Support for young unemployed is vacuous

The Observer reported that the support and advice for the young unemployed is not what was originally supposed. It seems that regular mentoring essentially comes down to a weekly text.

The £1bn scheme that has been promoted by Nick Clegg, as a concerted effort to solve the worklessness crisis for18- to 24-year-olds by offering them more time with advisers. But documents instructing job centres on their additional responsibilities reveal that the weekly contact promised under the scheme could merely consist of weekly text messages or emails.

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A Big Society project for Leek- helping ourselves.

Like others I have doubts about the concept of the Big Society. But I am prepared to explore and develop ideas if I feel that they could be to the betterment of the people of Leek. I think that there is a great deal of potential in the town, which all too often is overlooked. And I believe that the Big Society could offer something to the locality especially if people in the town could be encouraged to support an idea that develops a service that used to exist in the town but was removed.

I should explain my idea.

It is a simple one and came me again following the front page report in a local newspaper to a young man who sat by a round about with a placard saying that he was looking for work early one morning. An employer reading the board offered him a job. I was walking down Derby St in the centre of Leek and noticed a couple of jobs in windows who were looking for people for vacancies. Now evidence suggests that many jobs are not advertised in the conventional channels through the job centre or agencies. A figure of anything between 20-80% of jobs are within this hidden jobs market and a key in finding this market is to be proactive. I felt that there ought to be some mechanism where people could advertise jobs for free or alert people to work possibilities.

The problem with Leek is that there is no job centre and has not been one since 2004. The local unemployed has to travel to the Potteries to a very inferior service. I know because in 2009 I used the service myself and as a consequence of my experience I did put forward an idea for an opportunity centre in Leek. It would a place perhaps based in an unused facility such as an empty shop where people could visit who were looking for work or self employment opportunities.

I am clear that this initiative should be concerned with employment or employment opportunities. It is not concerned with volunteering opportunities there are facilities in the town that cater for volunteering.

My original idea was that self-employment might for some people be the only route out of their predicament where people could give advice who have undertaken that journey. One aspect of using the job centre was that the staff were largely unaware of the process of the journey into self employment indeed attending the Hanley Job Centre was a process which offered no opportunity to discuss possibilities. The experience of using the job centre was a very unsatisfactory one as the objective was to move you through the system as quickly as possible without discussing options or possibilities with you.

When I suggested originally in March 2009 my first thought was to use the faith community as a catalyst for setting up something. In July 2009 I attended a meeting at the Salvation Army in Leek and the captain of the local citadel was looking at bringing an Employment Plus project which the Salvation Army run in various parts of the country. This seems to have come to nought.

Shortly after I raised the issue of there not being a job centre in Leek the town was visited by a Job Centre bus provided by the County Council. This was only a short-term measure. I did call in and the service was staffed by people from the South of the County who did not have much knowledge of the local situation.

Currently there are about 1500 people who are not economically active in Leek a high proportion of them will be young people and the numbers are bound to rise as young people leave Colleges and Schools. There is also likely to be an increase following the spending cuts to be made by national and local Government. The Government is also keen that people who are in this predicament move into work into the private sector or self employment and this idea is helpful to that objective.

There are two stages to my idea firstly the setting up of a social network page through Facebook of a Leek Job Mart where jobs that exist could be flagged up and people who are looking for work can promote themselves. This is a derivative idea and I noticed that the Oatcake Stoke City supporter site has a section that helps people who are looking for work. Obviously people who know about local jobs could post them on to the Face book site and people looking for work could use it to post their details. I have used the facebook approach in setting up the Regenerate Stoke Facebook page, which has proved to be a focus for positive ideas to develop the area.

I have had a few conversations with individuals such as Marc Briand the Vice-Chairman of the Leek Chamber of Trade. The idea falls neatly into the work that has been done in town during the Save our Leek campaign against the planning application put in by Sainsbury’s.
Campaigners have argued that businesses in the town centre could generate employment without the need for the development on the edge of the town. This initiative again helps that objective.

