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Working it out
9:40am Wednesday 25th July 2012 in Features
Sometimes, unemployment can run in families, and across generations. STEPHEN LEWIS drops in on a programme that aims to help families break out of the cycle of worklessness
LORRAINE KELLY flicks through a sheaf of job vacancies, and sighs.
“Are you having any luck?” asks Sheelagh Loftus.
Lorraine shrugs. “There’s a few retail ones,” she says. “There’s one for an apprenticeship. But they’re hard to get on, because they like a younger person.”
Lorraine is a 45-year-old single mum of five. She’s smart, capable, and has managed to bring up five children on her own – no mean feat. But she is chronically lacking in confidence when it comes to trying to find a job.
It’s not that she doesn’t want one, she stresses. She’d love one, to improve her life and the lives of her children.
But she hasn’t worked for 25 years. And having not worked for so long – well, the thought of putting herself out there is, frankly, terrifying.
“People say to me ‘You’re really confident’,” she says. “But because I haven’t done it for so long…. It’s the fear of the unknown. Am I going to be able to do what is asked of me?”
If you’ve never worked – or if you haven’t worked for a very long time – the world of employment that seems so normal to most of us can be utterly daunting.
Lorraine, however, has decided that now is the time to grasp the nettle. She has signed up for a new programme – Support For Families – which is being run in York by Future Prospects.
The programme commits her to a weekly meeting with jobs adviser Sheelagh Loftus, as well as an assessment of her support needs, and a regular check on what progress is being made.
The ultimate aim is simple: to get this mother who hasn’t worked for a quarter of a century back into paid employment.
Partly, Lorraine is motivated by the fact that her youngest child is seven this year. Under benefit rules, that means she is now expected to seek work.
But there is more to it than that. She is tired of her family not having the things other families take for granted. And she wants to make something of her life.
A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that a single person in the UK needed to earn at least £16,400 a year before tax in 2012 to afford a “minimum acceptable standard of living.” Two parents would need to earn £36,800 between them to support themselves and two children to the same standard.
Lorraine looks shocked at the thought of so much money. Three of her children are grown up now, but she still has a seven year old and 12 year old at home. She lives in a council flat in the Bell Farm area, and receives £120 in benefits and £98 in tax credits a week to look after them.
One of the points of the JRF research was that it isn’t simply having a roof over your head and enough to eat that defines whether you are poor or not in the modern world.
We compare ourselves with others – and in an age where the vast majority of people can afford to take an annual holiday, or have a computer at home for the children to do their homework, anyone who doesn’t have those things is falling behind the rest.
That’s how Lorraine feels. “I’m getting left behind,” she says. “I feel guilty because I cannot provide things for them [the children]. I’m not computer literate. I couldn’t afford to buy a computer. But my son needs one for his homework.”
She is hoping Sheelagh and the Support For Families Programme will help change her life for the better.
Over the past few weeks of regular meetings, Sheelagh has already helped arrange for Lorraine to start work experience in a charity shop that will hopefully lead to her getting some basic qualifications in customer service.
That involved helping her negotiate with the benefits office over when she would start work – after the summer, so that her youngest children will be back at school – and over the number of hours she would have to do.
She was happy to do 16 hours a week: but couldn’t have coped with more. “I don’t want to leave the children on their own,” she says.
It has all now been arranged. She’ll starting in September, when the schools go back, and she’ll do 16 hours a week, so she can still take the younger children to school, and pick them up afterwards.
It is a small step, but a crucial one, because the work experience and training could lead to an NVQ in customer care.
Lorraine is desperate for it to work.
“I want to get back to work,” she says. “I’ve spent years being a mum, and I’ve lost myself.”
It will be a wrench, going to work, she admits. She feels guilty at the thought of having less time to spend with her youngest children.
“All my other children have had all my attention,” she says. “But I don’t want them to think that mum has been on benefits all her life. I want a better life, and a better life for my children.”
Now, thanks to Sheelagh, she feels there is now light at the end of the tunnel. She can see a way ahead.
