Employing the long-term unemployed: Taking the long view

With unemployment at 2.4 million, and 277,000 people losing their jobs in the three months to June 2009, what hope is there for those who were already unemployed when the economy turned sour? Tara Craig asks if recruiters ignore them in favour of those more recent unemployed, or if employers are sticking to their corporate social responsibility guns and continuing to hire them.

Long-term unemployment carries a powerful stigma, and it is alarmingly easy to fall into this category. Once you have been out of work for more than six months, the government officially deems you long-term unemployed. Yet despite the tabloid tales of idlers living on benefits, there remains a significant number of long-term unemployed people who are desperate to get back into work, and a variety of organisations, both in the charity and corporate sectors, keen to help them.

Tunde Banjoko is chief executive of Leap, a North London-based charity working that helps unemployed people develop the skills, attitude and behaviour needed to achieve long-term, sustainable employment. He says the recession has made the situation more difficult for his organisation and its clients, because those who recently became unemployed effectively jump to the front of the jobs queue.

There are three reasons for this, says Banjoko: they have recent experience, are more likely to have a checkable work record, and will be more up-to-date with technology. But he is convinced of the business benefits of hiring a long-term unemployed person.

“They have a lot of talent that hasn’t been nurtured,” he says. “Once it has been, you tend to get employees who are more appreciative of having a job. They are keener to work and more willing to start at a lower level to try to work their way up.”

Tesco’s commitment

Leap is focusing on public sector posts, but even these are beginning to dry up. In the private sector, supermarket giant Tesco is one of the few large companies still committed to recruiting the long-term unemployed. For the past decade, each time it has opened a new store, it has entered into a partnership with the town concerned, guaranteeing a percentage of jobs for the long-term unemployed. This can be anything up to 50% of roles, primarily on the shop floor, but also including the occasional team leader position.

Lorna Bryson, Tesco’s head of UK resource for retail and distribution, says: “There’s a stigma around the long-term unemployed, but with a lot of the people we employ, it’s been circumstantial. One lady had been the primary carer for her husband. He died, and this was an opportunity for her to go back to work, after 18 years.”

With this programme, Tesco guarantees work to anyone who passes the interview stage, providing they complete a six-week course. Bryson says this isn’t just about explaining the ins and outs of working at Tesco. “It’s about helping them financially, for instance – how to manage their monthly pay. It can be as simple as explaining that they need to get up every morning, get dressed and go to work.” Literacy and numeracy skills are offered where necessary. According to Bryson, there is little fall-out after the first fortnight of the course.

For the past year, Tesco has been working with Job Centre Plus each time a new store opens rather than setting up its own recruitment centres. While Job Centre Plus staff pull together the applications, Tesco staff interview applicants who have been out of work for some time.

Bryson is as convinced as Banjoko of the business benefits of recruiting the long-term unemployed. In Tesco’s case, it’s about reflecting the local community, so customers see local people at the checkout. The other key advantage is the low rate of staff turnover – people who have previously spent a long time out of work tend to stay in a role once they have secured one. And the absence level among this group is no higher than elsewhere in the Tesco workforce.

Yet while those with a stake – whether emotional or financial – in the recruitment of the long-term unemployed remain confident of their potential contribution to the workforce, the hard facts remain: there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and few employers will knowingly choose the difficult route when it comes to filling those rare vacancies.

Research from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) reinforces the view that workers who are made redundant have a six-month window before they are regarded as being long-term unemployed, and subsequently ignored when it comes to recruitment.

According to ILM chief executive Penny de Valk: “The most effective way for jobseekers to boost their future employment prospects is to play to their strengths, freshen up their knowledge and skills, and keep up to date with developments in their sector,” she says.

Priority for young people

The government, meanwhile, has prioritised much of its energy and funding to the newly unemployed, particularly the young, according to employment minister Jim Knight.

“This summer, our priority must be young people leaving education,” he says. “While people of all ages have suffered in this recession, the government recognises that unemployment for young people can adversely affect the rest of their working lives.”

Elsewhere, think-tank the Social Market Foundation says that the government’s attempts to get people off benefits and into work are failing, describing them as “piecemeal”, and demanding a radical overhaul of the structure of the welfare-to-work provision. The organisation has even gone so far as to call for existing schemes, including the work of Job Centre Plus, to be contracted out to private, third sector or state organisations. Contractors would be paid by results, with greater financial reward for placing and keeping the clients who are most difficult to help in work.

To further muddy the waters, secretary of state for work and pensions Yvette Cooper has announced a requirement for people out of work for two years to do up to six months’ work experience. Two pilots will run for two years from October 2010, in Greater Manchester, and Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Cooper says: “We want to make sure that short-term job losses are not allowed to turn into long-term unemployment. The longer people are left out of work, and without recent work experience, the harder it is to get a new job.”

Case study: Thames Reach’s ‘GROW’ programme

There are many reasons why people fall into long-term unemployment, and these can complicate the issue when they are looking for work. They may have been (or may still be) homeless, or have health or addiction problems. One potential solution is for those concerned to be employed as ‘experts’ in their field.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of London homelessness charity Thames Reach, has overseen a successful programme, ‘Grow’, for which the organisation has recruited more than 70 members of staff who are former or current service users. The idea was prompted by a visit to a project in Harlem, New York. Swain was “bowled over” by the commitment and enthusiasm of staff there, who were also service users.

He says: “Most importantly, we saw the added value they brought in terms of experience – they were inspirational role models with built-in bulls*** detectors.” In short, they knew their clients inside and out.

Participants in Grow face an initial interview process similar to that for other staff. They then take part in a training programme and induction. The programme has a practical bent, including placements in several teams. On placement they are supported by a member of the team, and can also choose to have a buddy from another part of the organisation. While some programme graduates end up working for Thames Reach, others find work elsewhere, some outside the social care sector.

Swain admits that Grow hasn’t been without its problems. “We didn’t initially understand enough about the level of education of those involved. While their emotional intelligence and insight might be great, they might struggle to write even relatively complex letters.” The chaotic lifestyle of those involved has also been an issue, but not an unanticipated one. Swain says: “We’re not talking about easy people, but we are talking about people who have reached a stage where they are making big changes.”

The programme started as a one-off initiative four years ago, but has attracted funding from the government and the charity sector, and has been rolled out nationally. Swain’s only regret is not launching it sooner. Crucially, 93% of Thames Reach staff are now in favour of service users working for the organisation – up from 50% in favour when the programme launched.

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