How to re-skill the long-term unemployed

The sight of grown men crying on our television screens as they wait in line to enter job fairs, or opportunity events for employment abroad, is both heart breaking and enraging that we as a society have failed so many in our midst.

Many of the 60 per cent who are now defined as long-term unemployed are experiencing some level of despair, believing they may never work again. Many of them left the education system as teenagers with adequate qualifications to enter the employment market, either with or without a Leaving Certificate. Many more of them had further and higher education qualifications when they secured their first full time employment.

I don’t think that those of us who are working in the education system – mostly with permanent and pensionable jobs – can even come close to grasping what long term unemployment does to one’s self esteem and general sense of self worth. The feeling of hopelessness and inertia that sets in after a protracted period of joblessness often destroys motivation and any hope of ever returning to employment or recovering one’s dignity and self respect.

The education and training system, particularly the courses available through FÁS, have in many cases failed totally to address the needs of the unemployed. I listened recently to a caller to a radio programme describing how she completed six FÁS courses and was no more prepared to return to employment afterwards than she had been before she started the first course.

It seems that we treat the unemployed as fodder to feed through an education and training system which serves the needs of those providing the service, rather than the needs of the client. We design our courses based on the providers’ skills rather than an in-depth analysis of the needs of the person who is looking to acquire skills to secure a job in the current labour market.

Is it that we subconsciously believe these people have lost the entitlement to be treated with dignity because they have gone and lost their job?

Do we, without realising it, believe – from the security of our situations – that those without work or the skills needed at present to secure work should somehow dust themselves down, sort themselves out and go out and find a job?

To paraphrase Norman Tibbett, a Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980’s, do we deep down believe that those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves unemployed have the ultimate responsibility to get on their bike and find a job?

We may in fact feel that, by offering them courses at the tax payer’s expense, we are being more than generous. And we may in fact experience both anger and frustration when, after all we do for them, they remain unemployed at the end of the process. Based on that anger and frustration, we may then move on to believe that if we threaten to remove their benefit, or cut it substantially, they will come to their senses and seriously set about finding themselves work.

It seems that the present Government is considering going down that road. Currently, that Government is rolling out a new structure to replace the old FÁS services. Solas, the new brand name, will operate courses and training from within the Department of Education and Skills. The unemployed will be profiled by the Department of Family and Social Affairs and referred on to suitable training or education where appropriate. Members of the careers advisory staff who will conduct this profiling are totally committed public servants, but in many cases are not trained guidance counsellors and have little or no therapeutic training.

You might ask what that has that got to do with anything – after all, aren’t we supporting the unemployed in getting back to work?

Put yourself in the place of someone who may have left formal education at an early age, may have literacy or numeracy issues, have a less that stable family environment, and are overwhelmed daily with the scale of problems and difficulties facing them. Ask yourself what a fifteen minute profiling exercise, undertaken under the unspoken threat of losing existing benefits, could possibly do to begin to unravel years of low self esteem and a total incapacity to see the possibilities open to them?

People in those circumstances need to be listened to by properly trained guidance counsellors who have the skills to help them discover how they can, with the support of our education and training services, begin to formulate a plan to build, step by step, a stairway from their current situation to a place where they will have acquired the skills, based on their own aptitudes and talents, to become actively involved in today’s labour market.

They may need ongoing support from our employment support services to overcome the obstacles in their lives so as to successfully complete this journey. It may be a long process with many difficult days on the way, but there is no short cut to the restoration of a person’s dignity and self respect, which comes with acquiring the skills to secure viable work.

You might imagine that I am presenting a pipe dream, but I am in fact describing the services currently on offer to those fortunate enough to have access to the Adult Education Guidance Services available through every VEC in the country, coordinated by the National Centre for Guidance in Education.

We need to raise the skills level of the people who deal on a one-to-one basis with the long term unemployed to that required for dealing with the complex process of enabling those unfortunate enough to find themselves jobless to formulate their own plan for returning to work.

The key change we need to make in our approach to date is to respect the individuality and dignity of each person, and build support services – including the education and training offered – that are based on the needs of those seeking work rather than shoehorning them into existing courses and services so as to serve the system’s needs first.

At the end of the day, everyone wants to enjoy the self respect and dignity that comes with being skilled and capable of entering and participating in the modern Labour Market. We spend billions providing services which do not achieve their objective of restoring the unemployed to employment.

Let’s learn the lessons of our current failures and start with the individual as he/she is, and build from there. Unemployment should not rob a person of the right to be treated with dignity.

View all blogs by Brian Mooney 

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