Friday, 14 May 2010

Getting Britain Back to Work: The Challenges that the Politicians Don't Know About

One of the biggest problems in trying to find work for people who are Long Term Unemployed is employability.

It’s awful easy for political parties to boast that they will get everyone back to work, but the politicians and their advisors who promise this never actually meet the people that they are supposedly going to get working.

I start with the premise that if you can work; you work. It’s not a choice (unless you can find yourself a rich partner). There should be no choosing a life on the dole. So you must work. That’s how the world works. We can surely all agree on that.

But then we come to the stumbling blocks. As I’ve said I’ve worked for 10+ years on a variety of projects with 15-16 year olds, 45+, with people wanting to return to work after illness, and on general programmes which include anyone unemployed.

In many of these projects I’ve worked with employers
too and I’ve been shocked at the expectations on both sides. There is a lack of realism from employers as to what they can expect for, often, the minimum wage. On the other hand how little some people expect to do for their money and how much they expect when they offer so little by way of skills, is quite incredible. We need to bridge that credibility gap. Companies need to be encouraged to play a part in the society in which they operate, but looking to employ locals.

People of all ages who have been out of work for a while face real problems, especially when there are so many recently-redundant people, who are used to the disciplines of work, in the job market.

But quite apart from that we are faced with a mismatch of talents/abilities and skill demands. We used to be a manufacturing nation.
There were in my own town, jute works employing thousands to do skilled, semi skilled and unskilled factory work. The same could be said of the engineering works and the boat yards, the jam, chocolate and frozen foods factories, the battery factories and the ones that made fridges and false teeth or printed newspapers...... Thousands and thousands of people worked in these jobs and on the farms that surrounded the town.

Now there is Michelin, which I guess employs only a few hundred people.

The people of the town haven’t really changed. Most of them still want, and feel they can do, that kind of job. They are uncomfortable in the call centres for Tesco, BT, Tax Office, Work and Pensions office. At the risk of being politically incorrect we
stopped having the jobs, but we didn’t stop having the people who were at home doing them.

We have people of all ages who can’t read, write or count, and some who do not have the social skills for face to face work with customers, and, although stores provide, as Allan said, warehouse work, the numbers are tiny by comparison.

But there are many people who are unemployable for other reasons than skills mismatch. Put yourself in the place of an employer. Do you want the guy who is just out of prison; the mother with 5 kids; the man who clearly has a drink problem; the girl on a methadone programme; the painfully thin, ill looking girl; the grossly fat boy; the disabled person for whom they are going to have to do structural alterations; the person with the disfigurement, or the skin problem; the guy with the front teeth that have rotted; the person with so much debt that she’s made it clear that the wage is not going to be enough, or the lad with a worry about the Child Support Agency coming after him?

For sure Mr Duncan Smith will have problems getting these people into work. I’m available as an advisor... at a price Iain, if you’re reading this.

Top pic: Cox's Stack. Lochee's jute mill employed at one time 5000 people. The mill is now gone but the stack remains as reminder of more prosperous times for the suburb of Dundee. Jute workers were notoriously badly paid, so it wasn't the workers that were prosperous.


  1. Ah widnae want Mr Sith's job tris, if that job is tae solve aw oor society's problems, fer ah feel that's whit it wid take get everybody workin' happily in a job they wanted. No that ah'm sayin' we shouldnae strive, but sometimes it feels we wid hae tae turn back time.

    The list, an' ah'm sure ye could add tae it, gie's a glimpse intae an awfy sad, broke, an' even broken socity, wi' generations o' hopelessness never gettin' oot the bit. Ah'm no sure ye can blame the bairns for no appreciatin' 'work' when aw they see, an' aw they can hope fer, is pretty menial work fer no much reward. When sittin' alangside an' beneath it is a life wi' the promise o' much better reward, if no the same respectability. For reasons that ye cannae aye lay at their door, they never got or made onythin' o' an education system that used tae be a by-word for excellence.

    Whit dae we dae wi' oor country? Ah don't claim tae know, as ah say, Mr Sith(oops)Smith has a big job on his hands. We aw have.

  2. Ye see, ah know ah go on, but fer me it aye comes back tae that damned rag, the infernal Act o' Union. If it's no the Celtic cringe, or the subsidy-junkie tag, the work-horse o' Empire, aye back tae the Union, oor place in it, an' how we're defined by whit England is an' does.

