Now more than ever housing is an employment issue

Now more than ever housing is an employment issue

Why should we think about housing as an employment issue?

It is generally accepted that a stable home is a central plank in anyone’s life. So, it stands to reason that housing is also fundamental to employment and employability. But what housing issues should we be thinking about as employers, aiming to support employee wellbeing, and as employability professionals supporting unemployed people to get back into work?

Location, Location, Location

Before looking at the housing challenges being faced by people on a detail level, I thought it would be useful to take a bird’s eye view first.

The connection between housing with employment actually spans quite a broad spectrum of socio-economic issues, but location stands out as a main concern for a couple of reasons.

  • Affordability of housing within a reasonable proximity to a workplace will determine how inclusive recruitment can really be, particularly for part-time and low paid jobs (low paid is classed as those paid less than two thirds of median hourly pay). So where someone lives can be a key determining factor in whether they can work, what work is available to them, and how much they are realistically able to earn, as well as determining their overall cost of living.
  • Productivity, with a clear link between housing location and productivity this is a key factor for employers to consider. Interestingly this report from Mercers actually finds that productivity reduces in line with the length of the commute (employees commuting less than half an hour to get to work gain an additional seven days’ worth of productive time each year compared to those with commutes of 60 minutes or more), and that longer commutes appear to have a significant impact on mental wellbeing, “with longer-commuting workers 33% more likely to suffer from depression, 37% more likely to have financial concerns and 12% more likely to report multiple dimensions of work-related stress.” It also stands to reason that employee retention suffers from long distances.

 Getting a job and keeping a job

In light of the importance of proximity, maximum 30 minutes journey time being considered to be the optimum for productivity and personal wellbeing, it’s really interesting to note the following:

Claimants for Universal Credit are expected to search for a job located up to 90 minutes travel from their home, a key feature of the DWP’s ‘Claimant Commitment’, the work search contract with DWP which has to be fulfilled for a claimant to successfully receive their benefit.

We need to be thinking carefully about this when supporting people in job search activities. When they get a job will they stay in it if they live too far away, while they’re working will their productivity be impacted by the distance they’re travelling, potentially impacting on how well they are regarded by their new employer, so also affecting future job search prospects if things don’t work out?

For current employees making sure that we really do focus some attention on supporting the welfare of staff who are commuting for over half an hour needs to be a priority for employers. Obviously the increased prevalence of homeworking has started to address this issue for some, but as we know many jobs practically can’t be done from home.

The impact of eviction and homelessness

Now moving on to thinking more about some of the real-life housing challenges people are facing, the worst case scenario has to be the threat of eviction and homelessness and the huge impact that this obviously has on families and employability.

An employee asking for time off work to ‘present as homeless’ to the local authority is unlikely to be something that HR teams have been faced with too regularly, but it really is an increasing problem that has grown even before the financial challenges presented by the pandemic. Alongside the need to take time off work, just facing the prospect of viewing emergency accommodation and the anxiety of being able to find a safe and affordable home as soon as possible can have a devastating effect on mental health and wellbeing. This often results in people being unable to work or, again, can lead to performance issues in the workplace.

If we take it back to basics, the basic physiological need for shelter as explicit in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the very foundation of a life well lived. Right now, it’s reported that 17.5 million people in Britain are facing a housing emergency.

That’s one in three adults, and what if you have children to think about too? With children included this number rises to a staggering 22 million people.

A recent report ‘Heads above Water’ by the National Federation of ALMOs analysing how council tenants and landlords have fared through the pandemic, demonstrated that 80% of income officers had reported higher rent arrears, 77% had seen increased demand for support services and the same number reported increased use of food banks and increased fuel poverty. Three quarters of income officers had also seen increased demand for hardship funds across the UK in the last year. A tidal wave is upon us.

Debt charity StepChange also reports a similar number of struggling tenants, and estimates that 150,000 are at risk of eviction. It says £370m of arrears has been built up as a result of Covid and that more than 850,000 households renting a home are worried about being evicted in the next few months, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Of these, 400,000 have already been served with an eviction notice or told they may be evicted and almost half a million other households are in arrears.

