When I was a keen young drug worker, full of my own self-importance and believing with all the naivety of youth that I actually knew something, I tended to think in terms of outcomes rather than achievements. It was only after lots of hard lessons about real life that I began to fully realise that human beings are far too complicated to be reduced to a set of simplistic targets like ‘employed’ and ‘unemployed’. One specific occasion springs to mind. I had worked for a while without much success with a couple of lads with solvent abuse issues and had made up my mind that what they really needed was proper employment so they could give up their ‘childish ways’. Imagine my delight when I finally got them down to an employment centre and they soon came back having found work and seeming pleased with the idea. Box ticked I thought, job done – until a little while later I found out that the job they were so pleased about getting, involved laying roofing felt with industrial quantities of glue!
Employment is not just about systems which set goals based upon whether a person is receiving some sort of payment regardless of what it is they are doing, because if it is then we are seeing individuals as simple means of production with no investment in their labour and little likelihood that they will stay at it for very long. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that someone who sees no worth in their activity will have little investment in society? If we talk about employment as being a core component of things like reducing offending, improving mental health or creating resilient communities, then surely we must also do everything we can to make sure that, as far as possible, people are empowered to do those things which improve their sense of wellbeing and self-worth?
If this train of thought has any merit, then what is obvious is that models and systems and one-size-fits-all financially or statistically driven programmes are fundamentally flawed from the outset. Unless they can place the individual at the heart of their intent, and positive relationships form the bedrock of each milestone or objective, then they will set some people up to fail again and again. Everything Apex does is based upon strong mentoring relationships and a personalised action plan defined, as far as possible, by the service user rather than a textbook. That is because experience has taught us that this is how you engage with individuals in a way that helps them rethink their beliefs about themselves, the pre-requisite of positive and sustainable change.
People are always looking to work out what box to put us in – employability, justice, education, social support – sometimes we can get fooled into trying to make what we do nice and simple, but we cannot because people are not. If we are serious about helping people to make real life changes then we must start with their uniqueness, not our need for simple processes and flow diagrams. Large scale employability programmes as a rule tend to fail a significant cohort of unemployed because they are based upon the presumption that everyone has the same needs and respond to things in the same way, but they have the merit of drawing in high numbers which make for great statistics.
Those left behind need something different, and I hope that as we see action plans rolled out around employability, we also recognise the need for specialised support for those struggling to keep up.