    Anytime ah try an' get ma heid roon' whit oor country is, it gets complicated by the Union, an' ah cannae get an answer. We've got big problems tae deal wi' in the future, an' the clarity we'll get fae ditchin' the Union'll make it easier tae find oor way. Otherwise we'll still be shackled tae the elephant that sees a different path.

  3. Evening Sophia:

    Yes, of course you’re right I could add to that list. I’ve already had to split this over two posts ... and although it probably doesn’t much look like it, I went over this one trying to get it down to a size that I could reasonably expect people to read.

    (Why is it that great blogs like “Scot Goes Pop” and “Vox Populi, Vox Scoti” seem to be able to get much more in to far fewer words...? I should have pay more attention at the school methinks.)

    Anyways, yes, there are generations of people in families who haven’t worked because there is not work. They are capable of strong heavy dirty hands factory work. There isn’t any. What does the Secretary of State think we should do with them? They are not going to be doctors, musicians, computer engineers or airline pilots.

    There are jobs in supermarkets, old people’s homes, call centres in abundance. But they can’t do them either. They are not what the employer wants. And yeah, much of it pays minimum wage, it’s horrible work that they hate, they aren’t really suited to it, and as a result the employers don’t want them. Who can blame the employers? I wouldn’t want to be looked after by someone who hated their job. I’ve certainly been served in shops by girls who clearly wished they were anywhere but in the shop and doing anything rather than serve me.

    The school system has failed them because targets comprehensive schools are only interested in achievers in terms of standard grades and higher and university entrants. If you’re having difficulty with reading and writing at 13 you’re not going to Oxford and that’s for sure, so they bung you into a class where no one much bothers.

    Even brought kids seem to come out with a lack of direction. My group of 15-16 year olds, living on an estate where there had been a lot of rebuilding, understandably wanted apprenticeships in the building trade and on the first day we were together I asked them if they had done their CITB test. (Construction Industry Training Board). They hadn’t heard of it, despite having so-called careers guidance at school. They weren’t even registered with the CITB... Well, they damned well were by the time they went home for their tea that afternoon!

  4. I think ditching the union will give people a sense of identity that they don't have now Sophia.

    It's too big. It's like working for a HUGE company, in a massive office block. You feel small in comparison to the whole thing.

    Whereas in a wee organisation you can know everyone and feel as if you are an important part of the whole process of whatever your organisation does.

    It's the same with your country. If we were Scotland we'd have more of a sense of pride. Oh I know not everyone could live within walking distance of Edinburgh, and we wouldn’t all know each other but there would be a better, more personalised feel to the whole thing.

    We could start doing things OUR way, not the English way, which is invariably the American way. And no offence intended to my dear mate Danny, but the American way doesn’t really suit Scotland. I still say that if we weren’t running the world, and heaven knows we shouldn’t be, we would have the money for, and the time for running our own affairs.

    It would be good to feel that freedom for us to decide, not the 10/11ths which is the others in the London parliament.

    To be honest I just want to have pride in my country. I want to feel patriotic, and I can’t do that at the moment. I am more often than not ashamed.

    You know, once I was lost in a back street in Tangier, and a guy came up and stuck a knife in my back and said “Anglais?” I guess he must have heard me talking to my mate. I was able to say, in all honesty that we were in fact “Ecossais”. Believe it or not, he actually smiled, patted me on the back and with a quick ‘Bonne Journée,’ he was on his way to waylay some poor English geezer....

    I’m proud that people don’t want to stab us....and sad that they want to stab the poor old English!!

  5. The problems with education started when you were a wee laddie Tris. Squeezing children of all abilities into one school was never going to work. Schools weren't big enough and my old school, even though it put on a large extension, still doesn't provide the standard of education the combination of Stobswell and Morgan did back in the 50s and 60s. We have to realise some children bloom academically and some are far better (and often far more interested) in vocational learning.

    Going back to the jute mills in Dundee. I had relatives who worked in them and these woman thought they earned a really good wage. In many homes in the 40s and 50s these women were the sole earners because after the war their men couldn't get work. Also the mills provided their social life too which is essential to a good society.

    Now people don't have social lives through work because there are so many rules and the Righteous are always around to stab you in the back if they get the chance. Many just go to work, keep to themselves and go home.

    It's an impossible task to help some of the youngsters today but if we had a good, rather than poor, schooling system then that generation could be the changers.