To make the situation worse, many local authorities are stating they will not consider people presenting as homeless with rent arrears for social housing, forcing people into the private rented sector with less security from eviction and poor living conditions, in part because private renters don’t feel able to complain to their landlord for fear of a retaliatory eviction. A number of local authorities have also stated that, unless they receive further funding, they will not be able to keep giving vital discretionary housing payments to tenants in critical need of them to keep them in their homes.

The rise in eviction and possible homelessness is an issue we cannot afford to ignore if we care about improving prospects of employment and employability. Support mechanisms need to be in place for people facing housing struggles, and whether they are employed or unemployed will bring its own challenges, but irrespective of employment status the challenges are significant when it comes to being ready and able to work.

What can we do to help?

The three most common triggers of homelessness in the last year were reported to be households no longer being able to stay with families and friends (32%), the loss of a private tenancy (13%) and domestic abuse (12%).

Even with increased government intervention through the pandemic the threat of homelessness has spiralled, and now the lifting of the eviction ban combined with the end of other government support – such as the job retention scheme, £20 uplift to Universal Credit and discretionary housing payments – which has kept millions of people above the poverty line and safe in their homes, over the next few months there are a lot more problems still to come.

There’s no question that housing is now in crisis as a result of the pandemic, for all of the wrong reasons, and people are significantly more likely to be facing housing-related issues than ever before, whether they are employed or not.

And because the landscape is ever-changing it’s hard to keep up. That was the driver for Society Matters’ launch of a new Housing Matters workshop, to ensure professionals supporting people to retain and gain employment are clear about the challenges being faced by the people they’re aiming to support, and to ensure they are aware of the practical help that’s available to families who are struggling with tenancies in both social housing and private rented accommodation.

Together, our priority needs to be to encourage people to be open about housing issues they’re facing, so they can be helped as early as possible.

People need to be helped to preserve the security of a safe home as a keystone. Only with this in place can they be expected to make positive progress towards, or hold down, a decent job.

By facing up to the complexities and challenges of the housing struggles that are being faced by so many people, there’s a greater chance for us to pass on the practical steps that can be taken to ensure that the priority of employment does not get left behind through a need to focus on basic survival.

Jayne Graham MBE and Adam Matthews, Society Matters cic

Society Matters cic’s mission is to mobilise knowledge so the system works, it works for everyone, and it powers the changes we need to be an equal and inclusive society.

We achieve this through a programme of unique and affordable social welfare and welfare benefits training and support services, designed and delivered by experts who have acute, front-end knowledge, and with social value embedded at their very core, so you can be sure we can help you to make your mark. 

Lunchtime Listen: Jayne Graham talks about careers in the community & voluntary sector

Lunchtime Listen: Jayne Graham talks about careers in the community & voluntary sector

Tackling unemployment: careers in the Community and Voluntary sector

 

Michael Lemin (ncfe Head of Policy) is joined by Jayne Graham MBE (Executive Director at Society Matters cic), Rebecca Cooney (Senior Analysis and Features Writer at Third Sector), Glen Manners (Associate Director – Membership and Education at Charity People) and Stuart Campbell (Employability Manager at Home Group) to discuss the misconceptions about the sector, and the range of opportunities, including voluntary roles, and identifying and developing transferable skills to help jobseekers thrive.

This is the latest podcast from ncfe’s Go the Distance series – tackling the big issues when it comes to taking action on unemployment in the current economic climate.

Listen to the podcast here

 

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

We’re so happy with our very first webinar, kindly hosted as a ‘Live Learn Lunch’ by the Institute of Employability Professionals mid December. We chose to talk about the 6 elements of Universal Credit, with an explanation of each element, and then a focus on how changes in circumstances can impact on people’s claims, as well as some obvious references to adjustments associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The webinar was formatted as a presentation from myself and Adam, followed by questions and answers. We think it’s so important for the support system to understand this dimension of the benefit, because then they can spot opportunities to help early on, before a problem brews and a claim is affected, so we were really pleased to have a good turn-out but also to have the opportunity for a recording to be viewed by those who weren’t able to attend.

You can see the full webinar here.

