Better jobs for young people: one model for post-pandemic change

Financial Times Article Photo showing Rachel Button at Centre4 Grimsby
"In northern England, an innovative scheme tackles youth unemployment with retraining and ‘tryouts’ for new careers "

Michaela Clayton had always dreamt of joining the navy. She was a teenage sea cadet growing up in Grimsby, on the busiest estuary in the UK, where for centuries the economy has relied on two major ports. But when she hit her twenties, Clayton did not want to be away from home without her family.

When the pandemic hit, Clayton, 21, found work dried up completely. “I was in shared accommodation and I just couldn’t get a job,” she says. “I was really struggling.” Through the jobcentre, Clayton was referred to the Ethical Recruitment Agency, or ERA, based in a community centre on Grimsby’s Nunsthorpe Estate, where nearly half of children grow up in poverty.

Unusually, rather than forcing jobseekers into available work, which might be short term and on zero-hours contracts, ERA establishes a relationship with each candidate and helps them to retrain. Its approach could provide a model for other areas to copy, amid calls for fairer opportunities and long-term help for young people whose chances have been blighted by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

This area of north-east England faces particular challenges: the UK’s Trades Union Congress warned in June that the Yorkshire and the Humber region are on the brink of a surge in youth unemployment, because a high proportion of young people in the area worked in sectors that have been affected by the pandemic, including hospitality, the arts and retail.

After learning that Clayton had experience caring for her grandmother, ERA encouraged her to take a two-week course to become a professional carer, followed by work experience at a local care agency. When a contract came up at a local care company in September, she was offered part-time work. “ERA have just been brilliant,” Clayton says. “And I enjoy the work. You get to see the same people every day and it makes them happy, because some of them are just lonely.”

The long-term impact of Covid-19 on the nature and availability of work in the UK is still unclear. While the furlough scheme has helped to protect some jobs, the number of people out of work is expected to grow to about 2.2m by the end of 2021, or 6.5 per cent of all workers, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The pandemic has also highlighted skills shortages in health and social care, and created temporary public sector jobs, for example in supporting businesses with Covid-19. There are also new openings being created because of the rise in paperwork for UK imports and exports since Brexit.

These emerging opportunities call for a different approach to recruitment — and a lot of retraining. ERA started before the pandemic, when Linda Dellow, chief executive for Centre4, a Grimsby community organisation, was asked to report to a local council on barriers to employment in the area. Local people told her that they were sick of getting up before dawn to travel to one of the region’s 500 food factories in hope of zero-hours work, only to be told on arrival that the jobs were already gone.

Dellow saw the need for a more personal approach with ERA. Rachel Button was hired to lead the venture in 2018 and works with people to find suitable training. When work is not available — or when someone is furloughed — ERA supports them to take up volunteer roles caring, gardening and helping older people with technology, in return for rewards through a system called Zlto that can be traded in local businesses for haircuts, groceries and bus passes.

“It’s about making them think a bit differently when the jobs they used to do aren’t there any more,” Button says. “What skills do they have that are adaptable?”

ERA used this approach for the UK government’s test, trace and isolate initiative. Joseph Raithby, 22, found himself on benefits when his job in backstage crewing for concerts disappeared. ERA recommended him to the local council where he found temporary work as a Covid-19 assistant, supporting businesses to adapt to the pandemic with masks, posters and advice.

Raithby says working with ERA is very different to his experience with other recruitment agents. He had been pushed to take zero-hours work pot-washing at a restaurant in order to meet the requirements for universal credit (a UK welfare benefit). “The universal credit system is harsh — they’re not bothered about whether you are applying for good, decent work that will last you, as long as you are in some kind of work,” he says. “So to have these guys interested in quality work makes all the difference. This work has more secure hours and a lot more chance of progression.”

Like Raithby, Craig Allen, 32, found temporary work through ERA in the Covid-19 support team when his job on cruise ships disappeared in May. “I was renting in Manchester, so I moved home to my dad’s and was looking for work here,” he says. He has since moved on to the council payroll as a supervisor, dealing with tougher cases of businesses not complying with Covid-19 rules. “I thought I’d never live back home, but it’s been a blessing to be back in the countryside during Covid, and I have a completely different career opportunity that I never had before.”

Jane Leman, managing director of Lincolnshire Quality Care Services, which employs 50 carers in north-east Lincolnshire, says recruits sent from the jobcentre have often been “talked into” care jobs. “Our experience is that they’re being told that they have to look for work and they do one shift and say they don’t like it.” She says staff retention from jobcentre recruits is as low as 10 per cent, while about 90 per cent of ERA recruits stay in their roles because the training and work experience acts as a screening process.

“Even if they don’t come to work for us, they get the training and certificate that they can use,” Leman says. If they do, they can expect good career progression. “We’re upskilling a lot of our carers to become clinicians, to deliver vaccines, do diabetes management and complex care management to ease pressure on district nurses.”

Helen Isaacs, assistant chief executive at ERA’s local council, North East Lincolnshire, says not all of the Covid-19 support roles with the council will be permanent, but some new recruits will be absorbed into longer-term services. Others may go on to work in new roles that are emerging, for example at the ports, or addressing digital exclusion among adults and children. She says: “The jobs that are available to people in the future are quite different to the ones available in the past.”

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