    In my career I helped many women over 40 return to the workplace, associating with employers and all sorts of agencies. It was very successful but unfortunately just a pilot scheme run by a very progressive council. Retraining is an individual matter and much work has to be done before the trainee becomes aware what really interests them - both older and younger generations. What happens now is 'there's a course in XYZ go on that' attitude. The results are poor but then agencies get their money for names on an attendance sheet.

    I won't bore you but I saw this type of thing coming many years ago when NVQ and SVQs were supposed to the the standard of further education for the future. A few of us shouted no, they would reduce the standard of education, but we were ignored.

    These days I'm proud I rushed around England (with some others from the RSA and C & G) pleading with anyone we could find who would look at our evidence about these new 'qualifications'. Some elite academics listened to us and did their best to help, but the writing had been on the wall for years - they were government's way of dumbing down attainment in everyone (unless you could afford private education).

    We've been proved right. Do you know any private school which uses NVQs or SVQs as anything other than aids towards our recognised Highers? I've never heard of one.

    Sorry for the rant.

  6. I am not confident that IDS and the Tory/Lib Dem alliance will in any way be able to address the problem you so eloquently flag up. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, simple as that! They won’t find these people jobs, they will just be nasty to them in the usual Tory way and find some way to massage the figures. That won’t fix the broken society but will probably make it worse. “New Politics” is just so much old rubbish which we have heard again and again. Mrs Thatcher with her Francis of Assisi, New Labour and now New Politics: forgive me if I don’t believe a word of it.

    As to the Union. I was hopeful in 2007 that independence might be in my lifetime. But now I’m not so sure. I fear that the Lib Dem/Tory stitch up will benefit the Labour party in Scotland in a year’s time. Scottish Lib Dem voters who voted to keep the Tories out will and should feel betrayed and I don’t think their votes will come to the SNP. So no “New Politics” in Scotland then. A minority Labour administration in Scotland in 2011?

  7. Thanks SR for that thoughtful and comprehensive post. Not a rant at all (besides, I’ve ranted on your blog, so feel free anytime). Actually I rather like a rant.... not that this is :¬)

    I agree with you (so it can’t be a rant, unless I’m ranting too). Comprehensive education was a disaster. Most other nations have education systems which cater for learning according to need and aptitude rather than an homogenous mess . And of course it works better.

    Massive schools are always hopelessly hard to organise and control; teachers only know a few kids and the whole thing becomes an education factory. National curriculums are also totally stifling. And of course the dreaded reliance on targets to do all management of everything rears its ugly head in education too. (Of course I’m not suggesting there should be no targets, but it should be one tool only of management.) The kids that matter, who get the best teachers and the most attention are the bright ones.... Go figure. The best teachers used to work at the Academies (with exceptions I would admit), they were the ones that had attention lavished on them. Nothing has changed, except it got worse.

    In defence of the party that tried to change things (and we still have Roy Hattersley with us), they were trying to change the class structure that said the upper classes went to Winchester, Eton or Harrow, upper-middle classes went to minor public schools, middle classes to Academies and the working classes to junior secondary. The trouble was you passed or failed at 12 (11 in England). And that was a lot for a kid to take on his/her shoulders at that age.

    OK, it was a disastrous experiment, but it was well intentioned.

    I doubt that the people who designed the comprehensive theory were educationalists; they were social manipulators, and of course, even back in the 60s or 70s, whenever it was they had nice “warm” “all encompassing” words for it, like “comprehensive”.

    Of course, when Mrs Thatcher got in and had her 10 + years and Mr Major’s 6+, they did nothing about it. It could have been done, but there was no money to be made I suspect, and so all she did was sell off all the playing fields to make money, with the result that kids could no longer have outdoor sports, thus contributing neatly and hugely to our having the fattest kids in Europe. (That’s politically incorrect of course, but what the hell. It’s my blog!) Lurching from left to right does pretty little in the way of good.

  8. continued......

    I agree too about SVQs. The first time I had to use them, I was speechless at how easily they could be fiddled. Indeed a company in Dundee was caught doing just that. As part of my annual performance appraisal with one organization, I was told I had to complete a level 3 SVQ in an unrelated subject to the one I was involved in and I still managed it within weeks.

    I accept that a work based qualification should be based on performance rather than essay writing. Old style apprenticeships were. Mechanics were not expected to write an essay on how to fix the brakes; they had to impress their assessors that they could actually do it. But the inane simplicity of the SVQs is an insult to all but the meanest intellect.

    The pay by result, low level of external assessment and desire to achieve targets (there’s that word again) at all costs has done incredible harm.

