Saturday, 4 August 2012

Time for Plan B in East London

We learned a while ago at Clean Slate that it pays to assume that anything that can go wrong, probably will go wrong. Far from stopping us, or making us impotently risk averse, we've just become good at second guessing, managing liabilities and having a Plan B. So when the London Pleasure Gardens went into administration this week, we were neither sunk nor defeated.

Part of this is about the partners we work with. In this case, it's Green Stewards who have done their best to look out for our interests alongside their own - and they're considerably more exposed commercially. They've witnessed the positive impact the promise of paid work has had upon people generally written off by other employers. Not that it's been about caring and sharing; the goal has been to find people who are ready for work and eager to prove themselves. Clean Slate invested in finding people with histories of homelessness and long-term unemployment who mean business about finding work. Green Stewards invested in progressing them through NVQs in stewardship (Spectator Safety) and took us at our word that we'll find them capable people. If nothing else to date, we’ve proved the model works for us, for job seekers and for employers.

All this week, I've been tarting up my pitch to other employers going forward. The message is that Clean Slate can re-activate people but they need to stay active. I’ve been running induction sessions myself this week and, yet again, I watched the lights go on as jobless people realised their own potential and how Clean Slate might provide the stepping stones out of worklessness and off benefits. Like recharging a car battery, however, we now need to get them on the road to keep them charged. We have a basic business offer to provide temporary labour (and recruitment on a temp-to-perm basis) but add the social value – which somehow gets interpreted as risk.

The casualties then are the jobless people we’ve lined up for stewarding work at the Pleasure Gardens. Fifty of them. Proven as job ready and eager to get started, earning what they can to begin their journey towards financial independence. Most are stuck in the benefits trap but some are ready to take on as many hours as we’ll give them. Half of these workers have just about completed their stewardship NVQ (spectator safety), courtesy of Green Stewards’ investment. So much potential. Now the weight of responsibility is on Clean Slate’s shoulders to find them an outlet for putting to use everything they have to offer.

For me, this is the first fifty from the 10,000-plus people stuck in homelessness hostels. This pool is also the evidence that Clean Slate can make a difference to the 60,000-plus unemployed in East London, where we’re working with Business in the Community to create a legacy from the Olympics. We proved we can engage, prepare and supply the labour, now we need to create the demand and desire to make an impact on long-term unemployment among employers. (And, as I said above, it’s not about doing good, it has to meet a business need for labour too.)

So, where’s our Plan B now LPG has gone? Well, firstly we’re knocking on every door, promoting the talents of our special pool of temps. We’re hunting down every event organiser, every venue, conference centre, theatre… you name it. Anywhere that needs front of house, stewarding or customer care staff. We’re already talking to the Greater London Authority and they recognise their stake in our work. And Transport for London is exploring ways to get Clean Slate into their supply chain. We’re also making links with the Olympic Legacy people too. We have a small number of employers on side and a large network of partners in the homelessness field who have a vested interest in our temps’ success.

And we still have our relationship with Green Stewards, who we'll continue to work with and who pointed out yesterday with typical optimism that sums up our partnership: "You know, WHEN we get through this, everyone we work with will know that not only are we capable but we're pretty much bomb-proof and able to create success in the face of disaster." A sentiment inspired perhaps by the people we recruit.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Searching for a Spark

It was only six months ago that a contact at a charity we worked with was telling me I didn't know what I was talking about by offering advice to unemployed and under-employed people that, in the face of benefit cuts and rising costs, they might consider asking around for a bit of (extra) paid work. 'Don't you know unemployment is the highest it's been in years? There is no paid work.'

At the time, back in February, I pointed out I was recruiting homeless people in the capital for paid work as stewards in the Docklands this summer. Little did I know that another company had similar vacancies and were less likely to meet their quota of workers. We needed 40 to fill gaps at the London Pleasure Gardens. G4S needed over 10,000 for the Olympics.

