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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

Employability, social justice and contribution discussion paper

People contribute to society in different ways at different times. They are driven by a need to support themselves and their families, share things with other people around them and do something meaningful with their lives. Sustainable and meaningful paid employment is the single most powerful way in which people can empower themselves and secure their life chances. But by focusing all of our efforts on getting as many people as possible into any jobs as quickly as possible, all we are doing is targeting support to those closest to the labour market and already employable. Too many people get left behind. On top of this, paid employment may not always be the best way for people to contribute to society at a particular point in their life. They may be able to make a bigger impact and gain confidence and engagement with their communities by being supported as carers, volunteers, learners or activists. This would ensure more people are willing, engaged and confident to take on paid employment when it suits their life circumstances and the job opportunities are there, not when they are desperate, unprepared or disengaged. This is particularly critical for those who have been left behind by our current employability support industry. Our big idea is to shift state support for employability away from focusing solely on getting people into paid jobs, to one which is about supporting them to contribute to society based on what they can best offer at any one point in time. The key here is to value all forms of contribution, not just jobs, and to tailor support to each citizen’s capabilities and offer. The experience of our sector is that when people are already valued, supported and confident in their contribution to society, they become more job ready and more often than not paid jobs soon follow.

So what needs to change?

Our approach needs to start with people:
  • People deserve a strategic and better connected approach to supporting them to participate in society that is personalised to what they need and what they can offer
  • The best way to do this is to put them in charge of their own support and contribution and help people build on their own capabilities
  • SCVO believes that a person’s contribution to Scottish society is more important than the means by which that contribution, whether it’s financial or otherwise, is made
  • This also means the way we organise services and support needs to adapt flexibly to help people identify and build confidence in their own capabilities and offer. Crucially, this needs to be done by enabling them, not seeking to control how people contribute
  • Within the support landscape, we believe the third sector has a particular role to play because our sector is more accessible to the people that get left behind by others.

How the current approach is failing

  • Government interventions in skills and employability are out of date and out of touch with the modern economy and completely ill-suited to meeting the needs of people who need help and support to get and keep a job
  • Part of the problem with the current approach is its focus almost exclusively on commissioning support for people. Another approach would be to invest in community support. This could include investing in helping people connect with their peers for mutual support and expand their social networks. Examples could include care and repair, the men’s shed movement, community cafés and playgroups. It also includes support for digital spaces
  • There is a danger that the Scottish approach to new powers over employability such as the Work Programme and Work Choice could simply replicate all the problems and barriers of existing models
  • The rules for state support to jobseekers, the sanctions regime and mandatory referrals to programmes from job centres are damaging and remain reserved to the UK. For example, the earnings disregard for universal credit could be reduced if people get financial support from new devolved employability programmes, and inhibit other potential innovations such as citizen income (an unconditional payment to every citizen replacing most benefits), community allowance (paying unemployed people for part-time work without it disrupting their benefits) or attempts to marry paid employment with a community offer
  • We need a conversation and debate on what the future employability - or contributory - landscape might look like. We want all sectors, but particularly our own, to look again at how we support people to contribute and ultimately build a fairer Scotland.

A new measure: contribution

Many will be challenged by the idea of changing our current approach which regards contribution to society solely as employment. The belief is firmly embedded that money is invested in people through education, further education or training and work experience which must then be repaid through the ultimate goal of full-time employment before people retire. This will not easily be changed. But this approach has not led to a fair and just Scottish economy. Instead, our economy is characterised by underemployment and low skills utilisation, with inequalities faced by women, older people, disabled people and those from low income communities. The failure of the current approach, our changing demographic patterns and our politically advantageous times mean we need to be bold. At the heart of this must be a re-framing that focuses our attention on people’s contribution to society rather than solely the ultimate goal of employment. We must also recognise that an individual’s form of contribution, or employability needs, may change over time. Some may argue that there are people, including people with disabilities and those with life-limiting illnesses for example, who should be exempt from any state support to contribute to society. We would disagree. While most people’s primary contribution is likely to be through employment, many will also continue to contribute in other important ways. Volunteering, community activism, kinship care and good neighbourliness are all of significant value to our society. They too deserve support and recognition. For some that want, or need them, there are other ways to contribute. As an example, Norwegian research[1] suggests that supporting parents to stay at home with their children improves their future education prospects. Equally, supporting people to choose to provide care for a relative or friend is likely to provide better outcomes for the person being supported but also cost the Scottish economy less than funding support staff. This raises the question of whether Scotland is best served by a short-term goal of ensuring parents work, or by a longer term one that focuses on increasing the educational outcomes of children? This will not be an easy task. Publicly, the mood has become one of intolerance, where society seems unwilling to accept that some cannot, or are not best placed to, contribute through employment. Those who cannot, or find difficulty, entering employment seem increasingly to be cast as benefit scroungers or the objects of charity hand-outs. Ultimately, this approach isn’t, as some will undoubtedly be quick to categorise it, a charter for layabouts. All of us have a responsibility to support each other and help shape society. It is, however, vital that we look at our society’s needs, and the contribution people make, in a far more holistic manner. It’s about using compassion and common sense, instead of rigidly sticking to a failing, solely employment-based, model.

