What I learnt in a year working from a community hub and how I discovered that choosing your working environment can change the shape of our society
I have learnt that if you want to know about the health of a business, sitting on the reception desk of any company tells you all you need to know. Within days, in the role of casual observer, you’ll soon understand how that specific business runs, where the power lies and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how happy the employees are.
So what happens if you want to know about the health of your community and the issues they have, where do you go? Sadly it’s not so easy. People don’t all turn up between 9am & 5pm in one place. You have to search them out or draw them out.
This is why small community hubs at the heart of local communities are so vital.
In March 2014 I started working out of a small community hub in Surrey as a freelance career and employment coach.
This was a completely different working environment for me, I’d previously worked in an independent recruitment agency, helping to match candidates to jobs with increasingly demanding and narrow minded clients.
I loved the idea of a freer environment where expansive conversations could take place, where there was no restraint on the amount of time you could spend with a job seeker and I could help an individual explore all the options available to them and guide and support them with care and compassion into work they’d enjoy.
And so with the hub door open for free careers and employment advice, we sat, just like the receptionist at the front desk of the company, and waited for the community to reveal themselves.
And reveal themselves they did.
It took time for people to be confident enough to ask for help. Local residents would pass to and fro, before placing a tentative step inside, always making sure they had an exit if they wanted to make a hasty retreat.
Free tea, coffee and biscuits worked a treat in keeping people in the hub long enough for them to reveal a bit about their personal circumstances. Slowly but surely trust developed and we started to see local residents regularly dropping in for a chat.
And then the natural law of cause and effect started playing out before our eyes.
The people we were meeting were telling us how much they were suffering mentally and physically as a result of key decisions that were being made which had a direct impact on their well-being – but no-one was listening to them, let alone helping them.
The news of a new retailer coming to the area offering 300 jobs was quick to spread. Excitement lead to disappointment though as it soon become clear that the barrier to entry was too high. A comprehensive online application with psychometrical tests which took at last one and a half hours to complete was the retailer’s chosen mode of recruitment. Since when did getting a retail job have to become so complicated? Is it any wonder why people remain unemployed for so long.
How was this providing an inclusive equal opportunity for local people? Where is the care and compassion?
What happens if you have fantastic retail skills and experience but never learnt how to use a computer or have access to one?
We couldn’t sit back and see good people struggle.
We knew we had to train people how to use a computer and complete the online application. It worked. Applications completed led to interviews and then to the offer of jobs. I don’t know who was more pleased us or the new recruits!
Thankfully the cleaning vacancies for this retailer had been outsourced to an agency who decided that a simple paper application form was more appropriate and knowing local people, because we’d been based in the hub, we were able to recommend suitable workers – more jobs filled. I was back to being a recruitment agent again – only this time in the community.
Without the community hub in operation, I can’t see how this need would have been identified and this was the first of many we had to deal with – in increasing frequency.
Remember your first day in the office as a new starter? One of biggest causes of anxiety and stress is the fear that you might be asked something you know nothing about, and you won’t know who to ask or how to ask
Why do you think someone who’s become unemployed will feel any different?
The job market has changed dramatically. The role of Jobcentre Plus has changed dramatically. Routinely people would come in and tell us how they expected the jobcentre to be as it was, cards on the wall and advisers there to help you get interviews. They’d not been in a jobcentre for years so why should they know any different?
And so we became the unofficial support to Jobcentre Plus. People who were left bemused and feeling hopeless and distressed by the whole process of going online and having to register on Universal Jobmatch, (one of the most unnecessarily complex and daunting programmes I’ve ever used) found themselves at the door of the hub.
Helping people to learn how to register themselves on Universal Jobmatch and how to search for jobs became a regular occurrence. What else could we do? If we didn’t do it, they could be at risk of being sanctioned, all because they didn’t know how to use a computer and understand an unnecessarily complex database system. Did the designers of Universal Jobmatch ever test it out on people who have little or no computer skills? I think not. No way would this system have ever got beyond first base if they had!
We became educators and skill builders as we did our best to support those who had either suddenly found themselves without a job or who had been unemployed for some time. And much of our time we just listened and provided words of hope and support because after all, that was what everyone needed – to talk to someone who cared and would help.