It's not easy to find the right people for these roles but there's a lesson for charities, Job Centre Plus (and its corporate cronies), and giants like G4S too: There is a wealth of talent on the unemployment 'scrapheap', if you're prepared to invest in engaging them, re-activating them and working with them to become job ready. Lucky for us, (he says, tongue firmly in cheek), we're not for profit. But then it's all about the people for us, not funding targets, 'into work' 'outputs' or profits, but then that's also why we're able to engage unemployed people.

Clean Slate is working with homelessness charities in London to recruit many of those furthest from the labour market. We met our targets - and we're inducting more next week to compensate for turnover - with people with histories of homelessness. At a meeting last week, we couldn't decide if there are more than 10 or 20 thousand more job seekers where our homeless recruits came from. That's a pretty rich seam to mine for talent to match to jobs in just about any sector, but it'll cost us all that we could make (as a social enterprise recruitment agency), digging them out. That's good enough for us.

This week I'm inducting people in Bath who want to work for a new venture we've set up with our charity partners there, DHI, and a housing association, Curo. The HandyHelp Company is a different response to the fact that there aren't always jobs around and in this case, we're creating a business to create the jobs. HandyHelp is already helping bring empty homes into use and is just about to start helping with domestic help around the home and garden. Our recruits haven't necessarily been homeless but we're particularly keen to employ unemployed people who have faced significant health or housing barriers.

We'll spend the next few days working with candidates to find out what gets them going, how much they have to offer and the goals they may have. They probably don't know the answers to those questions themselves yet. But they will. And we'll watch as the light goes on and they start to believe in themselves.

All this is up for grabs and we're already talking to corporates and authorities who are starting to see how this all fits into their plans, especially around public sector procurement and tendering.

Far from being no paid work, for some people, in some places, there will be plenty of work. It just seems too many professionals who should be enabling people are defeatist or lack the appetite to roll up their sleeves and make things happen. How can we then expect unemployed people to make things happen for themselves? I hope our tiny example in East London and in Bath can be a flicker that lights a flame. Now that sounds topical...

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Stewarding the Unemployed towards Success

The front page story in yesterday's Guardian (Unemployed bussed in to steward river pageant) and leading this morning's BBC London news may snowball to become another mess requiring the Government to consider a U-turn. It's claimed that unemployed people were coerced, under threat of losing benefits, to work as stewards at the Jubilee weekend and were forced to sleep rough and change into uniform in public, and had no access to toilets.

The story gave me goosebumps. Clean Slate is recruiting homeless people to work as stewards through this summer and beyond. And we work across Bristol, Bath and London. But we have nothing to do with the employer, Close Protection UK, or the Government’s Work Programme.

Clean Slate acknowledges our duty of care for the 40 plus stewards we're currently recruiting. In liaising with Green Stewards, who will take them on for paid work, we've covered ground like access to facilities, breaks and the usual entitlements employers must provide. Our candidates also did an unpaid NVQ weekend (ironically, taking people from London to the West Country) but Clean Slate ensured there was food, good accommodation and a tangible outcome that was more than the promise of paid work in future. What's more, there was no coercion at all. By contrast to the Jubilee weekend, our stewards found the weekend hugely beneficial as they became part of a team, overcame the challenges of a new environment and mixing with new colleagues, and learned about the job they would be doing. Working with Green Stewards and homelessness charities, in the wings to provide more pastoral support, we ensure there's a positive outcome for everyone.

For us, involving job seekers is about carrot more than stick, which is essentially ‘if you don’t prove what you have to offer, you’re unlikely to be offered work’. We have an honest partnership with job seekers about our needing them to do well. Our social enterprise is ostensibly a temp agency that recruits long-term unemployed people and places them in paid work with employers. We work in partnership with support agencies but our focus is on re-activating people who have been systematically switched off by their experience of unemployment. We look for the light switch and by focusing on all the potential they possess, and proving it to them by offering job ready people paid work, they become motivated and self-confident, ready to be part of the solution to their own unemployment.

Now I'm worried the flaws of a Government scheme, married with the drive for private sector profit, has sullied our own scheme to re-activate people, who are only too used to being treated without respect or dignity. It could pull the rug from underneath us. Our supporters, employer partners, funders and temporary workers now all need reassuring that we weren't involved in this weekend's debacle.