Of course there’s a lot of detail we weren’t able to explore during the session, that we cover in a lot more detail in our Get to Grips with Universal Credit online training course, but the webinar did provide participants with some red flags they should look out for so that’s definitely a good start.

Lee Booth, 18th December 2020

A career in the Community and Voluntary Sector, really?

A career in the Community and Voluntary Sector, really?

The Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) is probably better known as a route for people to volunteer, perhaps as a way to ‘give back’ at the end of a career, than as a provider of formative or developmental career opportunities. That’s understandable. To the unaccustomed the ‘third sector’ or ‘not-for-profit sector’ can appear to be a bit detached from ‘real life’ compared to the cut and thrust of the private sector, and the gargantuan establishment that is the public sector. But if you think about it, selecting the CVS as your career choice has the potential to transport you to as close to ‘real life’ as you can get.

So can you have a ‘career’ in the sector, really?

What’s the shape and size of the sector?

If we stand back and look at the sector in all of its different guises, there’s no wonder really there’s uncertainty about its potential. At one end of the spectrum we have un-constituted community groups run entirely by volunteers that deliver localised support, and at the other we have social enterprises that operate, from the outside, as a commercial private business, but with the unique characteristic of creating social rather than material wealth; and this comes with varying levels of obligation – some, like Society Matters cic for example, are asset locked, meaning that all profits/assets must go to the community they serve. Then firmly in the centre we have the charity sector, governed by the Charities Commission.

As a result of this diversity and varying levels of formality it’s really difficult to get absolute clarity on the numbers of people actually employed overall, however according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020 the voluntary sector has a paid workforce approaching one million, almost 3% of the total paid workforce, and representing a 17% growth rate in jobs since 2010. Most of these jobs are in voluntary organisations with less than 50 paid staff (which is a similar proportion to the private sector). Over a third of employees are engaged in social work activities, followed by education and residential care which each represent around 12%. It should also be said that although the sector’s primary focus is social wealth, a significant economic contribution is also made, estimated by NCVO and ONS to be valued at £18.2bn 2017/18, or 0.9% of total GDP.

Obviously when reviewing the shape and size of the sector, we can’t get away without making reference to Covid19 which has had an inordinate impact on the CVS. For some organisations income has been lost, with a fifth of small UK charities reported to be expecting an income reduction of more than 50% as a direct result of the pandemic, and as many as 1 in 10 charities are said to be facing imminent bankruptcy. Income through trading has been slashed due to lockdown restrictions, particularly in the case of charity shops, but for others their capacity has grown exponentially as a result of the availability of volunteers, which will improve their impact statistics which has the potential of helping them raise funds for next year.

However in my view the most fundamental shift is the heightened recognition of the part that not only the CVS, but citizens individually and collectively, can (should) play in supporting society and societal change. At every level the concept of community has entered spheres of influence that hitherto had been severely lacking. Beyond Covid19 this presents a tangible opportunity for growth for a sector that stands out for its essential contribution to all our lives.

Skills gaps

So onto career prospects and the need for new skills. Interestingly, according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, employees in the sector are highly educated, with over half of the workforce being educated to degree level of higher, similar to the public sector and much higher than in the private sector. What also stands out is that reported skills gaps are lower than the other sectors, however the skills gaps that do exist contrast with other sectors, mainly focusing on hard skills such as complex analytical, operational and digital skills, and on soft skills most particularly self-management and management and leadership. This mirrors my own experience which can be explained in part by the starting point generally being that the charity and its people tend to be for society first, and a business second.

But of course, despite the social drivers, CVS organisations are economic structures – they are businesses: they employ people, they manage finance, they market, they manage facilities and IT, they develop operating models that enable services to be delivered. Although this is evolving, the culture of resisting ‘behaving’ like a business, combined with skills gaps that potentially get in the way of innovation, marketing and strategic change, present a significant barrier to survival and growth for many. However it must also be said, as someone who has worked in both the private and the community and voluntary sector, running a social business is far more complex than its private counterparts – at the very least because your main customer is highly unlikely to be able to pay for what you have to offer.

