One of the contractors accused of fraud in the government's controversial welfare-to-work programme is hoping to strike deals with colleges to help them meet targets for working with the unemployed.
Working Links is aiming to form partnerships with three more colleges from September after spending a year working in collaboration with Darlington College. Under a pound;1.7 million contract with the college, the firm offers employability training and finds suitable roles for unemployed people, mostly aged between 19 and 25.
The company, along with fellow Work Programme contractor A4e, was accused of fraud by a former employee in evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee in May. He alleged that the companies had fabricated proof that they had got people into work - a claim both firms have strongly denied.
The directors of Working Links described their planned expansion in FE as a sensible policy, given that the coalition cancelled all welfare-to-work contracts when it came to power in 2010, forcing companies to bid for the new Work Programme.
Making deals with colleges is an attractive extra revenue stream, given that the Work Programme is financially risky for providers, forcing them to take on costs up front and only paying them as their clients move into sustainable jobs. But Working Links believes its expertise will be valuable to colleges increasingly judged on employment outcomes.
Will Cookson, head of skills at Working Links, said: "It was about supporting (Darlington) for the part of their budget assigned for job outcomes, and they really wanted to understand and learn from us how to work with Jobcentre Plus."
Unemployed people on the training "routeway" usually gain jobs in retail, hospitality, call centres or warehousing for companies such as Tesco and McDonald's, he said.
Working Links' employability programme at Darlington focuses on the soft skills of communication and problem-solving, as well as sector-specific training aimed at improving opportunities for those with no experience of work.
Mr Cookson said that many of the industry sectors where jobs were available only required entry-level skills. "They're looking for someone to have the right attitude, someone who fits in with the existing workforce," he said.
Once they were in work, Mr Cookson said he hoped the students would carry on learning as apprentices. "We have always been very passionate about the fact that apprenticeships can be better targeted to support young people getting into employment," he said.
Working Links has also begun working with schools in Surrey on a project to offer employability training and careers advice for students at risk of becoming Neet (not in employment, education or training).
This raises the prospect of a single organisation working on careers and employment in both schools and colleges - a holistic approach that could assuage some of the fears felt by colleges about the impartiality of advice in schools. Mr Cookson said that Working Links' own surveys showed that only 26 per cent of people were advised about apprenticeships.
But others are wary about bringing the methods of the Work Programme into colleges. While Working Links says there are no outstanding investigations into the company and that it acted properly whenever concerns were raised about fraud, the parliamentary whistleblower described the welfare-to-work scheme as a "billion-pound scandal" to MPs.
"Colleges should be wary before entering into partnerships with for-profit welfare-to-work companies, especially given the continuing questions surrounding A4e," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "There is always room for improving links with employers but institutions shouldn't be seduced by the promise of quick returns."
JUST THE JOB
Since August 2011, 2.5 per cent of the adult skills budget, or about pound;80 million, has been ring-fenced for work with the unemployed.
Providers are expected to use the funding to improve engagement with Jobcentre Plus, develop ways of tracking student destinations or create additional support for students to find and apply for jobs.
Colleges and training providers are required to report to the Skills Funding Agency about whether students on benefits progress into jobs.
The SFA will monitor the job outcomes and report on how the curriculum offer supports unemployed people.