As seen in previous blogs, Clean Slate is opposed to mandatory work placements - forcing unemployed people to work for free or face losing their benefits. A day's productive work in a profit-making business must be paid for, otherwise it is state-sanctioned exploitation. Volunteering has a place for job seekers when it honestly provides training and valuable experience and, most of all, when it really is voluntary.

Having worked with people facing barriers to employment for the past 19 years - people who have been homeless, offenders, mentally ill, refugees or chronically socially excluded - I know how many can benefit from simple opportunities to get involved. They often jump at the chances and some will move on from there. But there has to be ethical guardianship in the mix to ensure this goodwill is not exploited.

Most unemployed people I speak to feel victimised by the state, stigmatised by the media and generally considered undeserving of benefits. They fear employers either won't be interested in them or will treat them badly. So it is totally counter-productive when a prospective employer like Close Protection UK drops the ball this way. Whichever agencies were supporting the volunteers also let them down.

This morning we'll be contacting all our stakeholders to distance ourselves from this appalling story. We will also write to all the job seekers on our books as Temp Workers to reassure them about our promise to look out for their wellbeing and how to blow the whistle if they feel they're being mistreated.

No doubt more details about, and repercussions from, the Jubilee story will emerge - good and bad - but Clean Slate must set out its ethical stall. While there are uncomfortably close similarities between this story and the opportunities we lay on for job seekers as stewards, we will always put the wellbeing of our workers first. We won't always get things right, and we have scant resources to be omnipotent, but we will never be part of mandatory work placements or leave people feeling exploited.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Profiting from Unemployment

The case of Cait Reilly suing the Government is surprising because it is surprising. She's the geology graduate going to the High Court for being forced to work for free in Poundland or face losing her Job Seekers Allowance.

It's surprising because so many people already think it's an unjust system. For me, I think it's outrageous that private businesses benefit from millions of pounds worth of labour, subsidised by the taxpayer. They're having their cake and eating it by taking on free, State-sponsored labour and boosting their reputation for doing so. There's no irony that Poundland last year bucked the struggling high street retail sector trend to announce record profits, up 30-odd percent on the previous year.

Of course, I'm all in favour of work experience as an invaluable means to prove a job seeker means business about employment. Clean Slate is founded on this premise but also on the deal that while you're proving yourself, you should also be directly rewarded for your efforts - by the beneficiary, ie, the employer. This demonstrates respect and forms the fundamental contract between the worker and the boss, and this cannot be artificially engendered without money changing hands.

Cait Reilly wouldn't generally qualify as a Clean Slate Temp Worker because she's not so disadvantaged in the labour market and is clearly well-motivated in herself, having lined up volunteering in a museum more closely alligned to her career of choice. That only shows how badly wrong Job Centre Plus are getting things.

I don't agree that as someone from a relatively privileged background she should 'get over herself' as some pundits have said - some of those pundits are commenting from an equally privileged position, probably more so. I think Reilly has a good point - one made privately by thousands of poorer people who wouldn't get a look in in the media, let alone have the stomach to take on the Government.

I had a bit of a barney with Business in the Community not so long ago. Why should private, profit-making businesses get free labour from homeless people just because they're homeless and because they should think themselves lucky enough to have something to add to their CV? Even if it leads to a job, it saves the company the cost of recruitment or at least the gamble of taking on an unknown.

Job Centre Plus is lining up similar placements for 50,000 job seekers. That's 3.5 million hours handed to employers for free. That's almost £25m of staff costs underwritten by Government. (And I don't buy the argument about employers' management time, as they'd have to provide that anyway to temp staff, they save on recruitment/ induction costs if they take on the job seekers, and it doesn't take much training for stacking shelves.)

Obviously I have an agenda. Oddly, it's quite a corporate one. Clean Slate is doing what Job Centre Plus fails to do: prepares people for work in practical skills and in attitude. We pump prime people to build their confidence. And, where people opt for work experience, work is matched 100 percent to their ability to make something of the opportunity and it's paid*. We also put in a whole load of legwork with the employers to ensure they fit the bill and negotiate what gaps we need to fill in if training or support cannot be offered on the job. (*Our Temp Workers declare their earnings, often losing money pound for pound, and work within the restrictive welfare thresholds to avoid being forced off benefits before they're ready.)