One of the best things about being based in a community hub is you very quickly get a real sense if there has been a change in circumstances. That happened when more people who had previously been on Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) – a benefit for the ill or disabled – were suddenly “released” onto the job market.
So let me paint a picture for you – an individual who has been on ESA benefits for years through illness or disability, often a combination of both, has been assessed as “fit to work”. This diagnosis leads to a chain of events, one of which is that the individual very quickly loses their ESA entitlement and they then have to register for Job Seekers Allowance which is designed to support (for a limited time) those who are actively looking for work . Barely with time to breathe and adjust to their new status and the fact that they now have to present themselves to the world, they have to go through the Universal JobMatch process and be job ready in a job market they know nothing about.
If you were told you were losing your main source of income and had to find a job as soon as possible – how would you react?
I’d wager a guess you’d be feeling pretty anxious, so for an individual who has had a debilitating mental or physical illness, what do you think it does to them? What if their illness or accident now means they can’t go back to the work they were doing before? How can an individual turn themselves around so quickly without vital individual help and support?
Is it any wonder I was meeting more and more people who had to resort to food banks to survive?
To add to their misery, newspapers, radio and TV are dominated by reports of austerity and unrest whilst celebrating the successes of the very wealthy. What do you think that does for their confidence and hopes for a better future?
Now I don’t have any specialist training and knowledge to help people who are suffering with mental health issues, but right in front of my eyes, I was seeing so many variations of mental distress in the people I met, it was often quite overwhelming. People opened up to us one by one and as we listened and absorbed all we were hearing, all we could think about was how could we help them best to alleviate their distress.
Cross referring to local mental health support organisations was vital. It’s all about showing the individual that there are people who care and want to help which all helps to build their confidence. But even with this double handed approach, the path to work is still an extremely rocky one and it takes time. Considerable time. There are many steps backward before a crucial first step is taken. And then of course they still have the nemesis of Universal JobMatch to navigate. It’s an uphill battle and one where extra support with care and compassion needs to be on hand. There are no short cuts and the last thing we need in this situation is welfare cuts – this would be unimaginable.
Successes are small but critical. For example, registering for volunteer work is a huge first step. Starting work in a volunteer capacity is a momentous occasion and then keeping that position going without suffering a relapse is a massive success, but I found some of the people I helped actually enjoyed and thrived working as a volunteer. It gave them a sense of pride and achievement. OK, they were not earning and still reliant on the welfare system, but they were ‘in work’ and fulfilling a very useful role in their community.
However that’s not enough for the Government, the priority remains to get people into paid work – only then are they off the welfare bill and self sufficient.
But what if volunteering in a role that suits you contributes to society in a more valuable way than being directed into unsuitable paid work?
Isn’t that individual worth the £73 a week paid by the Government on taxpayers behalf so that person can contribute in their best way for society as a whole?
One of the recurring themes that I found through my conversations with those who suffered from anxiety, depression and more extreme mental health conditions was that they had found themselves in a harsh unsupported environment where they weren’t listened to. To me this is a critical revelation and tells us so much about the society we have created for ourselves.
I know from my four years working in a recruitment agency that employers only want the very best. “I want someone who can hit the ground running, who has already worked in this industry” They want fully functioning individuals who can give their all to their business.
Knowing this, how could I start recommending those with a pre-deposition to anxiety and depression to apply online to “traditional” businesses. It would be madness. I would be setting them up to fail.
The drive to move everything online has been relentless. Email us your CV says the recruitment consultant who already has an inbox bulging with CVs they can’t reply to. Fill in the online application says the recruiter who then uses sophisticated software to search for “key words” on a CV. Recruitment portals have been developed to host thousands of jobs , all of which give you a false sense of what is available for you locally, sucking you into an online maze and then sending you alerts for jobs in towns hundreds of miles away.
Jobseekers complete evermore complicated applications and their reward – not even an acknowledgement. This sadly has become the norm. Is this really the way we can ensure as many of our population get to find meaningful work?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s time to remove the barriers and use an integrated localised and individual approach to helping people find work which is inclusive of all types of business and people and helps each individual to decide how best he or she can contribute best to society and then support them in that process with care and compassion until they achieve their goal – Why should we spend time and resources doing this? Because all of us in society will benefit from their skills being used in a way that helps us all.