I have a feeling that the Chamber of Trade would be supportive of the idea.

My idea is also around the concept of self-help and last year I looked at some examples in the United States of the response to the unemployment crisis of 2009-10 especially with the development of the concept of the Laidoffcamp.. LaidOffCamp is an ad-hoc gathering of unemployed and self-employed people (including entrepreneurs and start-ups) who want to share ideas and learn from each other. They exist in a number of cities such as Detroit, San Francisco and New York as well as smaller They feature an open, participatory discussion forum designed to educate, empower, and connect community members. The various presentations, workshops, and discussions focus on topics that may include: building your personal brand, transitioning to a new industry, legal & accounting demands of launching a new business, alternative working spaces, alternative income sources, and how to become a freelancer.

I have also been drawn to a case study of a programme designed to tackle worklessness in Sunderland. NESTA in a document that looked at a radical approach to delivering public services advanced the project as an example of best practice in an area that equally has resonates in North Staffs as it does in the North East. In 2007 25% of the work force in Sunderland were economically inactive which is as near as damn it is the experience in Stoke. Sunderland like Stoke have been much exercised by this problem and all the conventional approaches to turning the tide on unemployment had failed. Sunderland therefore attempted a new approach. The organisation Livework did not win the contract by saying they had all the solutions refreshingly they said they needed to clearly understand the barriers to work faced by the unemployed. By asking people they quickly concluded that the reasons why people are unemployed for long periods is complex a fact not readily understood by job centres.

This was particularly true about hard to reach groups were the connection and involvement that they made with community organisations was often very strong. Stronger, in fact than the statutory organisations. I experienced this with the metal health organisation I worked with in Manchester. They also found that there was a lack of communication and co-ordination between community groups and statutory bodies. The importance of collaboration between the agencies especially those engaged most consistently and at an earlier stage was the key.

Livework convened a number of workshops between the long-term unemployed; employers, community groups and the council included how to deliver the long-term support that the workless required.

Lifework was able to pool the various offers from community groups into a single brochure. The community groups supported the unemployed person through and supported them in their efforts to be work ready and in this goal they were supported by Sunderland Council services. More people were able to contact the job centre because they received the support of the organisation that they were most familiar with in the community, which they lived. The community groups did the outreach and support work.

I can quite see something like this working in Leek.

Locally based initiatives seem to have worked in Sunderland.
In its first stage Make It Work supported over 1,000 people, with 238 finding work. The success of the project owed something to the risk that the Council were prepared to take in handing control over to community groups funding it properly and giving it the opportunity to grow.

It is also interesting to note that Job Clubs tend to do better if they are sited in the heart of the commercial community. All too often in my experience job clubs tend to be located in buildings on the periphery of the town while research carried out in the mid 90s concluded that buildings in the heart of commercial activities do better.

Since I was looking at this as an idea there have been a number of developments. Firstly the election of a new Government in which the Big Society was a principle idea. Last week there was an announcement that the Government was looking at 4 pilot areas in England. They were also looking into seconding civil servants to push forward potential projects. I feel that a project like the community facebook job mart as well as community support through an opportunity centre might make for an attractive package.

Potential funding for such a social enterprise will come from dormant accounts and I think it would be an advantage to Leek to develop such an idea when the Government is looking for pilot projects.

There have been other developments as well.