If we can get over this stand-off, a significant opportunity does exist for a heightened focus on leadership and management development across the sector (not necessarily delivered by those already in the sector), and a call for collaboration with the buoyant and growing digital sector, to uplift the capability of the CVS to build its efficiency and its ability to compete.

A word about volunteering

Volunteering and employability do go hand in hand, both with respect to presenting opportunities for acquiring work experience and employment-related skills and assets, and as a direct route into employment. As an example, over 20% of paid employees at Citizens Advice Gateshead, the parent charity of Society Matters cic, started with the charity as a volunteer.

As the employment landscape continues to change as a result of the pandemic, the need for reframing and retraining to enable people in the sectors worst hit to move forward, volunteering in the CVS has the potential to provide the answer. An investment in making this work for the sector, however, is critical; the misnomer that volunteers provide ‘free’ resource needs to be eradicated, as under-investment will have a catastrophic effect on the sector, and will prevent this workforce development opportunity to be realised alongside draining the already limited resources needed to deliver social value.

Jayne Graham MBE
Executive Director, Society Matters cic

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Millions more people are now claiming welfare benefits, and it’s probably fair to say that many believed it would never happen to them. So this is probably a good time to start a narrative around whether welfare benefits help or hinder employability.

Like me you’ve probably found it’s not unusual for the two issues of welfare benefits and unemployment to be couched as cause and effect; the implication that benefits ‘prop up’ people’s lives and diminish their motivation to find work. I honestly think this association has now become a lazy stereotype and we need to work together to dispel the myth. Why? Because while it’s out there, perception or otherwise, it carries a lot of weight, and that impacts heavily, not only on the by-standers who have a third party perspective, but also on those who are the main actors of the myth – the people who have been impacted through their self-esteem, and with a belief, perhaps, that they’ll never be taken seriously enough to get a job, because they’re on benefits.

It would be naïve to evade the reality that some people who are capable of working are satisfied not to, and that surviving on welfare benefits might be an option they have chosen (or that has chosen them). It’s also a truth that even in those minority of cases if we dig beyond the surface we can probably also find multiple reasons not to cast blame. But regardless, there’s no doubt we can do a lot better, recognising this connection between welfare benefits and employability as an over-simplification of what is surely one of the most complex and serious challenges for society, and one that’s been getting in the way of social justice for decades.

Unemployment of course is a complicated and multi-dimensional subject – for the unemployed themselves and for the support system at both a micro and a macro level. An important element of this support system is geared to managing welfare benefits claims but this has proven not always to be effective. Despite assumptions to the contrary, benefits are frequently under-claimed (in the millions) because the system is dogged with misinterpretation and/or misunderstanding.

For some people, benefits can hinder the prospect of employability (we explore this below, and the lazy stereotype doesn’t feature …) but more often than not this is a symptom of circumstance rather than an actual desire to be on benefits instead of earning a living. In fact there are many examples of welfare benefits making a positive contribution towards employability.

Welfare benefits actually help people to be employed

 To properly consider how benefits enable people to progress from unemployment to employment we need to evaluate how the welfare state enables millions people to actually be in work already. According to DWP data from July 2020 over 5.5m people were claiming Universal Credit, and about a third of those were reported to already have a job.

 Source: DWP

 The welfare benefits that are enabling employment for millions of people are as diverse as people’s life situations.

The system is designed – in principle – to be accessible for all, geared to fulfilling people’s potential employability on an individual level, rather than stifling it.

Universal Credit, for example, is a means-tested benefit which is geared to supporting low income families, whether they are in work or not. The childcare element of Universal Credit can pay up to 85% of childcare costs if household income is below a minimum threshold, making a huge difference to working families, and ensuring that they are not disincentivised to work through the cost of childcare provision. It would be helpful if families that are concerned about losing childcare benefits by progressing into employment were aware that this help is available, because it’s highly likely that their starting assumption is that it isn’t. The Carers element  of Universal Credit makes work accessible for those who are undertaking caring responsibilities for 35 or more hours a week; this can support someone to continue to work at least part-time, supplementing their wage to make room to look after a disabled family member, for example, and can remove barriers for many working and single parent families.  Helping families to recognise that moving into a caring role does not preclude them from working, and that working part-time can make them better off than leaving employment altogether, is key to avoiding working adults leaving their job altogether when they’re facing these challenges. There’s no doubt that welfare benefits can enable employment for people in this position.

