Work initiative for 'Neets' all about building winners

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

UNEMPLOYMENT:POLICYMAKERS CALL them Neets – those “not in employment, education or training” – and they account for 30 per cent of under-25s in the labour force.

But the buzzword only reveals so much. It doesn’t hint at the lowered expectations, frustration and mind-numbing boredom that comes with not having a job when you’re starting out in life.

“You see more people your own age drinking a lot more,” says Stephen Ryan (19), from Cashel, in Co Tipperary, who left school early to work on building sites. “There aren’t any jobs around. Soon, you’re sleeping in because you don’t have to get up in the morning. So you sit on your arse all day . . . Not having your Leaving Cert makes it harder still.”

Carrie Crochet (20), also from the town, knows all about how confidence-sapping being out of work can be. “You feel useless,” she says. “Employers only want people with experience. Even for waitressing jobs . . . it’s easy, then, to just go to your room and lock yourself away from it all.”

Unemployment takes a huge toll at any age. But young people are the most vulnerable. Many young people out of work – there are 66,000 to 100,000 of them depending on what measure you use – face a real danger of becoming long-term unemployed.

Those with a degree or third-level qualification will fare better, research shows. But it’s young people who were lured out of school into boom-time construction jobs, or who hoped to go into trades after doing their Leaving Cert, who face a very high risk of sustained joblessness.

Economist Prof David Blanchflower studied this during previous recessions. He found that those who were out of work for long periods at an early age tended to have lower salaries and poor health outcomes later in life. “Unemployment while young,” he says, “creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes.”

Many of Cashel’s jobless young live at home with their parents and feel their lives are on hold. Work seems out of reach because there aren’t opportunities, or employers want experience they don’t have. Emigration often isn’t an option because they don’t have enough money to make the move.

To help tackle the problem, the Tipperary Regional Youth Service has been testing a new initiative that involves targeting those most at risk of long-term joblessness and guiding them towards work or high-quality training.

Unlike initiatives such as JobBridge, this involves one-to-one support such as building up young people’s confidence and self-esteem, and linking them into employment in a sector they’re interested in.

“The big difference with what we do is that everything is focused around the individual,” said Donal Kelly, co-ordinator of the Work Winner initiative. “We find work or training that a young person is interested in. And we stand by them if it doesn’t work out. It’s more . . . labour-intensive, but that’s where you get results.”

It is a 30-week, voluntary, full-time programme. The idea is that young people develop their employability through training and work experience. Those who take part continue to receive welfare payments, with expenses of €32 a week for up to 18 weeks.

The scheme’s latest figures are impressive. Of the 100 or more who’ve completed Work Winner in Tipperary, more than 50 per cent have secured a paid job in the private sector, while a further 20 per cent have progressed into further education or training.

One of the participants, Kevin Purcell (19), recently started working at a butcher’s shop in Tipperary town. He enjoys it, and is hopeful of getting a full-time job when he’s finished. “I love working. It keeps you going, it’s something to look forward to,” he says. “I hate going around feeling like nothing.”

The reality is, however, that this project is an exception. There are nowhere near enough training courses to meet needs.

Philip O’Connell of the Economic and Social Research Institute was involved in developing a model to identify those at risk of becoming long-term unemployed that’s now used by social welfare offices. He’s concerned that many training courses – in particular those run by Fás – haven’t delivered in getting people back to work.

It’s a criticism shared by career experts such as Brian Mooney, former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

Government officials hope to change this. They say Fás will be replaced by a new agency – Solas – which will be more effective at matching training courses with employers’ needs. They say the creation of revamped welfare offices – “one stop shops” – will give greater guidance and support to young people looking for a job.

The one-stop-shops will take a long time to roll out. Many Vocational Education Committees, responsible for rolling out the Solas courses, don’t have much experience of working closely with employers.

Time will tell. O’Connell says we cannot wait much longer. He notes that Finland never fully dealt with youth joblessness during its early 1990s recession and is still coping with the consequences.

There are lessons for policy-makers to take from Cashel. The project is a case study of local co-operation: it was designed and run by Tipperary Regional Youth Services, but involves the Department of Social Protection, South Tipperary Vocational Education Committee and the South Tipperary Development Company.

Not everything runs smoothly. There have been employers who tried to use young people, and there were young people who didn’t turn up for work. But a combination of support for participants and monitoring of employers has resulted in something that’s successful.

“A lot of it is about managing expectations,” says Kelly. What is most fulfilling, he says, is seeing participants blossom once they regain a real sense of confidence.

Ryan says he’s delighted to be working. “It’s great . . . Hopefully this will lead to a proper job and extra money.” Crochet, who’s working in a hair dressers’, is enjoying the feeling of being valued. “I feel like I’m somebody. I’m learning, and working. You look forward to it.” And as for Purcell? “I don’t want to scrape through life,” he says. “I want to have a lovely house, lovely family, lovely car. I’m not interested in living off the State.”

Thinking positively: Seizing opportunities

IT MIGHT, he concedes, sound like a cliche from a self-help book. But Fred English (26), is convinced his journey from being a fireman to becoming a final-year medical student owes much to positive thinking.

“There are many young people to whom the future may look dreary. Yet, it’s important not to let circumstances lower your expectations,” he says.

“Thinking negatively narrows the mind, blinkers vision and is to be avoided at all costs.

“A positive outlook helps you see and seize opportunities more readily.”

English says he was no genius at school. He clocked up 300 points in his Leaving Cert. He took time out of education to work between the fire service and the family business. At one point, he sold newspapers at busy traffic intersections.

When he returned to university to study for a degree in physiology in University College Cork, it was daunting.

“I can still remember the first lecture – the pace seemed ridiculous, the content unintelligible, as if watching a foreign language film backwards at high speed – without the subtitles,” he recalls. “Thankfully, it improved from there on.”

The degree introduced him to a group of “vibrant young researchers” at the Anu Research Centre at Cork University Maternity Hospital who were working to understand more about the pregnancy-related complication pre-eclampsia.

His college work was recognised by the Undergraduate Awards – aimed at students who propose fresh arguments and new approaches – while his work with other young researchers opened his eyes to new ways of combining medicine and science.

Through sheer persistence, he says, he helped secure a place to study medicine through a graduate entry programme, which provides an alternative avenue into medicine.

“It involved stalking people to find out how I could do it,” he says. “I literally had to doorstep people to find out.”

One frustrated senior academic at Trinity College Dublin – who clearly had had enough of English’s persistence – told him he wasn’t going to entertain him, even if the was “the next Einstein or the pope’s granny”.

Trinity’s loss is UCC’s gain. He’s now in his final year of medical school, while research he is involved in may lead to major progress in identifying the causes of pre-eclampsia.

“My advice to young people is to adopt an inquiring mind, to ask questions, never take no for an answer,” he says.

“Don’t be afraid of competition – when you enter with the right attitude, without fear of failure, it will only bring out the best in you.”

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