The British government's goal to get more people with long-term illnesses or disabilities back into employment could be hampered by a tougher jobs' market and entrenched attitudes against hiring such people in the first place, according to new research.
The latest quarterly labour survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found more than six out of 10 employers regularly exclude groups with certain characteristics from the recruitment process.
Those most likely to be excluded include people with a criminal record, a history of drug or alcohol problems or those with a history of long-term sickness or incapacity.
With fewer recruitment opportunities in a slightly cooler labour market, the government's stated aim of moving people from these "core jobless" groups up the job queue, off welfare benefits and into work looks set to get harder, the CIPD has predicted.
CIPD chief economist John Philpott said: "Widespread reluctance on the part of employers to recruit the core jobless highlights the magnitude of the task facing the government as it strives to get more economically inactive benefit claimants – especially those claiming Incapacity Benefit – off welfare and into work."
The government has been running a series of pilot projects looking at ways of encouraging the long-term sick back into work, the most controversial of which is to put employment advisers into GP surgeries.
Other plans include providing more individual advice and support and access to NHS rehabilitation services.
"Even a relatively slight cooling in the labour market, as now seems underway, is bad news for those at the back of the jobs queue and for ministers who may find it harder to meet their welfare reform objectives," warned Philpott.
"As a result the government will have to reinvigorate its welfare-to-work agenda by making greater efforts to both improve the employability of the core jobless groups and by addressing negative employer attitudes to people in these groups," he added.
Employers would be more likely to recruit more core jobless workers if more was done to improve their employability, concluded the research.
But there also need to be greater efforts to overcome the often unfair negative attitudes of employers toward the core jobless, it added.
"The extent of exclusion of the core jobless is not in every case justified on the basis of their potential," said Philpott.
"For example, of employers with experience of employing ex-offenders 87 per cent consider them at least as productive as other workers and 75 per cent consider them at least as reliable.
"This would suggest that people with criminal records and individuals from other core jobless groups are in many cases being unfairly excluded from the recruitment process. More must be done by policy makers, working with employers, to address negative stereotypes," he added.
The report, which also looked at the wider state of the UK jobs' market, found demand for labour is continuing to ease.
Fewer than half of employers predicted that staffing numbers will increase during the summer months, the second lowest figure for net recruitment since the survey began in the first quarter of 2004.
There has also been a substantial increase in the use by employers of part-time working, fixed-term contracts and temporary contracts.
The proportion of employers with workers on fixed-term contracts has almost doubled from 25 per cent to 46 per cent in the past 18 months, as has the number with temporary workers, which has leapt from 26 per cent to 46 per cent.
"Confidence in the jobs market appears to be levelling out following unprecedented high employment levels," said Philpott.
"And against a background of a weakening housing market and a slowdown in consumer spending, it would appear that employers are looking to gain greater flexibility from short-term contracts and part-time working," he stressed.