Benefits for working adults also include non means-tested benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and government schemes that include Access to Work, both geared to removing personal barriers which can affect employability. At a practical level, this can include anything from access to aids such as a disabled person’s railcard, bus pass, the Motability car scheme, or a blue badge – all significant in improving people’s ability to travel to work. Access to Work enables employers to access special equipment, adaptations or support worker services to help them in the workplace as well as with getting to and from work.

Like Universal Credit and PIP, key to the success of these welfare benefits in enabling employability is the knowledge and support of the wider system – including employers and health professionals. If people become aware that these benefits are available to them as early as possible, and they can be supported to access them, as easily as possible, jobs can be saved through benefits. With the right benefits in place unemployed people will more readily access and retain jobs, avoiding them being unfairly disadvantaged by their need to tackle life challenges while they are working.

The benefits system and the push for employment

It is difficult to imagine how anyone living in crisis, not even sure whether they will soon have a roof over their head, unable to feed their family and coping with domestic chaos, could possibly be motivated and sufficiently confident to look for employment. Yes, a job would lead to a better income that in turn can help to turn around a challenging family situation, but that journey can be long and complex. Welfare benefits, if accessed effectively, can provide for basic needs during these times of crisis, and keep families together and safe.

Our primary challenge, then, is to ensure that once a foundation of security is established, this is quickly converted into a platform for progression, avoiding it transforming into a barrier to employment or a crutch.

Like it or loath it in practice, but the principles of Universal Credit when it was announced by the Conservative party 10 years ago were hard to argue with, cast as fairer for claimants and taxpayers, and designed to avoid the ‘cliff edge’ that was said to ‘trap’ people in unemployment when benefits ended as work started. Although the UC system has been criticised in practice (much of this criticism, in my view, being fair), many have gained employment as a result of the ‘extra push’ it has given. For people who have been assessed as needing to search for employment, Universal Credit payments are made in return for evidence of active job search activities. This can be anything from training, volunteering, or submitting job applications. Evidence of this activity being absent results in sanctions – reduced benefits payments – which have been proven, for some, to focus the mind on looking for work.

The welfare benefits system – including the broader employability support system – has the capability of giving people the ‘third party’ push they need to spur their confidence and help them to actively seek employment. This can be in the form of people pressure, or through the nature of the systems and processes in place, but to be effective it also needs to be person-centred. The support system surrounding welfare benefits that has been set up by DWP included the introduction of Job Centre work coaches. These coaches are intended to build relationships with benefits claimants, and to provide them tangible support to become more active in the job market.

On the ground, the level of service offered is inconsistent, and not everyone is able to recognise the benefit of this support or understand how take best advantage of it. It is therefore important that other players in the support system take an active role in brokering these relationships, ensuring that the claimant recognises the purpose of the work coach’s role in helping them to move forward but also, pragmatically, ensuring that the benefit claimant is clear about what they should expect, so they get all of the support that’s available to them; people need to be educated to expect regular access to relevant training and development, support with CVs and applications, and also to receive practical help with access to grants for travel to interviews and clothing to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome on the day (this can relate to increased confidence as much as making a good first impression to a prospective employer). This is a two-way street.

This role is being played by employability professionals and independent agencies such as Citizens Advice, however this interaction often comes at the point of crisis. More can be done at the outset to avert crisis, and perhaps in some cases it’s not ideal for the paymaster to own this responsibility.

So can welfare benefits actually hinder employability?

We can’t pretend that welfare benefits is the silver bullet that will fix unemployment, but there’s no question that attitudes to benefits need to change. The lazy stereotype image isn’t owned exclusively by the media. People who are claiming benefits feel the stigma. Some worry about whether they should make a claim and decide not to although they will suffer a detriment as a result, ‘just in case’. When applying for jobs, concerns about recruiters discriminating against them because they claim benefits is a real barrier to making the effort to apply in the first place.

People who have been in the position of claiming welfare benefits for long periods can be prone to believing they have become unemployable.

