Breaking the cycle of unemployment
03 December 2012
Problems with the government's Work Programme – charities closing due to cash flow, employers losing faith, revisions in eligibility criteria, overly optimistic targets – have cast doubt on the effectiveness of the scheme. With the first full set of outcome statistics now released, Peter Fitzhenry discusses how his own organisation is helping to get long-term unemployed young people back on the pathway to work
Recent unemployment figures may provide some relief for the government. Both the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits and the number of young people without a job are down. But with the economy improving in baby steps and further public sector cuts looming, can this be sustained?
All eyes are on the Work Programme for the answer after the first full set of outcome statistics has been published. Officials hoped that figures would show the scheme was having a sizeable impact. They also wanted outcomes to prove that the ongoing problems associated with the scheme have been worth it.
But one major problem that policymakers, providers and employers have all wrestled with is how hard it is to get people who've been without a job for six months or more back into work. These individuals are much more likely to need extra supervision and wrap-around support when they begin work. Drop-out and sickness-absence rates are higher for this group than other employees. Time management, motivation, responding to instructions, discipline and monthly versus weekly payroll can all be issues.
At the Golden Gates Housing Trust (GGHT) these are all problems we are aware of. Since 2010 we've run two employment and training programmes with the aim of reducing local unemployment in Warrington. Rather than use existing trades staff to deliver home improvement works, GGHT decided to grow new talent.
Our first work scheme created 18 trades roles. These trainees are employed by Golden Gates for one year, working 30-hour weeks with one unpaid day at college.
Another employment scheme appoints nine new starters for a three-year apprenticeship. Long-term unemployed tenants aged 18-24 are targeted for both schemes. It would have been easier to recruit via the Jobcentre, but GGHT wanted to work with people who had been unemployed for more than six months to make an impact where the Jobcentre had not.
We knew that employing and training these individuals wouldn't be easy. If you've been out of a job for a long time then it can take a while to get used to the workplace. We anticipated issues around timekeeping, conduct, getting used to being managed and that old chestnut – going off sick.
But we also had a responsibility to our tenants, whose homes were being improved through the employment schemes. Fences had to be mended, kitchens fitted and repairs made. There was no room for neighbourhoods to fall into disrepair just because one of our new workers couldn't be bothered to get up in the morning.
To guard against such problems we decided to take a new approach. A local social enterprise, Employer Pool, was brought in as a host employer. Employer Pool is highly experienced in providing the wrap-around support and extra supervision that people who've been long-term unemployed may need. They advised GGHT staff on the type of training that would help to reduce problems and they manage performance issues so our managers are freed up.
We put all our trainees on a "no notice, no liability" casual contract and employ them through Employer Pool, not Golden Gates. If there are any issues with a worker's absence or performance then it is relatively easy for GGHT to withdraw the role. Trainees are aware of this and it has reduced sickness absence rates and cut the level of conduct issues. But likewise, trainees can also withdraw quite easily from the contract, so if the role is not right for them they don't have to serve a long notice period.
By working with a third party such as Employer Pool, GGHT has also been able to give trainees weekly contracts rather than having to pay everyone through the monthly payroll. Getting paid weekly rather than monthly can make a huge difference to many trainees and it has also reduced drop-outs.
Another important step we've taken is getting rid of occupational sick pay. There is absolutely no incentive for trainees to stay in bed and this move has increased productivity and significantly cut sickness absence rates.
Employer Pool does a lot of work to help unemployed individuals find jobs. We tap into their experience and networks to broaden the job opportunities of our trainees. They receive advice on CV writing and preparing for job interviews – helping to make them more attractive to future employers. We also work with other housing providers and suppliers to ensure trainees are put forward for relevant job opportunities.
The results speak for themselves. The drop-out rate for both schemes is zero. Workers take an average of just 3.8 sickness days per year and dismissal figures for our three-year apprenticeship scheme is also zero.
With more public sector organisations taking on unemployed people through back-to-work schemes, we need to find new ways of guarding against conduct and drop-out issues. We've had success at GGHT through simple steps but there's still a long way to go to break the cycle of unemployment.
Peter Fitzhenry is director of housing management at Golden Gates Housing TrustThis article first appeared in Public Servant magazine