The long road back to employment has many turns

In all, some 127,000 people of working age are still long-term unemployed

Paudie Woodlock, at the Tipperary Cheese Company, Twomileborris, Co Tipperary. What started out as a part-time work placement turned into a full-time job. Photograph: John D Kelly

Paudie Woodlock, at the Tipperary Cheese Company, Twomileborris, Co Tipperary. What started out as a part-time work placement turned into a full-time job. Photograph: John D Kelly

 

Paudie Woodlock hadn’t finished school, but he’d already mapped out his career. Before the ink was dry on his last Leaving Cert test, he’d start work on a local building site. Before long, there was a good chance he’d get an apprenticeship as an electrician with four years of work.

That, at least, was the plan.

The summer he finished school, the bottom fell out of the construction industry. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs as the shockwaves of the housing collapse buffeted the wider economy. A promise of work on a local site dissolved in front of his eyes.

Two years later, he was still living at home with his parents in Twomileborris, Co Tipperary, with no work, no transport and few prospects. The confidence and expectations he once had had drained away. He was, in the words of policymakers, a “neet”, not in employment, education or training.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says, recalling being long-term unemployed at the age of 20.

“I’m not the kind of person to sit still, but it gets you down… You’re sitting at home all day, sending CVs, clutching at straws … You end up watching telly, on the PlayStation. I might have loved to be doing that at 13 or 14. But not as an adult.”

In all, some 340,000 people lost their jobs during the downturn, the bulk in construction, followed by the manufacturing industry, retail and other sectors.

Unemployment levels peaked at just over 15 per cent in late 2011; young people were the hardest hit of all with jobless rates among under-25s reaching a shocking 33 per cent.

Most hand-wringing among policymakers and campaigners at the time focused on long-term unemployment. Experts warned that long periods out of work for young people, in particular, would leave permanent scars, rather than temporary blemishes, on a new “lost generation” of young people.

If there were any lessons from the 1980s and 1990s, it was that a failure to get to grips with long-term unemployment soon would result in long-term social problems.

It’s one reason why much of the governments’ focus on tackling unemployment has been on“activation”, or assisting people to get back to work, education or training as soon as possible through advice, placement or referral services (see panel).

So, how did things turn out? Over the past three years both unemployment and long-term unemployment rates have fallen to 9.9 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively, based on the CSO’s latest quarterly national household survey.

In all, some 127,000 people of working age are still long-term unemployed.

The recovery – in the form of job creation and access to education and training – has helped lift tens of thousands out of joblessness.

On one hand, it’s remarkable progress in a relatively short period of time.

But major obstacles remain. Despite a falling live register, long-term joblessness remains stubbornly high in many towns and cities outside the capital where the recovery has yet to take hold.

“These are still dark days for many people” says John Stewart, co-ordinator of the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed (INOU). “There has been great progress. But for many, their jobs are gone and they’re not coming back – at least not like they used to be.”

Arguably, fears of a large “lost generation” didn’t emerge on the kind of scale that many feared during the darkest days of the downturn.

Emigration undoubtedly kept a lid on the numbers. So, too, did much-criticised cuts to welfare aimed at incentivising young people to take up additional education, training and work experience.

But many young people – especially those without good qualifications – still face poor prospects, with youth jobless rates running at twice the level they were before the crisis.

Older workers, particularly those over 45, are emerging as a particularly challenged group and are more likely to stay in long-term unemployment than younger jobseekers.

 

‘Self-blame’

At the age of 54, Gerry Sinnott found himself out of work for the first time in his life. As a business development manager with a successful shop-fitting firm, there seemed no shortage of work during the boom times.

Almost overnight, work seemed to dry up. Along with many others, he was let go.

“At the beginning, there was a lot of self-blame. ‘What did I do to lost my job’, or ‘what could I have done differently?’ It took a while to accept that it wasn’t my fault.”

It also took a while, he says, to realise that the work landscape had changed dramatically from when he had last looked for a job.

“A guy said to me that your CV is fine, with lot of experience of buying and selling, setting up warehouses and so on. But the one big hole is there’s nothing about social media.

“I knew nothing about it. I thought Twitter was something birds did. Or that Linkedin was being part of a chain gang.”

He tried various routes to find employment.

An internship with one firm, which ended up closing a few weeks later, was a mistake. But courses like Jobsnet – a programme run by the charity Jobcare, and aimed at empowering skilled professionals to network effectively to find employment – and business training seminars helped restore his confidence and hone his skills.

“You hear people saying, ‘the Government is doing nothing to help the unemployed’. But I found there was a lot going on. Every week at the local enterprise board there were meetings other jobseekers to share ideas, or courses of various kinds.”

Sinnott has since set up a social media consultancy service for retailers, advising them on how to reach out to potential customers or just to understand its potential.

Much of the demand for work, he says, is a result of word of mouth.Thousands of former workers in construction and other sectors still need to be re-skilled if they’re to have any meaningful chance of boosting their employment prospects.

The Department of Social Protection says long-term unemployed will received tailored “progression plans”, to help jobseekers access training and maximise their job opportunities. In all, it says there will be almost 60,000 further education and training courses made available for long-term unemployed in 2015 alone.

But experts such as Prof Philip O’Connell of UCD’s Geary Institute have voiced concern that many unemployed people are being shoe-horned into inappropriate and expensive courses that don’t meet the needs of individuals or the economy.

He says education and training programmes need to be rigorously evaluated and points to community employment schemes, for example, which have little or impact in getting people back to work.

 

High-quality training

Paudie Woodlock has no doubt about the value of the course that helped him out of long-term unemployment. “I don’t know where I’d be without it, to be honest,” he says.

The Tipperary Regional Youth Service’s “work winner’ initiative involves targeting those most at risk of long-term joblessness and guiding them towards work or high-quality training.

Unlike internship initiatives such as JobBridge, it 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.

“We’re working with young people who are finding it almost impossible to get work,” says Donal Kelly, co-ordinator of the Work Winner initiative.

“These are kids who might have left school early or don’t have strong CVs or work experiences. They often don’t have transport and their worlds are quite small and might not extend beyond the housing estate or town they live in.”

He says young people are handed a blank sheet of paper early on and asked what they want to do.

“Many of them assume they’ll be told what to do, but that’s not the way it works. They have the control. They need to believe in themselves and build-up their confidence.”

In Paudie’s case, he was keen to do manual, hands-on work.

The course linked him up with a forklift course and, later, a potential employer in the form of the Tipperary Cheese Company. What started out as a part-time work placement turned into a full-time job at the end of it.

His first paycheque, he says, was an emotional experience.

“The feeling will never leave me. In the course of a week, I’d earned the equivalent of a few months on social welfare… Back then, I couldn’t afford a haircut, not to mind socialising with my friends. I realised then, whatever happens, I can’t let this go.”

In the few years since it got off the ground, the work winner initiative – currently funded by the Tony Ryan Fund – has delivered impressive results.

Of the few hundred young people who’ve completed the 30-week, voluntary programme, more than 40 per cent have secured a paid job in the private sector, while a further 30 per cent have progressed into further education or training.

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 been hugely successful.

“I’m working and I’m confident again,” says Paudie. “For the first time, I have a lot of responsibility in my job. It hard work. But I love it.”

The series continues on Monday, when Rosita Boland assesses the impact of economic recovery on rural Ireland

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