Hopefully, I've made Clean Slate's case well enough not to sound to arrogant but: When we're doing so much better, why should we have to compete with State-subsidised schemes that under-value job seekers and profit mainstream companies?

So, we'll be watching Cait Reilly's progress with interest. I doubt she stands much chance but I hope she gets plenty of attention - less reactionary and sensationalist than it's been to date, at that.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

One Percent Inspiration (99 Percent Aspiration)

As always, I'm working on the big leap forward. The idea for 2012 is to focus on the biggest area of concern for me, in all I'm working on: The worsening crisis for young unemployed people and families.

My projects, Clean Slate and Quids in! magazine, have a raft of ideas and everyone can get involved: Everyone following on Twitter, on Facebook, through networks and across towns and cities in England, Wales and, soon, Scotland.

I'm not going to waste time here moaning about their plight in the face of rising unemployment, benefit cuts and a society that would rather cast blame than look at itself and wonder how we came to this. In any case, I want to get on with the job in hand: Inspiring people to find their own way out of the crap they're in.

And maybe they don't consider themselves to be in the poo. A good friend of mine told me yesterday about her 16-year old stepson who's finished school and is happy now to stay out until four, sleep in until midday and let his mother keep him for at least another couple of years. Luckily, his Dad has other ideas. He recognises that once people, whatever their age, stop moving forward, they fall backwards. Opportunities close and they make do with a life where they don't reach their potential.

For many families, unemployment affects the kids, mums, dads and grandparents too. They're not necessarily the passive victims of unemployment that maybe that statement suggests, but they'll soon be the unwilling recipients of cuts to welfare payments that, when everyone in a household is affected, are gonna hurt. Economically, the balance may tip in favour of family members finding work but it's going to take more than starving people to break the culture of dependency, defeated (and self-defeating) attitudes, and the fact that there are fewer jobs.

Quids in! magazine already offers money management advice to people in social housing. We work closely with social landlords and the last issue reached over 160,000 households. We plan to launch in Scotland in March. We want to attend as many community events as we can, distributing Quids in! and new easy-to-read publications (designed like Take a Break, not your typical advice guides) on how to make ends meet as times get tougher. Which they will. Anyone who could use these publications with the people they work with can get involved. Contact me at

I'm working on new magazine titles for young people. We (ie, anyone who wants to combat youth disaffection and unemployment) need to engage 14-19 year olds on their terms. Commercial media do this everyday. It will be a challenge to be socially responsible when young people's interests might lie in shoot-em-up gaming, rap music and getting as much as possible in life for free, but these are our ways into their world view. I want to engage and inspire young people to aspire to more. If what we saw on the streets last year was anything to do with our society promising they could have it all and then failing to deliver, we can reposition that promise - they can have it but they have to work for it. If we can't make that point in Olympic year, we never will.

I'm developing a new service for schools. I don't believe they're set up to help students for whom the academic route is a non-starter. Our work with those furthest from the labour market translates directly by engaging with people's strengths and interests, raising their aspirations, and setting short and long-term goals and establishing realistic expectations about the real world and how its down to the individual to make things happen. Interested? Drop me a line.

Youth unemployment now tops one million in the UK. Job Centre Plus is not fit for the purpose of preparing job seekers for employment, its policing role is counter-productive in this, and the dehumanising experience of signing on is universal, something I've heard reported in EVERY project where I meet unemployed people. The possibility of an entire generation going to waste, as employers and the under-25s themselves buy into the myth that they're unemployable, is now too big a risk to leave to Government.