How we can improve employability

Since most people will continue to wish to contribute through employment, we need a fresh approach to ensure we assist people to secure a job, not just access employability services. The current approach focuses on the carrot of financial incentives for employability providers and the stick of sanctions for job-seekers. The result has been:
  • A cluttered employability landscape, where different agencies keep investing in the same sections of society, e.g. young graduates, without awareness of their collective impact and bias
  • An employment, employability and volunteering system which is geared towards supporting those closest to labour markets – the most digitally capable and people who volunteer in traditional ways
  • An over-use of investing in skills programmes, when skills development programmes such as modern apprenticeships, tend to be most accessible to those that are already job-ready, rather than those that simply need basic employment experience to improve their chances.
At SCVO we believe Scotland needs an employability strategy that:
  • Expands from looking solely at getting people into jobs, to one that helps people realise their contribution to society based on their unique offer
  • Is designed to meet current and future demand and job growth, and which is connected to the refreshed Scottish economic and employment strategies
  • Targets support at those who are most in need or who most need support, with the aim of overcoming the challenges which prevent them moving into, and progressing meaningfully within the labour market
  • Utilises self-directed, creative and personalised approaches to the design and delivery of employability services, based on interventions that work best for people instead of what’s best for the support providers
  • Is based on a participatory approach, involving not just providers and support agencies, but helping people to connect with other people to expand their social networks for peer support
  • Offers a personal budget approach to increase autonomy and independence
  • Recognises and delivers wider benefits to society, as well as individuals, contributing to Scotland's communities by building their capacity and assets.

Is Scotland ready?

Politically, Scotland is in the perfect policy environment within which to re-think, re-design and re-create an improved offer to support people to get involved in society. New powers over welfare and employment programmes are on the table alongside an energised population post-referendum, and a confident and respected parliament and government. We now have national conversations on social justice, employability and fair work by the Scottish Government, and various Scottish Parliament inquiries looking at how to use the new powers. There is a significant opportunity to improve the employability landscape in its broadest sense. It is also the perfect opportunity to break away from current practice, which focuses on pipelines and state-commissioned approaches to drive people into work.


Paid employment remains one of the best ways in which people can take control over their lives. But solely focusing on getting people into jobs is a mistake. We need to build a system of support to help people who might otherwise get left behind contribute based on what they can best offer at any one point in time. The damaging effects of people abandoned, stigmatised and caricatured have been felt in many of Scotland’s communities over the past decades. Too many of Scotland’s people are disconnected and de-motivated through unemployment, discrimination, and disadvantage. Such a strategy can’t be developed in isolation. It must explicitly recognise its links to other Scottish strategies, such as those addressing learning and volunteering, self-directed support and welfare. Fundamentally, it must also recognise that some people’s journeys into employment will be longer than others, and that an outcome for some may be taking up learning or training, volunteering, being active in the community or supporting others around them as carers. These may act as a first step into, or a return to, the job market building up people’s confidence and job readiness along the way. But just as importantly, it may lead to an alternative form of contribution that is equally valuable to Scottish society.

The big questions

  1. How do we radically shift away from an approach that simply seeks to get as many people into any job by any means possible to one that seeks to maximise the contribution of everyone including those most marginalised in society?
  2. How should we get support to all citizens to contribute, making best use of new digital technologies, and an energised post-referendum population to reach more people, without seeking to direct and control their contribution?
  3. How should we unlock the offer of the third sector within this approach to employment and employability within the new powers, given its accessibility and engagement with the most marginalised in society?

Contact one of the team

Please get in touch with your ideas, feedback and any thoughts you have on how we can answer the big questions above. Lynn Williams. Email: Tel. 0141 559 5036 Ruchir Shah. Email: Tel. 0131 474 6158 John Downie. Email: Tel 0131 474 8037 [1] Statistics Norway (2013) Home with Mom: The effects of stay-at-home parents on children’s long-run educational outcomes
Last modified on 22 January 2020