Vision North Staffs is holding a conference in the autumn looking at ways in which redundant heritage assets of the area could be bought back into sustainable use for the benefit of the community. The plan will be to identify a number of potential assets in the area and look at ways in which Urban Vision can work with community groups to develop a heritage project that can meet a recognised need of the community

Tackling Worklessness

I have known him for a number of years now. As far as I know he has been unemployed for at least 3 years. I bumped into him today in a café I use in Leek. He moved to sit next to me. I will admit to a sense of dread. Inevitably I asked him how things were. He is waiting to go on a course, yet another course. This seems to be his fate, which he accepts without complaint. He will again be temporary removed from the unemployment register. He tells me – he always tells me how pleased the job centre is with him. He seems to have an almost puppy like desire willingness to please. I suspect the staff at the Job Centre is close to patting him on the head when he tells them of another certificate he has collected. I suppose it’s that aspect of his approach to unemployment that I find grating. That is despite his obvious efforts- he told me 300 job applications- he remains so passive and compliant with an authority which ought to be helping him

I was angry with him and for him. I said if I were him would just refuse to go another course. The courses seemed to be primarily designed to offer employment to the people employed to run them and precious little else. He will not heed my advice. I also told him to try volunteering as the Salvation Army had volunteer vacancies who knows which might lead somewhere. He told me that he wanted to use his IT skills. It might be that they could give him a stock control role where database skills might be used. I doubt whether he will do anything with that piece of unsolicited advice. He is in his late 50s and spends a great deal of his time applying for jobs for which he rarely gets a response.

I would say that the future is bleak for him. He obviously lacks confidence and has some underlying health problem. His only chance is retail work and perhaps if he gains some experience and support from the Job Centre, but that is not likely to happen. No doubt when I see him again we will go through the same script of how happy the Job Centre are with his progress.

The other element in this is how much I recognise how close we are in potential fates. He is a few years older than me but I can both see our future employment lives being a constant battle for recognition, status and earning a living when the prospect of people on the fringes of work have never been bleaker but I have not given up.

Clare White published a report from NESTA on the future of local governance and services on the Regenerating Stoke facebook site that I created. I looked through it this afternoon and I was mostly drawn to a case study of a programme designed to tackle worklessness in Sunderland. NESTA advance the project as an example of best practice in an area that equally has resonaces in Stoke as it does in the North East. In 2007 25% of the work force in Sunderland were economically inactive which is as near as damn it is the experience in Stoke. Sunderland like Stoke have been much exercised by this problem and all the conventional approaches to turning the tide on unemployment had failed. Sunderland therefore attempted a new approach. The organisation Livework did not win the contract by saying they had all the solutions refreshingly they said they needed to clearly understand the barriers to work faced by the unemployed. By asking people they quickly concluded that the reasons why people are unemployed for long periods is complex a fact not readily understood by jobcentres.

This was particularly true about hard to reach groups were the connection and involvement that they made with community organisations was often very strong. Stronger, in fact than the statutory organisations. I experienced this with the metal health organisation I worked with in Manchester. They also found that there was a lack of communication and co-ordination between community groups and statutory bodies. The importance of collaboration between the agencies especially those engaged most consistently and at an earlier stage was the key.

Livework convened a number of workshops between the long-term unemployed; employers, community groups and the council included how to deliver the long-term support that the workless required.

Lifework was able to pool the various offers from community groups into a single brochure. The community groups supported the unemployed person through and supported them in their efforts to be work ready and in this goal they were supported by Sunderland Council services. More people were able to contact the job centre because they received the support of the organisation that they were most familiar with in the community, which they lived. The community groups did the outreach and support work.

I can quite see something like this working in an area like Stoke. Over the weekend I was reading about the positive impact that Chell Heath Resident Group was having especially around sports initiative and I have heard other good things about resident group operating in Blurton.

Locally based initiatives seem to have worked in Sunderland.

In its first stage Make It Work supported over 1,000 people, with 238 finding work. The success of the project owed something to the risk that the Council were prepared to take in handing control over to community groups funding it properly and giving it the opportunity to grow.

(Contrast this with a project of getting work experience run by Wolverhampton Social Services improving the work chances with people with learning difficulties. In the end the team only placed one person. A vacancy as a cleaner working in the teams office)

The total cost of running the project in Sunderland was £180,000. An economist for the council estimated the cost avoidance for the Council was £435,000 through people entering sustained work.