I'm calling on employers in London, the West of England and South Wales to stand up and be counted. I'm not asking them to take on risk, incur undue costs or cope with miles of red tape but I am asking them to take a small leap of faith by using Clean Slate as a temp agency, where they can 'try before they buy' for recruiting permanent staff or offer a few paid hours a week for Temp Workers that need to prove themselves and acclimatise to the world of work. (See

The ideas are there. But we need to hook up with employers, teachers, parents and commissioners with a shared vision for doing something practical to tackle youth disaffection and the unemployment that's damaging families. Sign up to follow our progress. Get behind us on Twitter and Retweet. Get in touch to make the ideas above a reality.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Last time I blogged about how Clean Slate is about re-activating people and how unemployment and the welfare system itself actively switches people off. Since then I met Tom.

Actually, before I met Tom we had an in-house training day. I wanted to double-check everything I have been saying was reflected in all our offices' day to day experience. And I wanted to ensure our committed team - largely made up of former workless people themselves - had the best skills to do the job of re-activating people. So, we ran the day, breaking it down into listening skills, an introduction to our new Job Readiness MOT, and quality standards.

The first workshop was amusing. People paired up to discuss an event one of them held dear. A director, Carole, was describing her daughter's wedding that she'd effectively run. She went into the detail of the challenges, the hiccups, the stress of it all. Obviously slow on the uptake, I was shocked to see her counterpart looking around the room and then start rolling a fag. It didn't occur to me that this was his task in the role play and shame on me for thinking he'd do that. (Carole didn't let on but I swear she'd have been ready to tear him off a strip.)

So when I sat down to meet with Tom it was fresh in my mind that I wasn't there to talk to him but to listen. In particular, we needed to revamp his CV.
Tom speaks five languages fluently and two more passably. He's worked in security, translated for a legal firm, volunteered for Lambeth council, been homeless through relationship breakdown. It's easy to talk about the past. Like talking about the weather. Matter of fact. Can't be changed. But then we got down to reading between the lines.

It turned out the voluntary work was translating for patients and their families in hospitals and the legal work was with people seeking asylum. I imagined how terrifying hospitals must be if you can't speak the language - it's hard enough to know what's going on when we can. We discussed how rewarding Tom found it when families were so grateful to have not only access to information but an advocate. The legal work was with asylum seekers and it turns out Tom was as valuable supporting people who, understandably, feared authority and felt the need to fight for what they need. And we re-built a profile of who Tom is. His CV will be unique to him. He'll come alive in the eyes of employers and he'll be more likely to avoid the reject pile. What's more, Tom began to see himself afresh too.

As we talked and thrashed out how to take his perfectly adequate CV and turn it into a Clean Slate one, it became clearer to me what I wanted. We're called Clean Slate for a reason. It's not much help to job seekers to have them produce a resume; a simple list of where they've been, where they've worked (or not worked), what they've learnt (or not learnt). What they need, and what Clean Slate needs to take to employers and present the latent talent on our books, is a document that shines. It needs to say 'This is who I am', 'This is what I have to offer', and 'This is where I'm going'.

For some, conquering their demons is a positive. I worked with one young woman, Lizzie, who'd spent ten years on drugs since before leaving school. She believed she had nothing to offer employers and less to write up a CV. So we focussed on the future. Again, we're called Clean Slate for a reason. She talked about what gets her going and how hard she worked to turn her life around. She explored the skills she uses to volunteer at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. By the end of session, she's mapped out a CV that left no-one in any doubt what she had to offer. Including Lizzie.

We have a plan for making this the standard delivered in all our offices. More training. More job readiness programmes. More listening. We're ambitious and want to spread around the country so we have to systematise our approach. We're going to have to get good at it: Better than the growing ranks of the competition and good enough to keep re-activating those job seekers.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Torch - part 2 (Generating Energy)

I met Shirley when she came to help me out about a year ago. I was hosting a visit from a homelessness charity from the Midlands. I hadn't had a chance to talk to her beforehand, so I was taking a bit of a gamble but what she said blew me away:

"I turned up at the Clean Slate office after 13 weeks on a job centre programme. I didn't even have a CV. And I had no idea what I wanted to do. I explained to the worker there that I've got no skills and no experience, I've been raising a family for 20 years.

