The UK Employment Retention and Advancement Project


Until recently, employment policy in the United Kingdom had been focused principally on helping people who had lost their jobs to find work. Although some government-sponsored measures were available to help those on the margins of employment retain their jobs and improve their earnings, there had been less support for people once they had found jobs. The launch of the United Kingdom's Employment Retention and Advancement demonstration (UK ERA) marked a new direction in Britain’s evolving welfare-to-work and antipoverty policies toward developing services that aimed to improve job retention and career advancement prospects for Britain’s low-wage workforce. (UK ERA has many parallels with the U.S.-based Employment Retention and Advancement project that MDRC is evaluating for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Operated by the British government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), UK ERA represents one of only a few, and by far the largest, random assignment demonstration projects ever conducted in the United Kingdom. UK ERA services were directed at individuals in three distinct low-income groups known to have difficulty retaining a job or advancing to better positions:

  • The long-term unemployed (mostly men)

  • Lone parents on income support (mostly women)

  • Lone parents working part time and receiving the Working Tax Credit (akin to the Earned Income Tax Credit in the United States)

The program offered a combination of services and financial incentives that lasted for as long as two years after participants entered work.

  • Under UK ERA, new employment specialists, called Advancement Support Advisers, worked with job developers to offer participants ongoing advice and assistance intended to help them overcome obstacles to steady employment and find pathways toward better job opportunities and wage progression. The advisers referred participants who wished to enhance their skills while employed to occupational training organizations. Participants who needed extra help to address personal problems that were hindering their success in the labor market were referred to social service agencies.

  • The financial incentives included a retention bonus for participants who remained stably employed in full-time work. It was paid three times per year in increments of about $600, up to a maximum total award of $3,600. Participants who combined training with employment were eligible to receive a training bonus and tuition assistance, each up to about $1,500.

An underlying objective of UK ERA was to spark knowledge transfer that would build capacity in the UK to conduct future random assignment social experiments, a goal MDRC accomplished through its close working relationship with its consortium partners and with DWP policy, program, and research staff.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

UK ERA was implemented during 2003-2007 in six regions of the country (four in England, and one each in Scotland and Wales) within Jobcentre Plus agencies, the institutions that run Britain’s benefit and employment services systems. The evaluation used a random assignment research design in which the experiences of low-income adults who participated in UK ERA programs were compared with those of low-income adults who received services available under existing public programs. Drawing on an extensive body of qualitative data, administrative records, client and staff surveys, and fiscal information, researchers analyzed the implementation, impacts, and costs and benefits of UK ERA in each district.

Also as part of the project, and another first for an evaluation undertaken in the UK, a team of technical advisors was hired to assist in the operations of the demonstration. They were responsible for helping each of the demonstration sites implement high-quality programs that adhered to the UK ERA program model and for ensuring that sites properly executed the procedures for random assignment.