Two people writing on a whiteboard

Solving the riddle that is employment and training

By Jon Fisher, Head of communities
6 November 2018

Q: What do a horse whisperer, a forklift driver and a charity worker have in common?

A: Read this blog and find out…

The question above sounds like a riddle or a joke – and for the purposes of this blog it’s meant to. But it’s no joke that people in this country are still struggling to keep their heads above water, when the UK is the fifth richest country in the world. That’s why I’ve chosen to work in social housing for the last 10 years, always in community investment roles and currently head of communities for Sovereign and chair of the group ‘Give us a Chance’, which campaigns to advance the role of social landlords in promoting employment.

In that fifth largest economy, two people are born with the same preferences, abilities, aspirations and imperfections when making decisions. But studies show that, if you’re born into a poorer family, you’re less likely achieve and your aspirations are quickly dampened. But is this tempering of aspirations really just a rational response when you feel like the odds are stacked against you?

Perhaps. But it’s also true that a lack of access to information and influential social networks make it way harder to break into successful employment. The temptation to give up may become overwhelming.

But many people don’t give up – they keep on striving – and this is where we come in.

Social housing providers can do so much to level the playing field. Instead of forking out between a quarter and half of their salary on rent, the first step we take is to give people a home at a rate that is more affordable, more manageable. It’s one less thing to worry about and can give someone much-needed security and stability.

And then, from those foundations, we move instinctively to step two: education and employment.

Last year, housing associations invested £70m in employment support programmes – only the government invests more than we do. We want to see communities that work. At Sovereign, we’re about more than giving people four walls and a roof over their heads. In fact, we hope that we offer much more. If our residents want help, they know they can come to us and ask for it.

But it’s not about offering charity or hand-outs. Instead, we want to support our residents to find out what they want from life and see how we can help get them there. We know that 40% of tenants in social housing are in full-time employment, even though one in three struggle to pay their rent and more than half rely on housing benefit.

So we don’t just want to help people get jobs, we want them to get better jobs. Like Anne, who now works full time for the Alzheimer’s Society. This is Anne’s experience of the service, in her own words:

“It started when I had a chat with Gez, an employment and training officer from Sovereign. He came to my house and we talked through the skills I had – and those I didn’t! I was used to doing contract stuff or being my own boss and hadn’t really considered office work before. To be honest, I thought it would be boring, but Gez encouraged me to think about it, and we talked about how I could brush up my skills.

“He pointed me towards loads of useful courses: I think I did seven in total in the end, everything from improving my GCSE results in Maths and English to business admin and book-keeping. I also smartened up my IT skills – getting my level 1 and 2 qualifications – I definitely know my way around an Excel spreadsheet these days. Sovereign also funded a laptop for me so I could look for work from home. Now I’m employed full-time for the Alzheimer’s Society. I’m so happy in my new job, the whole experience has changed my life for the better. Doing those college courses was definitely worth it.”

Through my links with the Communities that Work campaign by GUAC and Placeshapers, we want to demonstrate these successes. We can show national and local government the true scale of housing associations’ investment into employment-related services, and outline how government can do more to work with housing associations to close the gap between rich and poor. And we’re making three requests:

#1: Recognise housing associations as key partners in supporting people into work.

Many housing associations work with some of the hardest to reach communities, and have spent years building trusted relationships with their residents. Government could better utilise social housing providers’ potential to run transformative employment programmes locally, given their insights and experience.

#2: Develop a framework for closer partnerships between the Department for Work and Pensions and housing associations, in order to deliver bespoke employment support to social residents.

Help us to help our residents to transition from work experience and volunteering to full-time employment. Make the process of switching from Universal Credit to employment seamless, with no time-lag meaning our residents fall into arrears on rent or other payments.

#3: Further devolve powers to local authorities, so that they can work with housing associations and others to build more effective local employment services.

In some devolved areas this already works brilliantly, but it could be so much more powerful if there was a way of delivering the same level of service everywhere.

Then we can do even more to support the people who need it most. And maybe we can go some way to answering the riddle above, by sharing more success stories like Michelle, Mark and Anne, the horse whisperer, forklift driver and charity worker that I mentioned at the start. They’re all inspiring, aspirational Sovereign residents who we’ve been happy to support, as they keep on keeping on.