    I’d agree and disagree that it’s impossible to help our kids... I mean in practical terms we haven’t got the money; but I know how to do it (of course, maybe I’m just as misguided as Roy Hattersley, so I should rephrase that, I think I know how to do it). But for all our oil wealth squandered on unemployment benefits, I doubt if we could afford it.

    We have concentrated a lot on young people in this post, as we should. I’ve worked with these older groups too. They come along to work related interviews stinking of last night’s, or this morning’s drink, of sweat, of damp, of unwashedness, complaining that by their age, middle 50s, ‘you’d think the f’ing government would get off their backs... And you look at their cv to find that they haven’t worked for 25 years.....

    Maybe what we have to do is write off the older people. Mrs Thatcher wrote them off 30 years ago. We won’t make them an employer’s dream. We MUST catch the young before they become benefit dependent like their parents and grandparents. We must not allow them to become the unemployable, depressed, underclass that their parents have become.

  9. Munguin:

    Yes, I suspect that you are right. When Blair got in there was enough money for the lavish New Deal programme to be launched, and to begin with it was a fairly good scheme for getting people into work. It followed the most awful Tory Scheme called Project Work, where long term unemployed were taken off the dole, made to work for 3 months for their benefits plus £10 a week, for a charity, church, or good cause, and then thrown back onto the dole, but this time (having been off the books for 13 weeks) as new claimants. This effectively reduced the LTU count by massive amounts and for little money as it was hideously underfunded. It was the first project I worked on and it was the most depressing thing I ever did in my life!

    As I said to Subrosa, I hope that they will have the wit to concentrate their efforts on the young. The 16 to 30 age group (a construct of my own, as the government seems to have 16 -18s, 18,21s, 21- 25, 25+, 50+ and 60+ age groups). The older people get; the longer they have been on life’s scrapheap, the more difficult it is to change them. Most are suffering form depression, loss of self esteem and confidence, and if there was an endless supply of money, I’d say work with them, but there’s no money at all, as usual. So concentrate on the kids, before they get into the habit of being unemployed, poor, useless.

    You can’t force employers to take on a 53 year old alcoholic with no skills and depression. And as a customer, I wouldn’t want to have to have to deal with one.

    As for independence.... Dunno.... There are so many different possibilities that I can’t begin to work out what may happen next May. It will be interesting to see what the polls say nearer the time.

    But “Don’t give up; don’t let it get you down” as the music lady says....

  10. PS to Subrosa: One of the problems that we face with the programmes as you point out, is the bums on seats, targets culture. One of my worries is that the way the Tories will do it; paying private companies by results. I’ve seen the results of that type of thing. Of course, cherry picking, but forcing people into jobs that they can’t do, and don’t want.

    They have to see that some things just can’t be commercialized and there are some jobs that you just can’t make money out of!!

  11. PPS to SR.

    I now that there was money to be made in the mills, in the depression years. I believe that the men couldn't find work (women were cheaper to employ), so the women had to work and do the housework too because the men couldn't be seen to use a duster or a mop. It was emasculating.

    I suppose when I said that they were badly paid, I meant that they were paid badly in comparison to the people who worked in the massive employer-factories like NCR and Timex doing work at the same skill levels.

    Of course in the 30s it was good money for broke households with no other source of income but “the Parish”

  12. Tris

    Another great post.

    I think we all need to accepted that there will always be people who are unemployed, either through redundancy,disability, family issues, those not willing to work etc etc but what the government and others have to do is give those who do want to work the best opportunity to get into work and support those who just find it impossible to find work, ie junkies, ex criminals and so on.

    To be honest I would be a little bit uneasy at employing an ex criminal but I suppose it would be dependent on the nature of the crime because most people do merit a second chance.

    In the case of a junkie or a better use of term, drug addict, then as an employer I couldn't offer him/her a job. I have experience dealing with staff but my skills in dealing with complex social issues is very limited.

    I would like to see the government start up a network of businesses employing people who need that little bit of extra help with specialist support staff alongside.

    The days where the main employers offer all sorts of support like housing, health care and so on is really a thing of the past.

    The company I work for do employ people with learning difficulties and a independent assessor visits them twice a week to see how they are getting on. We also encourage people with physical disabilities to come and work for us, for example a person who is wheelchair bound could do a number of admin and stock control duties.

    Those in society who have a criminal back ground most know that one of the penalties of crime is the limitation of finding someone who will employ them and employers do have a duty to ensure those who they employ are not a danger to others, however as I said before it would be dependent on the nature of the crime if i would employ someone with a criminal record.