"They said 'Are you kidding? 20 years raising a family? You have loads to offer.' And within two sessions I realised I had so many transferable skills and I set my sights on working in the care sector. Not working with kids, mind," Shirley had a proper Bristolian brogue. "I'm going to work with older people. And my CV proves it."

That's one light re-lit.

Clean Slate's job is to reactivate. To find the 'on' switch for all those systematically de-activated not only by unemployment itself but the systems and mechanisms supposedly designed to support them. We help them find their worth. You don't have to dig very deep. It's not rocket science. It's all there. As readily available as the weather.

So, I'm stood in front of a group of people already excited about Bristol becoming a net exporter of energy by harnessing the elements. I'm stood on the stage brandishing an imaginary torch. And the room is wondering where this is going.

The battery may be flat but it's not dead. Clean Slate helps the light flicker on. Then we need to charge it up.

We do this by providing people with paid work. Just a few hours a week, placed with employers through our temp agency or working directly for us delivering leaflets or packing condoms into sexual health kits, for example. It starts the motors stirring. Even rough sleepers and current drug users come away thinking: 'So I CAN work'. Our temps who we've placed soon want more hours, even if they lose out on their benefits. The guys (gender non-specific) using our walk-in centres get focussed, motivated and active in job search.

Lights go on.

And on.

And stay on.

"Can we directly link how we reactivate and re-energise job seekers to the vision of you environmentalists?" I ask.

What if our temps are delivering easy to read publications to people on low incomes (and everyone else for that matter) on ways to reduce utility bills? What if they spread the word in their own communities? What if we train up 50 job seekers in the skills required to help households install low energy products? What if they're available to do the lugging and hauling to get the solar panels to the rooves? What if some have the technical skills to fit the kit?

Lights go on across Bristol.

In communities. Within families. Within people.

Torch - Part 1 (Wasting Energy)

So I'm stood in front of the audience at the launch of the Bristol Power Coop. "Imagine I have in my hand a whacking great torch. It's a million candles bright. And I'm switching it on.

"And off.

"And on.

"And off."

Now imagine this torch is one unemployed person. All this latent energy. This potential. This untapped opportunity to light up the path ahead and illliminate the world around. Switched off.

Although the bulb's not shining, the longer the light is off the more the battery drains until there's barely the energy to create any light at all. Feeling unwanted. Then unable. Then unmotivated. Unemployment corrodes. It starts with the individual. Then families. Then communities. And that's where Clean Slate comes in.

I've been to a few events involving benefit claimants over the past year. Their stories are basically the same. They ask the same questions: Why is it Job Centres need doorstaff and why do they always ask what you're doing there? Why do I have to repeat the same personal details to a perfect stranger every time I come in, they're not something I'm proud of? Why am I invariably treated with suspicion as if the likelihood is that I'm cheating the system?

At one event in East London, claimants asked why Job Centres don't just strip claimants naked and be done with it.

At most of the events, the civil servants present said they were disappointed that individual had had a bad experience. At the launch of the European Year of Combating Poverty last year, DWP staff and a minister refuted these were universal experiences. Yet attendees were there from Wales, London, Norfolk and the South West with all the same stories. It would be a lie to call it a listening event.

So, the light goes off again.

Whenever I read another headline about benefit cheats and scroungers, I imagine another light going out. (I remember when I was at The Big Issue, one radio presenter described a colleague of mine as 'representative of the feckless and workshy' - showing just how much journalists know.) Then I see politicians doing the same.

Lodge this in your brain: Next time you hear someone berate the unemployed, imagine another light going out.

Don't get me wrong, the unemployed are not a unified group. There's no solidarity. They're no less likely to judge others on benefits than anyone else.They're switching the lights off too.

Nor is it true to say that all jobless people would readily work if they had the chance to. Some don't believe they could. Some can't. Some won't. Some just don't.

And even if they did, many would find themselves so much worse off that they'd be forced to quit. (Bear in mind that, for many, we're talking about £56 on top of the direct cost of rent and council tax each week. The cost to the State may be high but the value to the claimant is low. And the net value of work depends on how high those fixed costs are.) I know. It's tricky to follow. We can't expect journalists to follow that. Or politicians, it seems.

And off.