Senior executives from more than 40 leading British companies attended Gordon Brown's launch of the New Deal for young and long-term unemployed adults in June last year. The first major element in the Government's Welfare to Work programme, it is intended to help more than 250,000 people back to work over the next four years at a cost of some £3.5 billion.
From 5 January the scheme will be piloted in 12 pathway areas before rolling out nationally in April. The last couple of months have seen the Government's publicity machine shift into overdrive in a bid to enlist business support.
Many firms are now publicly committed to taking part, but what are these firms actually doing about the problem, and what are the obstacles to other companies taking part?
The leading firms have been assigned Employment Service account managers to help them refine their contribution to the New Deal. Another 105 large companies are now also being encouraged to take part. Tesco, for example, is guaranteeing to interview all New Deal employment option candidates and Allied Domecq expects to be able to offer at least 1,000 jobs.
Other companies, however, are less advanced in their plans to implement the programme than the fanfare of publicity might suggest, while others still are less than straightforward about when they will have something else to say on the subject. Sainsbury's has said it will recruit up to 1,000 young people but is 'still working' with the Employment Service's larger organisations unit to put in place an infrastructure and a team within the company to support the new deal.
GEC is at the 'stage of considering' how many opportunities it might be able to offer. At Tarmac, 'detailed proposals have yet to be considered' by the main board while Lloyds TSB is discussing 'a range of possible initiatives' with the Department for Education and Employment.
Katja Klasson, a policy adviser at the Confederation of British Industry, maintains that members are 'broadly supportive' and a bit further down the road than just declaring an interest. The level of subsidy is much higher than it was under the previous national insurance holiday scheme, she points out. But it is in nobody's interests for entrants to be funnelled automatically into unsuitable jobs, and there is some concern over the quality of the participants - her members do not want people who are not job-ready. More information is still needed about exactly how the partnerships are going to work and about how training is to be delivered.
What is needed, adds Klasson, is high-quality training, delivered flexibly without too much bureaucracy. With, according to employers, so many young people lacking the basic skills necessary to enter an employment option, the Employment Service is considering how to improve skill levels by increasing IT awareness, motivation and life skills by training, career guidance and mentoring. Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses wants subsidies to be paid upfront or not more than a week or two in arrears. It is also keen that the Employment Service should act as a filter to ensure that potential recruits are employable. Nor does it wish sole traders to be over-burdened with paperwork.
Adrian Egglestone, national training manager for the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), says the CWS will take about 20 people initially in its Manchester head office before rolling out the programme to its stores nationally. It expects to employ around 100 altogether. And he points to internal resistance as another major impediment to further progress.
'The biggest problem that we have in personnel and training is convincing managers why they should take people who are at the bottom end of the employability ladder.' Overall, however, he strikes a note of optimism and enthusiasm which too many of his peers across the business community seem to lack. 'We know there will be problems, but we are going to give it a go and we believe that some, but not all, individuals are going to make it,' he says.