Life in a dole blackspot

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

Unemployment in Limerick city is almost double the national average, and the entire city is involved in a grim daily struggle to survive the crisis

IT’S TUESDAY MORNING and a man wearing a Munster rugby shirt is walking through a door on Dominic Street in Limerick city. The motto on his Munster T-shirt is “To the brave and the faithful, nothing is impossible”, words that have a particular resonance if you are, as he is, one of 15,194 unemployed people currently registered at the Dominic Street social-welfare office.

“After a while you become shell-like. You’re a shell,” says Paul O’Leary, who is trying to explain how being unemployed for more than three years makes him feel. Now 49, he lost his job as a radio controller at a taxi company in February 2009 and has not worked since.

Tuesday is signing-on day for O’Leary at this office, in a city that has the highest level of unemployment anywhere in the State, at 28.6 per cent. The national percentage is 14.7 per cent.

To stand here on a signing-on day, even for a short time, is to witness a stark cross section of society. People arrive in BMWs and in two-decade-old Ford Fiestas, on bicycles and on foot. Some are smartly dressed. Others are not. They are every age, and they look variously determined, hurried, vacant, grim, resigned and purposeful.

Ger Moran, who is 54, started working as a carpenter when he was 16. “I lost my job three years ago, and I can’t see myself getting a full-time job ever again.” he says. “I had a car and a van, and I had to sell them both. But the only good thing about working in the construction industry is that we could see the crash coming. I sold my house, bought an apartment and only have a small mortgage now. Otherwise . . . I don’t want to think about how things would be.”

“It’s extremely depressing to wake up every day and feel your life is going by. That you are getting older and you are useless,” says a 40-year-old woman who gives only her first name, Lily; she worked on a production line at Dell until she lost her job in June 2009.

“I don’t go out because I don’t have money. I socialise through Facebook. I read. I’m stuck. I don’t have money to move somewhere else, where I might have a better chance of a life and a job. After being unemployed so long, I can’t think too much into the future, because so many years have already gone by and nothing has changed.”

“Social welfare was never designed for you to have any kind of lifestyle, so now anyone who has become unemployed and has debts is inevitably going to suffer,” says Yvonne Bogdanovic, the co-ordinator of the Limerick branch of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs).

“Without doubt we have people coming to us now who would have been managing their debt before but now can’t, due to unemployment, especially if one partner has lost a job. But we are also seeing people now whom we never saw before: public servants, civil servants, nurses, gardaí. These are people who still have jobs but who are finding it difficult to manage their debt.”

“The profile of the people we see now has changed hugely in the recent years,” says Geraldine Lambert, the unemployment services co-ordinator at Paul Partnership. The organisation, which was set up in the 1990s to help the long-term unemployed, focuses on promoting social inclusion.

“We generally wouldn’t have seen people with significant work experience. Now we’re seeing architects, engineers, managers and HR people. They are very visible.”

Together with Limerick Chamber of Commerce, the partnership is establishing an executive networking group for unemployed professionals. It’s scheduled to be in place by the end of the month. “When people lose their jobs they lose their networks and their contacts. We’re trying to fill that gap,” Lambert explains.

Since January the partnership has registered 1,613 new people. In 1997 it was 700 a year. “That figure will be well over 2,000 by the end of the year. The biggest challenge for us is that there aren’t enough jobs. It’s the same everywhere, But there are some jobs,” she says. Of the people registered this year, 165 have got jobs.

“We are noticing that even overqualified people are willing to go into lower-paid jobs, especially in large companies, because they are hoping for opportunities in the future. And there is a lot of interest in courses on being a carer.”

Lambert mentions one local job she knew of elsewhere in the city, through a friend, that was advertised a fortnight ago. So far there are 252 applications. “That’s what people are up against,” she says.

Across the city, at the Moyross Millennium Jobs Club, the club leader Martina McInerney, who has worked there for 11 years, talks about a pattern she has observed.

“In the first year after losing a job people think something will come up. After two or three with nothing, some people really lose hope.” She cites as an example two clients, both of whom had worked all their lives, who lost their jobs in construction three years ago.

“They thought they’d get something easily in the beginning. They were very upbeat. They both dropped in here recently, and the change in them was most dramatic. They were dishevelled, they didn’t look in great health, and I’m afraid they might have a drink problem.”

One of the services the job club offers is a two-week course in CV and interview skills. There are between 10 and 12 of these a year, with a minimum of 10 people on each course. “If even one person on a course gets an interview, the outlook of the whole group changes,” McGrath says.

In 2000 180 people attended the Millennium Jobs Club. The number is now 400. So far this year the club has placed 20 people in full-time employment, 27 in part-time and 35 on courses.

Pádraig Malone is the co-ordinator of the Limerick Resource Centre for the Unemployed, and has worked there since 1995. “You see the effects of unemployment everywhere. There’s a much more run-down feel to the city centre now, for instance,” he says. “The reputation that Limerick has may very well have affected investment decisions,” he says.

“We seem to be denuded of small businesses in Limerick, and the city centre has taken a hammering,” says Bogdanovic of Mabs. “Once something closes in the city centre, nothing seems to take its place.”

It’s true that the middle of the city seems strikingly bare once the shops close for the day. Very few people are walking about. In common with many other towns and cities around the country, the empty shops, buildings, offices and units to let or for sale are even more noticeable once trading hours end.

On one stretch of O’Connell Street alone, every second building is unoccupied. One of the buildings for sale is the Bank, a former bar and restaurant, whose faded blue menu still advertises its “signature dish”, the Rogue Traders Irish Stew, for €13.95.

What’s less obvious however, but what’s also happening quietly under the radar, is what Ann Marie Gleeson describes as “a minor little revolution going on in Limerick with new businesses”. Gleeson is Paul Partnership’s enterprise officer, and she reports a doubling of numbers in recent years of people who have lost jobs wanting to set up their own businesses.

“They want to reinvent themselves, and they’re looking for niches in the market. Service-orientated businesses, such as mobile hairdressing, fitness, car repairs, personal care and beauty, are big. So is the whole area of food, especially artisan food. We’re amazed at the energy people have.”

“The Government is focusing too much on exports,” says Gleeson. “It should be acknowledging our small enterprises and businesses.” Of those who have set up on their own with the help of the partnership since 2008, 70 per cent are still in business. “They’re not millionaires, but they’re single sole traders, and they’re managing their own lives again.”

One of those the partnership has helped is Magdalena Jakubowska, a Polish-born 35-year-old who has been in Limerick for seven years. After a period of unemployment, together with her husband, she set up M K Ironing and Cleaning Service in July. “I charge €3.99 to iron 1kg, and €1.50 a shirt, because they take longer,” she says. “I think I am the cheapest in Limerick. I checked the prices everywhere.”

At the National Franchise Centre, which was established in 2010 by Limerick Institute of Technology, in partnership with Limerick Chamber, in response to the closure of Dell, the talk is also upbeat. “We are very stringent about promoting a positive attitude. When people come on our start-your-own-business courses they have made a decision to empower themselves,” says Martina McGrath, the enterprise development manager.

“In this country the culture has always been that if you failed, you’re a failure. The banks won’t touch you afterwards,” says Gillian Barry, the institute’s enterprise manager. “In other countries, failure in business is seen as a learning experience and something really valuable.”

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