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Left behind ..... again!

Last week I had the honour of being presented (virtually of course) with the Outstanding Contribution to the Sector Achiever award from the Employability sector trade body, Employment Related Services Association (ERSA).

I have worked in the sector in its many guises since I went into a job at Gateshead Employment Office in the North East of England as an Admin Officer way back in 1982. I remember it well; we were in the grips of the deepest recession in living memory and I clearly remember unemployment levels passing the 3 million mark for the first time ever.

I recall so, so vividly how for many people were unemployed, the months without work turned into years and despair turned to anger, which in time turned to acceptance – acceptance for some that they may never work again. This from people who had always worked, in families and communities where work was the norm; I don’t know when the term multi-generational unemployment first appeared but prior to the 80’s I had never heard of it.

If anybody is not sure what this means, then come with me and have a look at the impact on some of the areas where I have worked across the UK; it’s there for you all to see.

And here we are 38 years later facing, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the deepest global recession since records began. We all understand the enormous risks of the resultant levels of unemployment, most economists are now pointing to something north of 10% and some even as high as 15%. So, what can we learn from the past?

The quote from Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England says it all:

“Regional difficulties typically have deep roots and are long-lasting... for well-performing places, this is a virtuous circle. For left-behind places, it is a vicious one.”

The communities that have been left behind in the past are facing being left behind again. There has been a lot said about ensuring government shores up the demand side, supporting employers, making it easier to employ people, stimulating household consumption – and then there are plenty of people giving views on government interventions on supporting people to take advantage of vacancies that may exist, to train for jobs of the future, to focus on different groups so that they don’t become marginalised. All with views on how best to fund these interventions and how to focus on results.

There have been some well written, well researched pieces right across this area - focusing on results and making sure taxpayers’ money is spent on value added services; all critical well-made points.

But I wouldn’t like to forget one thing, and ask one question – who focuses on hope? How, despite all of the catastrophic economic predictions we read about, do we make sure that people and communities can see a way through this? And when there aren’t enough jobs around for people, how do we support individuals, families and communities? How do we help people to remain confident, upbeat and to plan for the future?

  • What do we say to the young person who has been turned down for a job for the 1000th time; do we send them off to submit their 1001st application, do we collude with them to give up, do we park them? Of course, we all throw our hands up in horror at giving up and parking – but we need to think hard, very hard about meaningful alternatives.

  • What do we say to the low skilled 50-odd year old from a community where unemployment reaches 30% or 40% or higher; how do you motivate them to start again with a new set of skills?

Our sector needs to underpin core practice and professionalism with something else – maybe just as important. The Carnegie Trust has been undertaking work for some time now on ‘Kindness’; kindness and public policy, kindness in communities and kindness and social wellbeing. We need to listen to people, treat them with respect, give people options, real choices about work and training, help them to find what works best for them, be patient and give them time; and then listen again.

If kindness sounds soft, then it’s probably worth having a good close look - because the alternative is unthinkable. Without hope, we end up simply adding to the misery of unemployment. Moving from despair to anger is a normal human reaction – allowing people to move from anger to acceptance is just unforgiveable, and we all need to work together, all of us; skills and employability providers, funders, devolved authorities, Jobcentre Plus; all of us; to avoid this happening yet again in our (my) working lives.


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