Bright, shiny, new deals

Maverick Chris Melvin has brought fun, shopping and Californian ideals to government training schemes. But do his unconventional ideas actually work, asks Patrick McCurry

An atmosphere of hope differentiates Reed in Partnership’s base in Hackney, east London, from the conventional job seekers’ bases. For example, a large banner proclaims the number of candidates who have found jobs and the inside houses an Internet café. All the staff wear T-shirts and there’s a relaxed atmosphere notably lacking from many public sector projects.

In the past decade, going on a government-backed employment training scheme was seen as a rather dull and dispiriting experience for the young and long-term unemployed. In 1997 when Labour swept into power, bringing the New Deal in its wake, there was hope that they could bring innovation to the challenge and they duly called in the private sector to collaborate with the DfEE and local groups. These new ventures claim to be creating a more innovative response to the challenge and, despite the cynics, success rates appear to support this partnership approach.


Fun environment


At Reed in Partnership, managing director Chris Melvin has tried to create an innovative and "fun" environment, that still takes extremely seriously the priority of getting people into jobs and supporting them afterwards.

This description matches the personality of the man himself – he is entrepreneurial and approachable but also no-nonsense, pragmatic and results-driven.

One light-hearted initiative with a serious objective is launched this month with Ready2Shop, the fashion and advice web site run by style gurus Susannah Constantine and Trinny Woodall.

Reed in Partnership is sending some of its female jobseekers to Ready2Shop’s experts for a fashion "makeover" and a new outfit in preparation for interviews. Despite its flippant overtones, there is early evidence that it gets real results. For example, two trainees, Syreeta Wright and Tina Nije, said that it gave them the confidence to win their "dream jobs" as a games tester for Sega and a carer respectively.

The makeover scheme will be rolled out to men next year if the pilot is successful, says Melvin. "This kind of scheme fits in with our approach of ensuring jobseekers feel as confident as possible because that has a big role to play in how motivated they are and how likely they are to find work."

In 1998 the company, part of recruitment agency Reed Personnel, was the first private sector venture to win significant contracts from the Employment Service to run New Deal and Employment Zone schemes. It now runs schemes at seven locations.

Annual New Deal performance figures for the year to June 2000 show that Reed in Partnership’s scheme in London’s Hackney and City district went from bottom of the league table (144th place) to 57th place, despite being one of the Government’s so-called Cluster G areas, which have the highest levels of unemployment.

Melvin puts much of this success down to the creative approach the private sector has been able to bring to preparing people for employment and helping them get jobs. Many see such flexible approaches as more successful than the traditional employment service route, which can be rigid at local level and constrained by red tape. One example of innovation has been for candidates with health problems such as heart conditions. Reed in Partnership takes out special insurance that means the employer is compensated if the condition leads to absence of more than two weeks.

This kind of idea was made possible after the company persuaded the Government to allow it to spend the employers’ subsidy of £75, for over 25s, on ways of supporting candidates in jobs. "Many employers, particularly in London, are less interested in the subsidy, which can be bureaucratic, and their priority is getting a good employee, so it makes sense to use that money to help the candidate."

The core training is a week-long induction, which includes two days of motivation sessions as well as assessments on basic literacy and numeracy and advice on CVs and job interviews. Melvin’s ideas include sending some groups of jobseekers on an assault course day, as a way of improving team-working skills and allowing the unemployed to sit on a selection panel for training providers. This will be launched in the Liverpool Employment Zone initially and for the first time will allow unemployed people to have a say in who will train them.

One of the key measures of success Reed in Partnership is judged – and paid – by is ensuring candidates stay in new jobs for at least 13 weeks. In many government schemes in the past, people who may have been signing on as unemployed for years have found the first couple of weeks in a new job have proved extremely difficult to adapt to. The release of the employers’ subsidy for over 25s has also been used to help wean candidates off housing benefit, says Melvin. Using some of the subsidy to help candidates adapt to a monthly pay cheque instead of a weekly benefit payment helps keep them in jobs, he adds.


Motivational sessions


Across the country, Reed in Partnership has worked with some 12,000 jobseekers in the last two-and-a-half years and found jobs for over 5,000, says Melvin. In areas of high unemployment and deprivation, candidates need a combination of training and development approaches, he adds. Motivational sessions are a key ingredient. "I went to California last year to look at motivation techniques in their welfare-to-work schemes and adapted them for the UK."

These motivation sessions involve candidates looking at themselves, with the help of advisers, and setting realistic goals. To provide this service to people who have often felt marginalised means that the advisers need to be highly motivated themselves. This is partly achieved by setting targets and creating a praise culture in which advisers are congratulated at the end of each month on the number of candidates who have found jobs. "If someone leaves a job they’ll only end up coming through the system again, so we like to do the best we can to support them in adapting." The personal commitment of the advisers can be exceptional, he says.

Mentoring has also been an important tool in some inner cities. In areas like Hackney and Liverpool there is "generational unemployment" – candidates’ parents and even grandparents have not worked, so there are few role models. In Hackney, Reed in Partnership has been using a mentoring scheme run by an offshoot of the charity Crime Concern. "Jobseekers have someone independent to have a chat with, get advice from and hopefully draw inspiration from," says Melvin.


Melvin’s masterstrokes


  • Job Alert – all jobseekers in Employment Zones are issued with pagers so appropriate job vacancies can be automatically sent to them. Melvin defends the scheme, "This is a serious, imaginative effort to help long-term unemployed people get work… many do not have a phone and when the opportunity arises, they miss out."

  • Aftercare service – continued support and training provision for jobseekers, even after they have found a job.

  • Single-sex training courses for jobseekers

  • Linking with London Transport to provide free bus travel for jobseekers to get to interviews and training courses.

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