations. So in this short blog post, we thought it would be useful to see what claimants were expecting.

Thinking ahead to a time lockdown was lifted, social distancing was in place and most workplaces re-opened, about half of new claimants (48.3%) expected to return to their previous job. (Our large YouGov survey of just over 3,000 new Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment & Support Allowance claimants ran from 21st May to 15th June). Less than one in ten (7.5%) expected to be doing a different sort of work, though many more had no idea what they would be doing (17.7%).

Expectations by sector

Given that labour market experts expected some sectors – particularly hospitality and leisure – to struggle after lockdown ended, we may have expected claimants from these sectors to be particularly pessimistic about their prospects. However, this is not the case, as the chart below shows.

The yellow bars (measured on the left axis) show that around half (49.9%) of new claimants who previously worked in the hospitality sector expected to return to their previous job, with the red bars (still measured on the left axis) showing that only 9.5% expecting to have to work in a new sector completely. In contrast, only 19.8% of claimants previously working in finance, IT or professional jobs expected to go back to their previous job, with 14.6% expecting to have to work in a different sector.

(Important methodological note: the total sample for the chart above is only 803 claimants. Sectors have been combined so that the minimum sample is 50 (one exception is made for Arts/Recreation, with a sample size of 35), but there is considerable statistical uncertainty around these estimates. The sectors that accounted for more claimants have more precise estimates, so that we can be relatively confident that e.g. hospitality differs from finance/IT/professionals, as described above).

The figure above also shows that new claimants who previously worked come from a variety of different sectors (this is the green line, which correspondents to the right-hand axis). However, new claimants were particularly concentrated in hospitality (13.6% of new claimants who were working before the COVID-19 outbreak) and retail/warehousing/distribution (17.9% of new claimants), both of which were expected to struggle after lockdown ended.

Final thoughts

The key task for employment support specialists is to provide advice and interventions to customers that will assist them into work. This includes using robust labour market intelligence to advise customers on opportunities and growth industries in local and regional labour markets and, critically, engagement with employers.

Sometimes claimants’ perceptions and aspirations can be out of kilter with labour market demand. In the context of what is likely to be widespread unemployment, and with certain sectors projected to be harder hit than others, individuals are likely to need good advice and support around career switching and possibly reskilling. If these elements can be brought together, some may return to employment fairly quickly. While the DWP is already starting the tendering process for employment support, the scale of the task at hand for both Government, the employment and skills sector and its professionals should not be underestimated.

For more information on claimants’ labour market situation, see our first rapid findings report here (using interim data). This is the first of what will hopefully be a regular series of blogs, allowing us to provide rapid findings from the survey and (before long) qualitative interviews.

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