Long-term unemployment is a growing problem, but is Emma Harrison the woman to solve it? As she tells Sarah Freeman, she’ll give it her best shot.
Emma Harrison is a millionaire businesswoman, the brains behind a global Yorkshire-based training company and, as it turns out, a woman blessed with unwavering optimism.
The latter will come in useful for her latest challenge. Harrison was appointed Employment Tsar (she prefers the title Family Champion) by David Cameron and if she is to succeed in her first task – getting the long-term unemployed back to work – she’ll need all the positive thinking she can muster.
According to figures released this week from the Office of National Statistics, Britain is now home to 269,000 households where no-one has ever worked, many of them families into their third and sometimes fourth generation of unemployment.
They are what many refer to as the growing underclass, who barely attended school, who left without even brushing close to qualifications and who went straight from pocket money to benefits. Breaking that cycle is not going to be easy, but Harrison, who began the training company A4e in Sheffield 20 years ago, reckons she has as good a chance as any.
“Ask these families why they are unemployed and they’ll tell you it’s because there are no jobs, but the fact is they haven’t even looked for work for years,” she says. “They are utterly terrified, they barely leave the house. Day-time television is what they do.”
Harrison doesn’t mince her words, but for all the tough talking, her approach to what she calls Britain’s “troubled families” has the air of the touchy-feely about it. It’s about engaging with them, she says, it’s about making them feel wanted. It’s the kind of talk unlikely to go down well in some quarters which prefer the stick to the carrot and who have already applauded talk of benefit cuts. However, Harrison, who has just begun working with a pilot group of families, insists hers is a tried and tested method.
“The reason the long-term unemployed don’t apply for jobs is because they don’t think they are worth employing,” she says. “They are crippled by low self-esteem. I saw one family recently who have been trapped in the benefit system for the last 30 years. In three decades nothing has changed. Not only have they never had paid work, but they have hardly lifted a finger.
“It’s a pretty miserable existence, but all I did was ask them to help me the next day in the local charity shop. To most people it sounds like nothing, to them it meant everything. No-one had asked them to do anything for years. Suddenly they had a reason to get out of bed. Once you show people a glimpse of another life, the rest falls into place.”
Harrison makes it sound so easy, but she knows from personal experience how deep rooted the psyche of unemployment can be. Her father ran a company helping redundant steel workers return to work and A4e was born out of a stint working for the family firm.
“I’m convinced the seeds of the current problem can be traced back to the big lay-offs which happened during the 1980s,” she says. “It wasn’t unique to Sheffield. Up and down the country, major firms shut down and dole queues were suddenly filled with people who had been made redundant, often from the only job they had ever had. Certainly in Sheffield, there were a lot of people who spent years desperately looking for their old jobs to come back. When they didn’t they gave up hope. Add to that those who found they were entitled to disability benefit, but could only claim if they didn’t look for work, and it made for a pretty devastating cocktail.
“Fear set in and for the children of these newly-unemployed a life without work became the normality. They saw they could get by on benefits and aspirations were lost in the mix.”
The half a dozen or so families Harrison is personally working with at the moment are just the tip of the iceberg. The Families Everywhere scheme, which she is spearheading, will be rolled out to 100,000 families over the next five years and for those who doubt the tea and sympathy approach will work, Harrison is armed with some cold hard facts.
“Keeping families on benefits is not a cheap solution,” she says. “It’s not just the money they get each month to live, but the money spent on social workers, health visitors and the cost of handing out Asbos. Often these families are involved with a dozen or more different agencies and while that means there are a lot of people trying to do good work, often there is no single purpose.
“It’s the same approach we’ve had for years and it’s not working. The financial cost is huge, but so is the human cost. We invest millions of pounds each year on the long-term unemployed, yet it doesn’t result in jobs and they are still left leading a rubbish life.
“It seems to make perfect sense to me to start pooling some of this money into a scheme which might just have a better chance of success.”
If Harrison has her way, and it looks like she will, local authorities will soon start appointing Family Champions who will work with 10 or so families on a one-to-one basis.
“Punitive measures don’t work and not just when it comes to unemployment,” she says.
“I was talking to someone from Windsor Council the other day which had a real problem increasing recycling rates. Like most authorities they were spending millions on landfill tax, but instead of going down the route of fining people for not recycling they invested money in a rewards scheme for those that did.
“Guess what? It worked and with the vouchers people get being spent in local shops, it’s a win, win situation. It’s the same with benefits, we need to be asking people what they can do rather than what they can’t.”
Harrison is clearly on a mission and as well as helping to solve the problem of generational unemployment she is also trying to prevent more disaffected teens joining the benefits queue. Yesterday she launched one of A4e’s new Vox Centres in Sheffield, which hopes to catch youngsters before they slip through the net.
“Telling a child who hates school and who has zero attendance, that they have to go or else doesn’t work. They may turn up for a couple of hours every now and then, but it ends up being a waste of time for everyone.
“These centres are about giving them a reason to learn and are designed to replicate a real working environment. We have hairdressing salons, retail outlets and building workshops and it’s amazing what a difference that makes. Suddenly they see that if they pay attention and learn a new skill they can make something of themselves.”
Places at the Vox Centres are funded by local authorities on a pay-as-you-go basis until the teenagers are ready to return to education or, in some cases, secure an apprenticeship. It is, she says, much needed recognition that traditional academia can’t be and shouldn’t be for everyone.
“My 16-year-old son has just started doing an apprenticeship in music production,” she says. “He has dyslexia and to have forced him to stay on at school would have just been wrong. I think we all became hung up on the idea of going to university, but it isn’t the only option. The fact is employers are now faced with lots of people who have the same top grades, and a fantastic gap year isn’t enough to mark you out as somehow interesting. Experience is beginning to count and working your way from the bottom up should no longer be seen as the second-class option.”
All she has to do now is convince Britain’s unemployed.
FIGURES released earlier this month showed unemployment in the three months to November last year rose to 2.5 million.
The number of vacancies in the same period rose by 18,000 to 480,000.
One-in-five graduates who entered the labour market last year failed to find a job, as graduate unemployment reached its highest level since 1995.
For school leavers, the situation looked even bleaker, with 44 per cent of economically active 16 to 17-year-olds unable to find a job.
The number of young people under 25 now looking for work has almost reached the one million mark, the highest figure since records began in 1992.