The bias of employers – unconscious or otherwise – can serve to further entrench these barriers – employing someone who is already in employment feels a lot easier and lower risk than employing someone who is long-term unemployed, does it not.

Helping employers to engage unemployed applicants in volunteer programmes to provide work experience, or work trials before a full commitment to a job is made, would make a huge difference, supporting people who feel ‘trapped’ in the benefits system to break down these barriers, and better equipping the employer and the prospective employee to remove prejudices associated with welfare benefits as a hinderance to employability.

If you would like to talk about how you could start breaking down these barriers in your organisation please get in touch; if we can’t help ourselves we’re pretty sure we’ll know someone who can.

A call to action – let’s change attitudes

So, do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment? I usually resist the temptation to talk about culture as it’s a pretty intangible concept in real terms and we can almost exonerate ourselves of responsibility for pretty much anything by blaming culture. But in real terms our attitudes shape the culture that exists around welfare benefits and unemployment, so our call to action today is for us to work together to help those who have found themselves claiming benefits for whatever reason to know that this offers a safe platform for progression back into employment, that the stigma that may have been attached to welfare benefits in the past no longer exists, and that benefits actually enable millions of people to work.

 

Jayne Graham MBE (Director) and Adam Matthews (Social Welfare Instructor) 

We’re now Corporate Affiliate Partners of the Institute of Employability Professionals

We’re now Corporate Affiliate Partners of the Institute of Employability Professionals

Our aim is to make our mark on society by improving the social welfare support system – so the people who need help – and have been brave enough to reach out for it – get the right support first time round.

It’s hard to ask for help

It’s hard to ask for help at the best of times isn’t it – without feeling like a failure – and it can also be hard to know who to ask, so kudos to those who are brave enough to do it, but when they have made that first brave step, imagine if the target of their solace doesn’t have the answer, or suggests they talk to someone else instead (it was hard enough the first time) or, worse still, that they unwittingly give the wrong answer (although from our experience people are more likely to know when they don’t know, so they pass them on – the cycle continues).

The thing is, most social welfare problems can be solved more easily, and with a better, longer term resolution, if they’re resolved early. When the problem has festered it more often that not deepens in its complexity, broadens in its reach, and very quickly transforms into a vicious circle that manifests itself in crisis. Reaching out for help and not getting the right answer first time leads to personal challenges spiralling out of control, at some considerable speed.

Building the virtuous circle through employability support

Reaching out to offer the right support at the right time can serve to avert the risk of a vicious circle, and that can sometimes even start to build into a virtuous circle, enabling people to quickly resolve issues and start to build their lives. But as we stand today the social welfare support system has a long way to go before we can be confident that this will happen consistently – and even in any minor proportion. We can, however, change this. By recognising that we are part of the system – all of us, in one way or another, we can do our bit to make it work better. To encourage people to come forward sooner, and to make sure that their chosen source of help can deliver.

So what has this got to do with employability support?

A lot.

When people are out of work they are vulnerable in innumerable ways. If we can bolster the significant specialist knowledge that already exists in the employability sector with knowledge of social welfare support we can only serve to improve outcomes for the individual, for employability professionals and for the system. In practice this means bringing old knowledge up to date and, in some cases, reversing misinterpretation of the ‘facts’. By doing so we can build the confidence and the capability of the system so people get the right help, sooner, so they can move on to more positive times.

Welfare benefits is both an enabler and a barrier to employment. Many people claim benefits while they are working, and without them they wouldn’t be able to work. Benefits can also cause people to be further away from employment, most markedly because of fear that they will be worse off in work than while they are being supported by the state. By helping employability professionals to really understand welfare benefits – Universal Credit, PIP and legacy benefits – we can ensure that barriers to employment associated with welfare benefits are broken down at an earlier stage; with more welfare benefits knowledge existing ‘in the system’, we can more effectively collectively support vulnerable people to respond to, and avert crisis, and build the life stability they need for themselves and their families through access to employment.

That’s why we’re excited about our new-found affilation with the Institute of Employability Professionals. It just makes sense for us to work arm in arm, to make the system work, to work for everyone, to power the changes we need to be an inclusive and equal society.

Jayne Graham, Executive Director