New conversations have to start taking place to show people the whole range of what is possible. Up to now it’s all been pretty narrow and that has led as into a funnel approach to job searching which is not reflective of what society needs from our skills. Jobcentres just want you to get ANY job. The recruitment consultant wants you to fill the job they have in from their client. But where can you have a conversation on everything that’s available to you and helps you see new possibilities for your skills?
For new conversations to start happening we have to give them the freedom to flourish – a community hub environment inspires these conversations.
Thankfully there are a number of large well-established Community Hubs serving urban areas with high numbers of disadvantaged or deprived citizens, such as Octopus Communities which serves the London Borough of Islington and The Shaw-Trust, which is an umbrella organisation which currently runs two hubs in the London boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham with plans and funding in place to expand nationwide.
This is great news for people in those communities, but how about the much smaller and hidden communities in the Home Counties and beyond? There are disadvantaged and deprived people and families in every community up and down the country regardless of how wealthy the area is, and my experience working in the community hub in Surrey really highlights this problem.
One of the solutions is for each community, and by this I mean every village and small town, to have a community hub where local citizens can access a range of support services, for example one-to-one support for help to comply with the new welfare reforms, particularly help with computers, online forms and job and career coaching.
So here are my top ten actions for organisations, community leaders and individuals who have the desire and the skills and experience to do good in their communities which I believe can help reach the maximum number of people in those hidden deprived communities and provide them with information, support and help to develop the skills they need so they can comply with the welfare reforms, and so that they can put themselves in a position where they have choices to pursue a career, get paid employment or voluntary work, or start their own business.
1. Premises: An informal, relaxed environment, central to the local community, needs to be made available for a community hub team. Empty shops are the natural option – they are all-too common these days and hold prime position in villages and towns and most can be refurbished for little or no cost (the hub I work from used to be a hairdressing salon). For owners and landlords, what is the point in having empty premises, often for years, when they could be used. I realise this means loss of earnings for the commercial property owner however, how about seeing it less as a loss of earnings and more as a marketing cost which provides multiple benefits for your business. Providing this space could be a key part of your corporate sustainability programme and then get good publicity for your action via the local press and radio and through organisations such as Trading For Good.
2. The community hub team needs to be put in place and funded to provide their services. This includes a manager and support team as well as independent, non-target driven community careers & employment coaches who are knowledgeable about their local areas and the range of work opportunities available to them. Public monies are available through a variety of channels, but support needs to be given to help the community hub team to bid for and secure the funding which then pays for their own salaries. What better use of public money than providing support to show individuals how best they can use their skills for society. Paid bid managers for each community (perhaps donated by local businesses) would access the money that is needed while the hub team focus on delivery.
3. Development of a programme of informal talks, information days, visits from local businesses and recruiters and local people in the community who are already doing things differently and can inspire others to do the same. Can you imagine the types of conversations that will evolve in that space which will lead to new social businesses and local jobs being filled by local people. Organisations such as Business in the Community and Locality would thrive in this kind of space.
4.Practical individualised and regular support for those who want to start up their own business or work helping the community, in particular help with writing funding bids and local marketing. While Start Up support is available right now, it’s quite formal and focused on those who already have a clear plan of what they want to do. However, what if you’re not sure what’s possible? There’s a big first step to take in understanding your skill set, exploring all your options and seeking self employment is the right route for you. That’s where community career and employment coaches can really be of benefit.
5. Providing a space where everyone is included. One of the delights of working in the community hub has been to see the way people who were once isolated now start to develop friendships and have a place they can drop in for a chat. As a result of these conversations vital information and opportunities have been shared between members of the community which would never have been shared otherwise.
6. The introduction of a human library – this is a brilliant way to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding. It comes in the form of a mobile library where visitors are given the opportunity to speak informally with “people on loan”; who are extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background. The Human Library enables groups to break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner and in a safe, supported environment – with the aim of promoting tolerance and understanding. One of the things we have seen at the community hub is the desire for people to talk about the issues that are being brought up in the media. Anti-immigration rhetoric from opposition parties and the Je suis Charlie events which took place on the worldwide stage led to certain perceptions and having a safe supportive environment to discuss these informally between people from different cultures promotes greater tolerance and understanding for everyone.
