‘They have to show up’: Building lives with real wages for long-term jobless

‘One guy is living in a hostel. He is never late. He never misses a day,’ says employer

Thomas Grimes from Dublin's inner city gets texts every day offering him work. He's still surprised by this, because having at one stage been unemployed for 10 years he knows the frustration of making daily phone calls to employment agencies in the vain hope someone would offer him a start.

“There was no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, admitting that at one point in his life he went down a “wrong path” which didn’t make him an attractive proposition to potential employers. “But my phone is hopping now.”

Six years ago the 52-year-old heard about a construction course spearheaded by Jim Hargis, a man who has spent almost 30 years trying to secure jobs for long-term unemployed people living in the inner city.

As the employment services manager of St Andrew’s Resource Centre on Pearse Street, he felt frustrated by the contradiction of a plethora of cranes towering over queues of unemployed people. Gleaming new residential and commercial developments were sprouting around deprived communities who had little access to decent well-paid work.

“We designed a programme that suited the employers and also the unemployed,” says Hargis who talked directly to both cohorts before launching the first three-week construction skills course in 2016. Anyone who completed the course acquired a range of skills ranging from safe pass and manual handling to knowing how to drive a cherry picker and “bank” a crane.

Even before the recent launch of the Government’s retrofitting programme and its target of completing 500,000 home energy upgrades by 2030, the course organisers had added a “green homes” element to exploit the focus on energy saving. “The success of the project is that it is constantly evolving to ensure it meets local employers’ needs,” says Hargis.

Most of the 380 or so men who have done the course to date had been unemployed for three to 10 years but one participant had not worked for 27 years. “We got him into work easily enough and he has been working away for four years,” says Hargis.

The project, a joint initiative between the resource centre and the Inner City Renewal Group, has been life changing for many families. Darren Kearney is one of four brothers, now aged in their 40s and 50s, who followed each other on to the project, bringing four wage packets into the home they shared on Sheriff Street.

“I was unemployed for a good few years,” says Kearney who subsequently worked full-time on the Capital Dock development for three years, and who is now with an agency and never short of work.

"It was great for the four of us," says the Dublin man who believes one of the main advantages is that Alec Hayden, managing director of CIT, the firm providing the training, always follows up and liaises with employers on behalf of the trainees.

“It is better than having to walk up to the gate on a site and say ‘any work going?’,” he points out.

With an average placement rate of 62 per cent, Hargis stresses it is the course and not the construction companies who deem some trainees haven’t shown the commitment required. Those who do commit can end up earning up to €800 or even €900 a week.

Before the 10 participants for each course actually start, Hargis arranges two 8.30am information meetings at short notice, and anyone who doesn’t show up is ruled out.

“If they can get up in the morning to come to see us, that is the qualification for getting on the course – as well as being unemployed. They have to show up,” he says.

“We always say to employers that we will not knowingly send you someone who we do not think will work out. We take our reputation with employers very seriously,” says Hayden. “And we tell the guys that your success will pave the way for the others coming behind.”

He is full of admiration for those who do overcome unimaginable challenges to get their lives back on track. “It is not easy to hold down a job if you are sleeping in a hostel and there is somebody beside you doing heroin,” he says.

Andrew Usher currently employs six men who did the course. "It gives guys down on their luck a new start, a chance to get going again," he says. Usher was approached by Hayden in 2020 and asked what skills he needed at his company, Usher Insulation. A new course was then designed around those retrofitting needs at a time when Usher freely admits "demand has gone through the roof".

While the recent Government announcement around retrofitting incentives was seen as good news for the environment, Usher says: “They were not looking at the big picture. We don’t have the manpower to retrofit thousands of homes. Yes, I have a waiting list because I cannot get the staff.”

With a workforce of 40 people who do both domestic and commercial jobs, he has taken on 20 from the course with mixed results over the past year.

“One man who was in his 50s said himself ‘I am not able for it’. It is very hard physical work. We start at 7am and another fellow said he could not do mornings.

“Some are brilliant and some aren’t cut out for it. I feel people deserve a chance. I know some of them were in prison and some are ex drug users, some are alcoholics, but the guys who did this course want a new start. None of them are forced to do the course – not like some other courses.”

He starts all his employees on the basic Construction Industry Federation rate of €14.72 an hour “and if they are willing to learn, it goes up”.

As many graduates of the St Andrew’s course arrive “with the shirts on their back”, Usher spends about €300 kitting each one out with hard hats, boots and equipment.

“I see it as an investment rather than a cost.

“One guy is living in a hostel. He is never late. He never misses a day. He is a brilliant fellow.”

Hargis says employers like Usher who are willing to give someone a chance can change lives.

“Unemployed men, if they are made the right offer, do not want to be unemployed. They have come from a situation where they are sitting all day watching daytime television, to having a purpose and having workmates. Some are popular fellows, some are quiet fellows. This comes out during graduations. Some get cheered when the Minister is giving them the certificate.”

Among the Ministers who have attended graduations are Minister for Finance Pascal Donohoe and most recently Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

Hargis estimates about 20 per cent of the current cohort are in insecure housing.

“About five or six years ago there might be one lad over three courses who had insecure housing. On a course that started five or six weeks ago, five lads were homeless; one was sofa surfing and four were in hostels of some sort,” he explains.

“We don’t want it to be a homeless programme, or a former prisoner programme or a former drug addict programme. We want it to be a mix.”

Thomas Grimes who left school at 14 says he has a different life since he signed up for the course at age 46. “I can go on holidays two or three times a year. I love getting up in the morning. When you are not working you have nothing to get up for.

“It gives you structure and confidence and you meet up with people on the job. I am never late. I am in an hour before my time. There is nothing negative about it.”