Employing the unemployable

Imagine the scene. A batch of application forms lands on your desk. Among them is an approach from a man who has been out of work for almost 10 years. His skills and previous work experience are sound, but the reasons for his extended period of ‘rest’ are unclear.

Would your reaction be to reach for the wastepaper bin, or would you decide that the man’s past work experience, regardless of his time out of work, warrants an interview?

The overwhelming odds are that you would reject his application without a second thought. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest there’s a long way to go before many UK employers will consider hiring people often considered ‘unemployable’.

The group – also referred to as ‘the core jobless’ – is wide, and includes the long-term unemployed, the mentally ill, ex-offenders, parents who have been out of work while raising a family, and older people. All have one thing in common: the difficulty they face convincing an employer to take them on.

The statistics back this up. More than 60% of employers deliberately exclude the core jobless from the recruitment process, according to an August 2005 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), with 55% admitting that nothing would persuade them to recruit from this group.

Yet CIPD research also shows that HR’s low expectations of people from this core group, and the reality of employing them, are at odds. Of employers with experience of taking on ex-offenders, 87% considered them at least as productive as other staff, and 75% said they were at least as reliable.

High on the agenda

HR should take note. The desire to help the disadvantaged and long-term unemployed back to work has climbed up the political agenda in recent years.

The government’s New Deal for the long-term unemployed – introduced in 1998 – aims to get those aged 25 or over who have been out of the jobs market for longer than two years back into work. However, it is also geared towards helping this group improve their prospects of staying in work. In fact, staying in work is a factor that has helped reduce re-offending rates among former convicts. To this end, the government has urged closer co-operation between the Prison Service and employers, and has built on pilot schemes that have slashed re-offending rates to almost zero.

So, how can HR be persuaded to help encourage this marginalised section of society back into mainstream work?

Working Links, an organisation dedicated to getting the long-term unemployed back to work, was launched in 2000 by the government in partnership with private sector businesses Manpower and Capgemini. Since its inception, the organisation has helped more than 65,000 people classified as long-term employed or disadvantaged to find a job.

Katrina Whittaker, director of people and business development at Working Links, confirms the retention rate for employing this group, commonly regarded as ‘unemployable’, can be strikingly high.

“All our research says that employers want someone who turns up on time, listens, and does the job. The employer will do the rest. All we do is help people to do this. It is soft social skills employers are looking for, rather than people who are tremendously skilled,” she says.

A December 2005 Working Links survey of those unemployed for between 12 and 18 months indicated that for those who had been helped into a job by the organisation, 70% were still there a year later – a far higher retention figure than sectors such as retail and hospitality.

Breaking barriers

People in this ‘unemployable’ group typically have to cope with more than one barrier to re-entering the workforce, Whittaker adds. “They can be people with poor skills, those who have English as a second lang­uage, or lone parents with a poor basic education. They are likely to have low self-esteem, and have a poor perception of themselves,” he says.

Chris Hodson, Working Links’ head of future business, takes issue with the term ‘unemployable’. “There are very few people who are truly unemployable,” he argues. “And the more flexible and open-minded the recruitment process, the more likely employers are to engage with this group.” Doing so produces a number of benefits for employers, he says.

“Most employers spend a lot of money on recruitment. There is a huge untapped resource among these people and generally they are going to be more committed to employers who have given them a chance.”

Hodson adds that the relatively low-skilled posts he recruits for are especially suited to candidates on schemes such as Working Links – and that clearly the match might not work so well for higher-ranking jobs, or different industries.

Alan Sinclair, senior director, skills and learning at Scottish Enterprise, and visiting fellow at the Work Foundation, says: “Because the labour market is hot, there are people who may be automatically screened out at the application stage because they are long-term unemployed, or are on incapacity benefit.” One solution, he says, is to make sure that candidates who have been out of work for longer than 18 months are not instantly discarded.

“If you’re shortlisting, bring in one or two from this group. Look beyond what you immediately see in front of you,” he says.

Sinclair’s mantra of open-mindedness in the HR process extends to candidates with a criminal record: “Someone who has been convicted of theft in the past doesn’t necessarily pose a risk for a caring job. There might have been reasons why that person did what they did – you cannot lump people all together.”

Along with manufacturing, construction has been identified by the government as a sector that is suitable for ex-offenders. And in November 2004, HMP Lindholme, in South Yorkshire, opened the Prison Service’s first purpose-built construction industry training facility.

The facts speak for themselves: currently, 90% of prisoners are unemployed on their release. But the outlook changes dramatically if the ex-offender has a job on release, with research suggesting that employment reduces the risk of re-offending by between one-third and half – 60% of re-offenders were unemployed.

The challenge for HR, however, is to keep an open enough mind to give this group a chance and tap into this labour pool.

Since its launch in 1996, crime reduction charity Nacro has worked with ex-offenders, disadvantaged people and those from deprived communities to help with access to skills training, jobs and basic services.

Michelle Garbett works as the charity’s Sandwell-based Entry to Employment team leader. Garbett’s remit is to help socially excluded offenders between the ages of 16 and 19 to find jobs or training. Most have been involved in low-level offending, and all have poor basic skills and self-esteem.

Garbett works with a huge bank of employers in the local area – including Asda, Farm Foods and clothes retailer Ethel Austin – to help the group back into the workforce.

Employers have to be reasonably open to participate, but ultimately, she says, there can be gains for the employer. One of these is the background information the employer has access to before the candidate is taken on all young people have been screened and interviewed by Nacro already. Another is the support the employer and employee received from Nacro once the job or placement, begins.

Forging links

Garbett adds: “What does the word ‘unemployable’ really mean? We once had a lad who couldn’t read or write and had an offending background. To cope with his illiteracy, his employer put colours on the boxes he had to use in his job and he went on to be a really good worker.”

Sinclair says HR could make a far bigger effort to forge links with local community and unemployment organisations – a point firmly endorsed by Angela O’Connor, HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service.

“We need to look more at the whole issue of corporate social responsibility,” says O’Connor. “At how companies might engage with groups in the community and form links with the long-term unemployed. I’d like to see more support from the government in this area.”

O’Connor also echoes the argument that HR professionals need to look closely at how they are recruiting.

“The question is: what are the key skills and experiences we need? I’m interested in someone’s values and attitude,” she says. “Sometimes these are equally important as skills or experience, particularly in more junior jobs. HR needs to be open-minded about this.”

Case study: Heatwise

Alan Sinclair, senior director, skills and learning at Scottish Enterprise and visiting fellow at the Work Foundation, cites a powerful example of how an open approach from employers can pay off.

There was a 52-year-old man who had been out of work for 14 years and who had previously been employed as a dustman. However, a little digging revealed that the man’s wife had left him when his daughter was only two years old and he had been forced to give up work to raise her by himself.

Sinclair’s group, Heatwise, helped the man back into the workforce and he went on to work front of house for a top Glasgow hotel. “Right behind the lack of confidence was affability,” says Sinclair. “He cared greatly about people he met and was a real people person.”

Case study: Hewlett-Packard and Working Links

Through his post as Manpower’s operations manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Erskine site, Steven Smart has taken on about 70 staff sourced by Working Links. Most of these have been for operator and assembly jobs at the plant.

Smart says the calibre of staff taken on through Working Links has been at least as good as those recruited through other means.

Potential employees are pre-screened before theyare put forward, meaning the recruitment process is straightforward.

Smart explains: “Many people who are long-term unemployed have been in this situation because of circumstances beyond their control. I think companies do have a social responsibility to give these people the opportunity. There is a perception of this group that is undeserved – and our experience has confirmed this.”

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