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Severe cuts to the Swedish Public Employment Service

| Text: Björn Lindahl

What does the labour market look like for unemployed employment service workers? The question is suddenly relevant for a lot of staff at the Swedish Public Employment Service. 4,500 of them were given their notice on the 30th of January this year.

The new coalition still comprises the Social Democrats and the Green Party. But they are dependent on the support in parliament from the Centre Party and the Liberals. The Public Employment Service ended up in a squeeze between the political blocks and had its administration budget – which includes staffing costs – cut by 800 million kronor (€76m). 

The 2019 budget for job seekers’ measures was also cut with 4.5 billion kronor (€430 million).

“We have made a difficult decision. We will do everything in our power to support those who are being made redundant, including through the Job Foundation,” said Mikael Sjöberg, Director-General of the Public Employment Service, as he decision was presented.

The Public Employment Service has 13,500 staff and 430 consultants in 242 offices across Sweden. Several offices are now at risk of closure.

Digitalisation

Are the redundancies also a sign of the time? Are we seeing job centre workers being replaced by digital systems, where the Public Employment Service in the end is nothing but a platform for linking job-seekers and available jobs, without any human involvement at all?

Martin Söderström at the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, IFAU, has been studying the labour market for employment service staff. In late 2018, he and his colleague Linus Liljeberg published the report “Employment service staff and their jobs market".

"It is nothing new that the staff numbers vary with the size of the administration budget. But we have not seen anything on this scale before,” says Martin Söderström.

The journey of renewal

“During Mikael Sjöberg’s tenure as Director-General for the Public Employment Service, it has been part of their policy to increase digitalisation in what he calls the Journey of Renewal. But in our study we have not been looking at the possible consequences this might have on the number of employees.”

The researchers looked at a period covering 2008 to 2016, when the number of employment service staff rose sharply – from 5,000 to 9,000. In the same period, the Public Employment Service’s mandate changed. 

Parts of the service was privatised as early as in 2009, and in 2010 it was tasked with helping newly arrived people into work.

The Public Employment Service was under a great amount of pressure, and had to accept a lot of criticism for not achieving expected results. It lost trust, and media coverage was often negative. There was an increasing chorus of people calling for the service to be scrapped or reorganised, the two researchers conclude.

Many have been unemployed

There is no education for becoming an employment service worker, but in 2009 the general education demand was increased to a certain number of years at university. Unemployment is something many employment service workers have experienced themselves. One third of new employees were unemployed at the time of hiring, and one in six had been unemployed for more than six months. That is a high number compared to similar groups.

With so many newly hired people, the average employment service worker has changed. The average age has fallen from 48 in 2003 to 44 in 2015. More than two thirds are women, and that number is rising. The number of people born abroad rose from nine percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2015. 

“With the current employment rules favouring people who have been employed the longest, newly hired employment service workers are the most exposed. But based on previous experience we know that the number of people who are given notice is higher than the number who do lose their jobs in the end,” says Martin Söderström.

How attractive are the unemployed employment service workers on the labour market?

“With their work experience and relatively high education levels they should be fairly attractive. They also enter into a labour market where the need for labour is still high,” says Martin Söderström.

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