The early return on investment is dwarfed by the long-term savings, which has been estimated in savings from the cost of unemployment. The average cost of each participant in Make it Work was £5,000. The DWP consider it economically rational to spend £62,000 to support a person returning to work. This figure represents a 90% saving on the DWP’s own figure.

How could this arrangement work for a person such as the one outlined at the beginning of this piece? He is well known in the community, he probably needs mentoring and support and opportunities do exist at least to get him work ready such as the volunteering at one of the many charity shops in Leek.

Some weeks ago I wrote to the local MP in Leek with my idea for a community based opportunity centre, which originally dated from March 2009

I wrote in March 09

“I often work on the library computers in the Civic Centre and the problems that people are having are sometimes audible as many grapple with the implications of worklessness in discussions with the Council advisors. Many people in the town have never been in this situation before and they loathe the situation they are in and the agencies that are supposed to assist. The problems that they have in getting through to the Job Centre in Haley is another cause for complaint. There is a feeling of hopelessness abroad in the town

My idea derives from the experience of the recession of the 80s. In many towns such as Stoke and Liverpool Unemployed Workers Centres sprang up where support and training where often provided. A number still exists although none in North Staffs- the nearest is Cannock. Perhaps the time has come to revisit the concept but to give the idea of a centre a more positive spin.

During the Leek East by election I put forward the idea of enterprise centres where ideas could be allowed to develop. I still think the idea is a worthy one but now think that the model could be developed to include advice and help with job search while this facility does not exist in Leek.

What I had in mind was an opportunity centre which escapes the negative impression of “unemployment centres” by concentrating on rebuilding the individual life chances by offering advice, for example, of how to set up a business, offering training and advice as well as job hunting facilities and welfare advice through an agency like the CAB, it is a centre that is run by a non statutory organisation as a form of social enterprise.

I have also thought of the organisation that could assist in setting up such a centre and I think the churches could have a key role in this enterprise perhaps through an organisation like “Churches Together in Leek”.

As for as location for the centre, it is important that the Centre should be centrally placed so that people who use the centre are in the best place to access local support from the College or SMDC as well as finding local jobs. The soon to be vacated “Your Leek Paper” offices in Getliffes Yard seem to be ideal to me although I gather the owner would like another retailer to move in.

Initially the Centre could be run wholly by volunteers, or at least have a strong volunteer presence, and that the exercise could be seen as providing localised mutual aid just when the hard pressed members of the community in Leek need it”.

Starting a business- the North Staffs experience

I’m starting a business in the New Year. Actually that is not accurate as I’m starting three. One is the ghost tour that I do in Leek “Shriek in Leek”, the other is a life story/ biography service ” Lives that made a difference” commemorating milestones in people’s lives, and the third is a historical research service for North Staffs. I have been helping an American research the life of a early 20th century artist who had a connection with the area. I’ve posted on my blog an example of what I can do which I hope is of interest.

The three businesses have been launched with the help of Business Initiative and I am hoping to use the fairly new Government scheme called Self Employment Credit which guarantees a small income for 16 weeks.

I’m also working part time for a supermarket part time which will guarantee me at least 14 hours a week as well as doing a environmental course at Keele called “Project Green” in which I am researching the possibility of developing “green collar” jobs in North Staffs.

I am also applying for the Small Business Grant that the District Council do as well as having good links with Prime- a part of the Princes Trust that supports over 50s in setting up a business.

I would be also interested in hearing what people reading this think

In embarking on this path I will admit to having had conflicting messages and levels of knowledge from different sources. I cannot praise “Business Initiative” too much. They certainly have a good and realistic grasp of what is on offer. The local Job Centre has a less sure grasp of the essentials. I have found the level of knowledge exhibited by Job Centre staff to be very poor- I guess it is because they are overwhelmed by the number of claimants. I have heard that some advisers have being seen 60 clients a day in these circumstances any individual work is an impossibility.