    It is a sad fact but the reality is that there will always be a small proportion in society that will either be long term unemployed or just unemployable for some reason and I think that is where people like yourself Tris can make a real difference to peoples long term aspirations and hopefully put them on the right track.

    A quick word on those who can work but don't want to work. It is a pity but you can't force people to work but if they are fit and healthy then they should expect to do some sort of voluntary community work so they know the importance of not what they can get back what they can give in return for a free deed.

  13. Thanks Allan, you’re right. As a responsible employer you must be aware of the effects of your employing a particular person on:

    Your staff
    Your customers
    Your business
    Your neighbours

    You can’t risk harming any of them. Now that there is easy record checking it is negligent not to check up on people’s past records. I have seen, as I guess you will have Allan, application forms with disclosures of horrific and lesser crimes, and I’ve been aware that whilst I might be prepared to give the person a chance, I certainly wouldn’t risk my colleagues’ safety or the safety of their effects.

    Not least because if I knew something, and hid it from the team, and later something went horribly wrong, then I would be in big trouble.

    I think most people would be surprised the numbers involved of people in the country with criminal records and the fact that quite few crimes are wiped from records. There are people whose Disclosure Scotland form reveals one serious crime, and other with a string as long as your arm of petty crimes, which never come off the Disclosure because the records keeps being “topped up”. Sometimes it pages and pages... and you know that if you set them on, they will need a day off every two weeks to attend court.

    Many colleagues would simply refuse to work with continual petty criminals and most with a serious criminal.

    As I said drink, drugs are also problematic. And frankly, in a time of high numbers of people looking for work, many employers want people that scrub up to look good. So pretty girls and handsome boys do better than ugly ones, and younger people much better than older ones.

    And people say “make them work or stop their money”... but the trouble is that if people won’t employ them, what the hell do you do? Employers want smart looking staff, not ones with bad teeth or scars or ones that are fat....

    It’s not necessarily the fault of the unemployed person.

    We have become very fussy.

  14. Tris

    I totally have no time for employers who do not recruit candidates purely on the basis of image.I have Bacaro in Edinburgh (Nightclub) on my friends list on Facebook and was astonished when they advertised for a "good looking male bartender under the age of 25". Okay so I met half of the criteria but unfortunately I'm 10 years too old for the position but it was blatant discrimination and the nightclub itself is not aimed at any particular age group so why should their staff be?.

    Unfortunately age and image plays a large part in the recruit process with many companies but I would not hesitate to chastise any of my own staff if they discriminated against any potential candidate purely on the basis of image.

  15. BTW Tris, Spook scored another cracker of a goal today to earn his team the King Cup.

    Lol, where did he earn the nickname Spook from?

  16. Yep Allan. There are selling an age and an image.

    I did recruitment for a night club and was a bit dischuffed when they said that to me, but as they say, they don't want Shrek behind the bar. It puts punters off.

    I had to get some sweet looking young chicas for the bars and the cloakroom... and some good looking chicos for the "lipstick room". Ugly ones were out of the question. To be honest it was agest too. I put forward one guy as a glass collector, and he was 57 (actually there's a funny story about him... which I'll tell in another post.)

    Clothes shops and mobile phone shops are the same. It's the image. Just like you don't get fat lumpy birds advertising cool cars or hair colourant, you don't get them in chic bars.

  17. hey Allan...

    If you see him, tell him Tris said howdy.

    His nick on the Scotsman boards was "The Spook Of Leith", and we just carried it over. His flatmate "Bird Of Prey", used to write a blog about the trials and tribulations of living with him, and each one of his posts started Spookie Spookie.... then the subject....

    So like, 'Spookie Spookie where's my curry', or 'Spookie Spookie clean the flat'....

    We adapted it to Spookums sometimes... It was all done with affection. Omar is such a likeable dude, everything was about respecting him, but having a laugh with and at himat the same time. Like Niko I truely miss the guy.

    His footie and his lovely girl are incredibly important to him though.... and I guess he didn't have time for blogging too.

    Glad to hear he's still playing blinders .....

  18. Tris

    I don't think I would like to be served by Shrek if I went into a pub lol but I entirely agree with you and a lot of the time it's all about image.

    I'm with you now Tris. LOL I remember reading his flatmates blog and didn't have a clue what to make of it. I will probably see Omar within the next 3 weeks at the East of Scotland league end of year dinner so I will drop him a howdy from you.