‘Hidden army of talent’ among Britons on benefits could plug labour market gaps

Out-of-work Britons are to be offered places on “skills bootcamps” as part of a Government bid to plug gaps in the labour market which were previously filled by overseas workers.

Benefits claimants will be given training for roles in key sectors facing shortages, including hospitality, care, construction and manufacturing, Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said on Tuesday.

In a speech at a Jobcentre in central London, the Cabinet minister said the UK has relied on foreign labour “for too long” as he vowed to “unleash Britain’s hidden army of talent”.

Cabinet meeting
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride has vowed to ‘unleash Britain’s hidden army of talent’ (Lucy North/PA)

It comes after the Home Office announced a raft of restrictions aimed at cutting the number of people entering Britain and ahead of official net migration statistics set to be published on Thursday.

The measures include a ban on overseas care workers bringing over family dependants, a drastically increased salary threshold for skilled workers to £38,700, and reforms to make it harder for Britons earning less than the national average to bring over foreign spouses.

Mr Stride acknowledged that the rules, which aim to reduce the number of people arriving in Britain by 300,000 a year, present a “recruitment challenge” for employers but insisted the Government is building a new economic model “based on British talent”.

“I know this presents a recruitment challenge for some employers in certain sectors, particularly those that have relied more on migration in the past, but this is also a huge opportunity for the thousands of jobseekers within our domestic workforce to move into roles that have previously been filled by overseas workers.”

The minister added: “I see no reason why a British worker cannot be a care worker. And I hear too many people saying ‘Oh, well, those jobs aren’t the jobs for the domestic labour market.'”

The plans include a new Government taskforce set up to develop recruitment initiatives in industries facing major shortages, chaired by Mr Stride and including ministers from the Home Office, Treasury, Department for Education and Department for Business and Trade.

It will draw on the measures introduced to target the shortage of HGV drivers, which included skills “bootcamps” and Jobcentre training schemes, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said.

Asked during a media Q&A after his speech how the initiatives will work in practice, Mr Stride said they are “short, focused” training sessions typically put together with input from businesses.

“It is just a simple fact that if you can get somebody who’s willing and incentivised to work and you give them those skills over a short period of time, you can make a real movement of the dial in terms of having people go into those areas of employment,” he said.

“My message to businesses is clear: our Jobcentre teams stand ready to help you find the right candidate, and we want to work with you to overcome recruitment challenges.

“And my message is also to the British people. For too long we have relied on labour from abroad when there is great talent right here in the UK – I am determined to put that right.”

He suggested major welfare reform is needed, arguing that personal independence payments (Pip), the main disability benefit, are “creaking under the weight of the profound changes we’ve seen in the nature of disability”.

Ministers have previously proposed changes to eligibility criteria and assessments for the payments, which will be consulted on over the coming months, with suggestions that people suffering with depression or anxiety could lose access.

Labour dismissed the latest announcement as “another talking shop” and said more drastic measures are needed after official figures showed net migration hit a record-breaking 745,000 in 2022.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Alison McGovern said: “After laying bare the Tories’ damning failure on work, skills and training, Mel Stride is going to be furious when he finds out who has been in power for the last 14 years.

“Talking shops and billboards do not even scratch the surface of what is needed to get Britain working. The Tories should be prioritising proper plans to tackle worker shortages and adopting Labour’s plan to connect the immigration system to skills.

“The Tories cannot be the change from their own failings. It is Labour who have the plan to get Britain working by cutting NHS waiting lists, reforming job centres, making work pay and supporting people into good jobs across every part of the country.”

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokeswoman Wendy Chamberlain said: “In many ways this is an admission that the Conservatives have no plan to tackle the biggest reason that people are unable to work, which is that NHS waiting lists are through the roof.

“Thousands are struggling to access the healthcare they need, meaning people are unable to go back to work.

“This Conservative Government has neglected our NHS, which is continuing to damage the country’s economic recovery. We will only get the economy back fighting fit by fixing the health crisis.”

The Unison union criticised proposals for bootcamps for the unemployed as a “desperate attempt to distract voters from Government care failings”.

“There’s nothing wrong with promoting social care as a career and offering proper training to try to attract new recruits to the crisis-stricken sector,” the union’s head of social care, Gavin Edwards, said.

“But forcing the unemployed off benefits and into caring roles, while keeping pay rates low, simply won’t work. Most people will neither want to do the jobs, nor be remotely suited to them.

“This latest foolish idea shows ministers are clueless about how to fix care.”