For her eldest son, Martin, 25, it still seems as though there is a mountain to climb. This is a family programme, which is why Martin is sitting next to Lorraine in Sheelagh’s cluttered temporary office at the Bell Farm Social Hall.
The bond between Martin and his mother is obvious – even though Martin left home at 13 and went to live in what he calls a ‘hostel’ because of ‘family problems’.
He was bullied at school, suffered from depression and struggled with his sexuality – a few years ago he came out as gay, even though he has a young daughter. She’s five now, he says with a smile.
He doesn’t blame his mum for any of his difficulties, however. “She’s done a good job,” he says, referring to the fact she brought five children up on her own.
Nevertheless, his confidence is shot. He has done a bit of work, as a cleaner for the NHS. But he has been unemployed for some time, and the prospect of a proper job seems daunting and far away.
Like his mum, he flicks through a sheaf of job vacancies. They are mainly for shop or hotel assistants and they all require people with experience or basic qualifications.
“They’re all too over-qualified for me,” he says.
Sheelagh remains calm. “Sometimes people are willing to give you a chance,” she says. She pauses for a moment, then tries another tack.
Would you be willing to do some voluntary work, she asks. “That would build up your confidence, and your skills as well.”
It is clearly an option that has been suggested before. “But I need money,” Martin says. “I need a job that is going to pay me money.”
Lorraine chips in.
“You’re going to find it difficult, Martin,” she says, her face pleading with him as only a mum’s can. “You need some sort of training.”
But he’s tried unpaid work already, Martin says. “I want to get paid work. I want to go for a night out. I want to buy clothes. I can see other young people with those things…”
The meeting ends with Sheelagh promising to provide Martin with details of a job at a sports shop in York. She’ll pop them through his door later.
She also persuades him to meet with someone at the York CVS to talk about doing unpaid work. “You’ll really benefit from doing some voluntary work,” she says. “It will build up your confidence and your skills.”
Outside afterwards, mother and son agree the meeting went well. Sheelagh is really good at boosting confidence, Lorraine says. She treats you like a person, not just another bit of her case load.
“She’s been great,” agrees Martin. “She’s kind and caring, she understands you – and she doesn’t look down on you.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes.“People tell themselves, ‘I’ve got no skills, no experience. Why would someone want me?’”LACK of confidence or low self-esteem are among the biggest barriers to finding a job for anyone who has been long-term unemployed, says Colette Gray, the manager of York’s council-run employment and training advice service Future Prospects.
We all know what it feels like to return to work after a long holiday or a period of sickness. The nerves start jangling.
Multiply that feeling by five years, or by ten, Colette says, and you begin to understand how daunting it is for someone who hasn’t worked for years.
“People tell themselves, ‘I’ve got no skills, no experience. Why would someone want me?’”
Support for Families, which is run in York by Future Prospects, is all about helping those who have been out of work for some time get back on their feet and into a job. It isn’t just lack of confidence that is a barrier to work, says Colette.
There are many others too, from the practical, such as worry about young children or a lack of skills, experience or training, to the social, such as difficult relationships, or low self-esteem or expectations. Many of those being helped by Support For Families have been let down in the past, says Colette.
Unemployment in York stands at 2.4 per cent at the moment – which compares well to the regional average (4.7 per cent) and the national average (3.8 per cent).
Support for Families is targeted at these areas, and focuses on families where more than one person is unemployed, or where there is a record of unemployment across more than one generation.
There are about 30 families in York signed up to the scheme. Meetings are held at community centres such as the Bell Farm Social Hall. Those on the programme sign up for an initial ‘needs assessment’ and regular meetings with a learning and work adviser such as Sheelagh Loftus.
The aim is to do what it takes to help them find work. That can involve identifying possible job vacancies; providing help with CVs and covering letters for job applications; arranging work experience or training; offering details of childminders; doing ‘better off’ analyses that demonstrate people will be better off in work than on benefits; helping to arrange convenient hours of work; and generally being encouraging.
That last perhaps above all. “It’s very much a hand-holding process,” says Colette. “It is about building up confidence.”