Focus on helping the vulnerable back to work
Focus Ireland’s initiative engages with those who are at risk of homelessness
Caroline Keeling of Keelings: the company is using Focus Ireland’s Employment Focus initiative to find staff. Photograph: Alan Betson
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy: “Employment Focus gives employers the chance to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of the people who are candidates in this programme and to the lives of their families by giving them the opportunity to return to the world of work and to help them secure a more positive future.” Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
In the US they say you’re only ever one pay cheque away from being on the streets. While the situation is arguably better in Ireland, the impact of job losses, austerity measures and rising rents in recent years has meant more people than ever are at risk of being made homeless.
Recent figures show more families became homeless in Dublin in January than in any previous month on record. Moreover, one in five householders surveyed by the Simon Community in February said they were worried about losing their home, while one in four voiced concerns about being able to pay regular household costs.
It goes without saying that having a job can help protect people from becoming homeless. But for those who are in a vulnerable position, and who may have been out of work for some time because of unemployment, illness, parental leave or other reasons, it can be difficult to get back on track. Recent European Union statistics confirm this, showing that on average, just 34 per cent of those unemployed for a year find employment, a figure that declines to just 15 per cent for those without a job for three years.
To help people in a precarious situation and under threat of homelessness, Focus Ireland launched a new employment initiative late last year. It is winning plaudits from the business community by creating a win-win situation by matching vulnerable, but job-ready candidates with employers across Ireland.
“Employment Focus gives employers the chance to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of the people who are candidates in this programme and to the lives of their families by giving them the opportunity to return to the world of work and to help them secure a more positive future,” said Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of Focus Ireland, at the launch of the service last November.
Employment Focus is the brainwave of Paula McGrath, managing director of Achievers Resource Solutions, a Dublin-based recruitment firm. She approached Focus Ireland last year with the idea of creating a service that would provide recruitment for people at risk of losing their homes.
The initiative provides businesses with experienced candidates looking to work their way to a more stable future. In addition to matching employer needs with suitable candidates, it does the initial screening of potential employees, provides basic training and induction, and helps individuals prepare CVs and prep for interviews.
If that wasn’t enough, Employment Focus consults with the Department of Social Protection to ensure staff are safeguarded as they transition back to work. The service also provides ongoing support to employers and employees as needed, long after a candidate has landed a job.
Among the organisations availing of the new recruitment service to find staff in recent months are SuperValu owner, the Musgrave Group, professional services firm Mazars, fruit importer Keelings and ready meal producer Country Crest.
“We hired a candidate through the Employment Focus initiative and it has worked really well for both them and us. They are enjoying the work and making a real contribution to our business,” Mazars’s managing partner Mark Kennedy told The Irish Times.
He’s not alone in welcoming the low-cost recruitment service.
“I went into this with a little bit of trepidation because we didn’t know what to expect and I think we all have a stereotypical idea of what people who are either homeless or on the verge of it might be like, but I was completely blown away by the talent I encountered when we interviewed people,” said Chris Harmon, financial controller at Country Crest, which recently took on someone through the service.
“I found myself both surprised by the quality of candidates and also a little frightened because the whole experience highlighted just how vulnerable we all are,” he added.
While Focus Ireland is most well-known for its work in helping homeless people, Catherine Murphy, project co-ordinator of the organisation’s employment service, stresses that the new service is primarily concerned with assisting people who are at risk of losing their homes, rather than those who have already done so.
Moreover, while some of Focus Ireland’s core clientele may be dealing with difficult problems such as substance abuse, there are also plenty who have just fallen on hard times.
“There’s a whole other side to the work we do that people often don’t realise. There can be a misconception that we’re only dealing with people who aren’t job-ready but that isn’t the case,” said Ms Murphy.
“We’re often working with everyday people; individuals who could be your brother, sister, friend or neighbour. The candidates coming through the service are people who have previous work experience, but who for a number of reasons, be it the recession, rent rises or something else, are currently out of the workforce and need help getting a job,” she added.
Kibanou is one such individual who recently used Focus Ireland’s recruitment service.
Originally from Togo, he is a recent graduate with a BA in Hospitality and International Tourism Management and a long history of work experience. After losing his job when the restaurant he was working in shut down, Kibanou found himself in a situation familiar to other people who have found themselves without work for a while.
Not being in employment can not only knock someone’s confidence and put them at a higher risk of poverty, but it also obviously leaves a gaping hole on their CV that may be hard to explain to a potential employer.
“I had a great experience doing the programme. I was a long time unemployed and it became really difficult to get back to work. I did a few interviews but they didn’t turn into jobs and soon I worried whether I would get back to work at all. Doing the programme though I did some HACCP training, interview preparation and had help looking for opportunities. I finally got a job recently and I’m really happy. I definitely don’t think I would have found work without Focus Ireland, but they lifted me up. Without them I would not be where I am now,” he said.
Focus Ireland is pleased with the reception the service has gotten from employers so far and is hopeful that as more companies hear about it, they will try it out. While the organisation is a registered charity, she’s keen to stress that the recruitment initiative isn’t just about being charitable.
“We’re working as a network trying to open doors for people and make it a little bit easier to get into a job. For the service to work, it’s important that as with a recruitment company we match the best candidate for the role. Business is business, and employers want and need someone they can rely on who will find the best fit for them, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Ms Murphy. Word up: What the employers say “We would definitely encourage other employers to consider taking part. Focus Ireland has taken a really innovative approach to addressing particularly a problem that has a profound impact on people’s lives. It’s a great opportunity for the business community to contribute meaningfully to prevent homelessness in Ireland.”
– Mark Kennedy, Mazars “The service is a great example of the private sector and the not-for-profit sector coming together and making things work.”
– Chris Harmon, Country Crest “SuperValu supports local employment and I felt this was a good fit...Catherine is great to work with, really understanding and listens, and I hope we can continue to support this and get more people back to employment into the future.”
– Corina Zambra, Musgrave
“It can be the hardest thing in the world to get back to work. You are out of the loop and everything changes so quickly while you are gone so it has been nice to give people an opportunity to rejoin the workforce.”
– Hazel Cullen, Eurosales Word up: What the employees say “I would recommend to other people that they use the service and it would be great to see more employers on it. It is a difficult time to find work but the programme is good at helping people feel better about themselves and to look for jobs .”
“Employment Focus built up my confidence and gave me really helpful supports for CV and interview prep and advice on jobs and what to go for. Going back to work was very nerve-racking, I got the confidence back.”
– Sylvia* (*Not her real name)