Meet the Winners: Janet Williams
Janet Williams is a personal adviser in the Department for Work and Pensions, and winner of the Head of the Civil Service’s Award. CSW spoke with her to find out why she won.
With job centres finding employment for barely half of those who are seeking jobs, there are opportunities within the civil service reform agenda to improve their success rate. In the Dorset seaside town of Weymouth, JobCentre Plus adviser Janet Williams was offered the chance to try a different approach. She was given free rein, she says, “to do whatever it takes while working within the rules” to improve the rate at which jobseekers secured employment.
Williams’ approach was comprehensive. Walking to work, she would make notes of adverts for jobs in shop windows, and she scoured the local media. She also decided to change the way that she worked with jobseekers.
Typically, interaction between JCP staff and jobseekers is limited to a weekly or fortnightly face-to-face interview, but Janet switched to conducting 75 per cent of her interviews by phone and using email to contact her customers. “It completely changed how things worked for me,” she says. “For a lot of people, coming into the office may not work – they may feel more comfortable at home. I invited them to contact me whenever they wanted: if they felt low, they could give me a call. I made it clear I would fit them in rather than just giving them a scheduled appointment.”
Williams kept in close contact with her clients, giving them pep talks ahead of interviews. If they didn’t land a job, Williams would contact the employer, ask how they fell short and see if a work placement could be arranged. To break the ice, Williams would call up an employer and initially ask for two minutes just to put the case for her client, or explain how JobCentre Plus might be able to help the company. Having started by cold-calling prospective employers, Williams says she is now regularly contacted by businesses, including local employers such as ASDA and Costa Coffee who trust her to find suitable candidates for jobs.
Williams was also struck by how many of her customers had left a job under a cloud. Mindful of the potential loss of benefits that such a move could involve, she would seek to get them reinstated – if appropriate – in the same job. “By talking to them about why the job had ended, you could gauge whether there was a chance that they could return to it. Some employers would just say there was no chance, others would explain in detail what had happened.” Returning to the jobseeker, Williams says, she would warn them “they might have to hear a few things they didn’t want to hear” – but “the vast majority” of clients agreed to give the job another go. To incentivise employers, Williams would offer to place the individual on a work trial for a few days.
Another tactic involved bespoke, targeted learning: identifying gaps in the skills of job applicants, liaising with external training providers such as the National Careers Service, and helping potential employers clarify what they wanted. “One customer was a chef who had been out of work for 12 months,” she recalls. “He had interviews, but was losing out because he was quiet and the ‘Celebrity Chef’ phenomenon had made employers seek out charismatic personalities. I spoke to the employer and explained that not every kitchen needs a Gordon Ramsay. We ironed that out and I asked her to give him a chance.”
Williams acknowledges that some steps were initially personally challenging. Speaking to employers was “a real learning curve. Having the courage to pick up the phone and try to get people on board is the hardest step.”
The outcomes from Williams’s scheme are striking: 73 per cent of her customers have found employment, compared with the Jobseekers Allowance national average of 51 per cent. Some 55 per cent of clients got jobs within five weeks of receiving her tailored support, and the average time her clients stayed on Jobseekers Allowance fell to 10.4 weeks – nearly half the national average of 18.2 weeks.
Williams’ achievements really impressed the awards judges and caught the eye of civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake. “I was delighted to award Janet the Head of the Civil Service’s Award for her outstanding work,” he comments. “Through her creative approach, working openly with businesses and the public, she has delivered the very best for her clients. When I talk of ‘taking the best and making it standard’ as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, I mean learning from people like Janet.”
A lot of Williams’ work amounts to people skills and intuition, but she’s emphatic that if her approach is to be adopted more widely as part of the civil service reform agenda, than preparation is key. “You really need to know the local labour market, and engage quickly with local employers and gain their trust, understanding what makes them tick. I learnt by mistakes. It’s easy to think that employers won’t want to talk to you, but if you feel like that then it comes across clearly in how you speak. You need a passion for selling the skills of your customers.”
At the same time, she argues, “you have to get customers to feel you are in it for them and that they are important to you. That way they will respond more to coaching and encouragement.”