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The Financial Times writes about Employability: How to spread the jobs net wider

08 Jun 2011

Employability: How to spread the jobs net wider

By Jane Bird

Published: June 7 2011 16:51 | Last updated: June 7 2011 16:51

A job applicant with Asperger’s syndrome might avoid eye contact with the interviewer, choose to look at the floor or out of the window, not smile and even appear bored. A candidate who gets through to the next stage could then fail an assessment involving group activities, because Asperger’s affects social interaction.

Such applicants might be well able to do the job in question, because Asperger’s does not affect intellect and some people with it are very bright, says Tab Ahmad, managing director and founder of EmployAbility, an organisation that helps disabled graduates find jobs.

There are good business reasons for considering the disabled for jobs, along with other long-term unemployed people, she says. “If you are looking for the best, it makes sense to look at the widest pool of talent.”

With 2.5m unemployed in the UK, of whom 34 per cent have been so for more than a year, there is a big choice. Many have already been trained and are keen to work.

It also makes sense to reflect the diversity of your customer base. “It has been proven that more diverse teams come up with more innovative solutions,” says Ms Ahmad.

One problem is that although employers may know this in theory, they are often unaware of the barriers facing job applicants.

Online psychometric tests are widely used as a first filter in recruitment. For people with dyslexia or dyspraxia, this is a significant disadvantage because they rely on the ability to repeat processes in short-term memory, says Ms Ahmad.

For those with a visual impairment who use software to increase the size of characters on screen, tables and graphs in tests can become distorted. “Often the reason applicants don’t get to the next stage is not because they don’t have the right abilities, but that the test may be unsuitable,” Ms Ahmad says.

There tends to be a belief that there is only one way of testing, she says. “Employers may think giving such applicants 25 per cent extra time, as with university exams, overcomes the problem, but this is not necessarily appropriate.” EmployAbility works with companies such as Google and Goldman Sachs that use other type of tests and interviews to assess candidates. These, it says, work much better.

Contrary to perception, the long-term unemployed or homeless are often desperate for a job and enthusiastic about working, says Tim Jones, managing partner at Freshfields, a London law firm that offers a “buddying” scheme to help such people find jobs.

In many cases they have an underlying skill and were trained but something has gone wrong in their lives, he says. For Freshfields staff, being a buddy develops their coaching and mentoring skills, and improves morale.

“In the slightly rarefied atmosphere of high finance where we sometimes operate, which can seem remote, it’s reassuring for our people to do something in the real world,” Mr Jones says.

It is also a salutary reminder of how one or two bad things happening in quick succession, such as illness, family break-up or losing a job, can quickly cause someone who was living a perfectly normal life to lose direction or find themselves in a hostel.

People who have become detached from the labour market and are on the margins of society mostly just want a chance to show that they are reliable, trustworthy and competent, says Stephen Bevan, director of The Work Foundation.

The fact that they lack job search skills and confidence deprives them of huge social and financial benefits, he says.

“Many are prepared to take full advantage of being given a step up,” he says.

And helping such people get jobs gives staff a positive feeling about the workplace and enables self- development.

This unintended benefit was highlighted in a study done by The Work Foundation in partnership with Marks and Spencer. The project involved employing homeless people – often ex-offenders and those with bipolar disorder – to work alongside experienced staff on the shopfloor.

Initially, staff had concerns that customers might not take kindly to being served by people who had been brought in off the streets, because of the stereotype that such people have drug and dependency problems, Mr Bevan says.

These stereotypes were quickly challenged, and the cynicism disappeared. “It was an amazing experience for the M&S people involved, creating a huge feeling of pride and commitment towards the company.” A large proportion of the participants ended up with jobs at M&S.

Under the government’s Work Programme, companies such as A4e and Ingeus are being incentivised to target these so-called “hard to reach” groups.

But the incentives have not been matched with support to help employers understand how to reintegrate people into the workforce once they have been taken on.

What is not wanted with these incentive structures is “revolving doors”, says Mr Bevan.

They have to be based on sustained employment and employers should not be ignored.

“Employers should be provided with support and counselling to help them tackle early warnings that somebody might not stick at a job, perhaps because of confidence or personal issues, to ensure they are resolved swiftly.”

Evidence from the US suggests that supporting employers in this more continuous way can make a big difference in keeping the targeted groups in work for longer.

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CASE STUDY: Norse Commercial

Ten years ago Norse Commercial Services, a facilities management company, was struggling to fill its jobs in refuse collection, transport, building maintenance, recycling and catering. So it turned to non-traditional recruitment pools including the long-term unemployed, the homeless, ex-offenders, and those with alcohol or drug dependency problems.

Norse knew employing such people would boost its corporate social responsibility credentials. But its motive was genuine business need rather than an altruistic charitable gesture, says Patricia Fuller, the company’s HR director.

“We wanted to improve recruitment for hard-to-fill posts, and to increase the number of employees from the local community.”

The result was extremely positive. “We found that people who’ve been excluded from the workplace can become almost model employees, both from the point of view of attendance and of attitude,” Ms Fuller says.

Since then, Norse has set up a placement scheme that annually offers about 120 people one year’s work experience, mentoring, and advice on how to increase their employability credentials. Some 70 per cent typically get taken on by Norse within one month of their placement finishing, and a further 15 per cent within six months.

The placement programme now also includes 12 young disabled people. They, too, have proved a valuable resource, and those who have been through the scheme now have jobs across the business from payroll to carpentry, making ramps and stairs. Employing these young learning disabled students is saving £5,500 ($9,020) a year on recruitment costs and £1,280 on training costs per employee.

There are also benefits in improved staff morale, particularly among those who have worked as “buddies”. They report a 14 per cent higher satisfaction level than those not involved.

Being able to demonstrate involvement with the local community helps win business, and has contributed to more than £6m of public-sector contracts, including a £3.5m contract with Enfield Borough Council.

“In the public sector, we are increasingly required to show added value,” says Ms Fuller. “Our work inclusion differentiates us because we can demonstrate we are giving something back to local communities and so can help our customers meet their obligations and social responsibilities.”

Norse also encourages its supply chain, including retailers and the hospitality industry, to employ from these groups. “I’ve asked hotels we use for meetings and conferences, to consider filling their vacancies with these people,” Ms Fuller says. “They’ve got a supply chain too, so it is possible to get a domino effect.”

Not everyone on the programme succeeds. “But once they’ve been through it you have an employee you’re more secure about,” Ms Fuller says.

Norse is sometimes asked why it is running the programme now when the job market is tight and employers are choosy.

“If we do it when finding jobs is hard, the benefits will be there for us when things pick up,” says Ms Fuller. “Showing our staff we are an ethical employer makes them less likely to leave when the job market picks up.”

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