7. Talking of media input, local media has a huge part to play in helping a community to come together. Regular features on activities within the hub, features on local people who are doing great things and sharing positive stories of success are all ways to promote greater community cohesion and change the narrative of bad news reporting. Can you imagine how much more enthused and hopeful the community would feel if they regularly saw exciting developments happening in their community showing them how they can get involved? Local media needs a radical overhaul, it has become tired and out of date with what is needed and yet it has the potential to be a driving force for local social change for the better.
8. Identifying skills gaps that people have and filling them with free or affordable training from local training suppliers. Training is a fantastic tool for helping people to transition from one industry to another and without affordable training options people can become stuck in declining industries and are unable to take advantage of those which are growing. Adult learning can take so many forms, this isn’t about going back to the classroom which some people hate the thought of, this is about finding a way for you to learn in a way that works for you and suits your individual needs.
9. One of the gaping holes we have found is the lack of supported employment opportunities. Look at any job site and you’ll see job after job in the same kind of commercial office or retail environment, but what happens if you don’t flourish in those environments, where else can you find meaningful work in a supportive environment, local to you. Examples do exist and they work brilliantly but they are in isolation – People & Gardens in Cornwall is probably the best example of this. People and Gardens was set up in 1997 to enable people with learning disabilities or emotional impairments to be able to develop as individuals and to have equality of choice and opportunity in the workplace. The founders of People and Gardens understand through their own experiences, that we should all work together to break down barriers, to educate and to support each other to make the world a better place for everyone. There needs to be a People & Gardens in every county.
10. Freeflow funding whatever your status! Why do community led projects have to jump through so many hoops in order to get even small amounts of funding? Regulations and restrictions depending upon status are all barriers to accessing the vital funds to getting great ideas off the ground. What if an individual has an amazing idea and wants to devote his or her time to this activity to help their community and get paid for doing so, isn’t that something we should all be trying to facilitate? My hero is Muhammad Yunus. His ethos – everyone has potential and then he provides the enabling conditions for those with the idea to get access to the funding they need. Why do we have to make everything so complicated in the UK?
So here’s a couple of ideas I had to get the money flowing in communities. How about a Dragon’s Den type night in the local community hub accompanied by a community vote on the project they like to see funded? Or perhaps a crowdfunding night for a new project where everyone gets together – Comic Relief style – and raises as much money as they can on the night from local residents?
The local community and society misses out when a valid community project doesn’t get funded. People don’t get a valuable need fulfilled and the initiator is forced back into the traditional job market where he or she will be serving business stakeholders and lining their pockets rather than serving the needs of their local community. Get the money flowing in the community and I’m convinced good things will start to happen.
So there we have it, my top ten suggestions for transforming local communities with a community hub at the heart of it all starting up new conversations, providing integrated, individualised support, facilitating and connecting and giving everyone in the community a voice.
As I see it we have two scenarios for our future:
Scenario 1: A relentless drive to push everyone online to apply for jobs that aren’t suitable to their skills which will lead to more mental distress and wasted potential for all of us in society.
Scenario 2: Create a new environment where people can gain local knowledge, identify their skills and work in or close to their local community where they are contributing in the best way they can for society.
The job we do and the environment we do it in shapes the society we live in. And this isn’t something that you should only think about if you find yourself unemployed. What we do is what we become.
Are you someone who commutes miles from your community to go and sit in an office at a computer and then makes decisions which affect others lives? Is it any wonder that you find yourself disconnected from the world around you when you are physically removed from those whose lives you affect – a multitude of layers separate and disconnect you.
“But it’s my job” I hear you cry, however, what if your job isn’t aligned with what our society needs and leads to greater equality and harm to our planet? Is this a valid defence?
When we create more jobs in social businesses in our local communities we give everyone in society an additional choice – a choice to use their skills as a means of caring about others and our planet. When our own self interest is aligned with the opportunity to care then a more humane society can emerge.
Let the transformation begin.
Debbie Hyde spent four years working for an independent recruitment agency before starting work as a freelance community career and employment coach. She created her own radio show entitled It’s All Good Radio Show in 2012 which showcases individuals, companies and organisations who are challenging the norm and changing the way we live and work for the better.
Debbie is currently working on a e-book which will be a guide for people who want to find work or change their job but may not know about all the opportunities available to them in today’s changing world. The e-book will help them discover new ways to find the work they love and get paid for it.