But this journey which I have been pondering for some time now lead me to think about the difficulties that people especially if they have been long term unemployed will have in becoming self employed.

Their experience was graphically bought home to me by a programme on BBC on the experiences of the long term workless. It followed a middle aged woman on a South Yorkshire council estate as she tried to set up a sole trader business selling children’s clothes locally. She received a great deal of help from her New Deal adviser but the whole enterprise collapsed as the woman was unable to obtain credit because of a poor credit history.

This must be a major problem to those living in Stoke who are interested in escaping poverty by becoming a single handed business, but have little or no capital and a bad credit history because of long term unemployment.

Information from the authorities however about new business start up seems encouraging and a few years ago the area was credited with having one of the highest new business start up in the country which must be all to the good.

However my hunch is that those individuals who do have access to resources and support are making a success of becoming self employed. A good example was provided at the AGM of Voluntary Action Stoke last September when a young Asian woman who was studying to be a doctor had set up a prescription service. She had been helped by her wealthy farther who had provided her with free office and financial support. Her efforts are to be obviously commended but how could say a long term unemployed person living on Chell Heath wanting to set up as self employed have access to such advantages?

Personally, I am interested in micro credit as a help in the situations I have outlined and I did approach the City Council via Adrian Knapper to see how susceptible the Council were to my ideas as I wanted to link micro credit and credit unions to developing LETS in Stoke on Trent. I reply I got from Colin Hunton was a very positive one

I got an e-mail in April which read

” micro credit is a project that I have been looking into with Business Initiative and a few years ago we had a scheme that did just that. The micro credit scheme had a ceiling of £5,000, not a fortune I agree, but with some wise planning it enabled many applicants’ to get on their feet and become independent. An application had been submitted to renew this funding and I hope to hear very soon of its success.

There are other forms of funding in Stoke as I am sure you are aware of e.g. Michelin Loans, BIC “pristine grants”, Equity Funding- North Staffs Capital Risk (CDFI), UK Steel fund, Coal Enterprise, EFG, etc. These are just some of the funding without factoring, personal equity and community funds.

One of the problems that seems to arise though is that many businesses will apply for the incorrect type of finance assistance which can wear the applicant down, because the need does not always fit the criteria of the financial assistance on offer.

Collateral, whether it exposes equity or a sound business plan and a very good product or service to reduce the risk of exposure is an essential factor when applying for financial assistance. No fund holder will want to grant assistance to a product which carries too high a risk.

Micro credit is a good instrument, and one the Princes Trust uses and certainly one that I have favoured when young people have been through a Young Enterprise scheme at school, after being fired up by running their own business. It seems a pity that there is little access to ‘ high risk’ financial assistance. Equally in later life there needs to be access to relatively easier funding regime that can be tapped into.”

That was in April so I don’t know whether a micro credit scheme was funded. It would be a pity if it was not. Micro credit seems to me from the reading that I have done to be a very successful way to lift the poor out of poverty. Created in Bangla Desh by the Nobel prize wining Mohamed Yunnis it has allowed people in poverty to access small amounts of money as a business start up. What is remarkable is the high repayment rates of the loan both in Bangla Desh but in other countries where small business enterprises in deprived areas have been funded by micro credit. News night last year ran an item on a Micro credit project in New York which had a repayment rate of 96%, higher than through the conventional banks.

I have to say that the picture locally is mixed. I attend seminars run by Business Initiative. Everyone I meet is usually scathing of Job Centre Plus and not particularly thrilled by the involvement of the City Council. The comment that I got was that :Local Authorities in the area are generally unsympathetic especially when their Council Tax arrears.

I am also confident that the newly self employed are lacking in knowledge about funding streams as well as the opportunities offered by alternative models such as Social Enterprises, etc.

I would be interested in any constructive comment back.