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Where the workers are many: tackling youth unemployment

24 August 2018

Russell Hargrave learns about a church-based scheme with a record of getting young people into work


Work under way in a Spear training room

Work under way in a Spear training room

DEANNA KENDRICK is sitting upstairs in St Peter’s, Harrow, and she can’t stop smiling.

She has just completed six weeks of training with the charity Resurgo Spear. The charity’s coaches have been working with her on a plan to learn new skills, build up her confidence, and help her find a job. Deanna had been partying in St Peter’s the night before, at the formal event laid on for everyone completing the first phase of the programme; but this morning she is back in the church’s offices, thinking about the future.

Ms Kendrick is 22 and was referred to Spear by an adviser at the local job centre, who recognised how much she wanted to find work and thought that she might benefit from a different approach. She is effusive about what the charity has offered.

“I’d call it a life-saver,” she says. “It is amazing. I thought I was going to go and learn one little thing, maybe, and it would be somewhere to go to get out the house and chill with some people. And I’ve ended up leaving with a bunch of new friends, a good relationship with the coaches, way more skills than I thought I would ever gain in my life. I am finding out more about myself, my strengths and stuff.”

Some of these skills are practical. She has visited companies to learn what big businesses expect from their staff, and has sat mock interviews to sharpen her performance in front of potential employers. But the course has equipped her with so-called soft skills, too — the sort of resilience and emotional intelligence which she can apply in all areas of her life. She is less nervous, she says, and these days she can cope better if things go wrong.

Harleena Margaroo is also in the upstairs office. She is talking with her coach, Esther, about chasing emails that she has sent to local employers. She is similarly full of praise for the charity, which, she says, has allowed her to come somewhere which feels welcoming, “like working in a cottage or a little house”.

The full Spear programme lasts a year; so what does life look like 12 months from now? To have found “a job that I’m really interested in, found my true calling”, Ms Kendrick answers, after a short pause. “I’ve got the job and I’m succeeding in life.”

RESURGOWork under way in a Spear training room

FOR the past decade, Resurgo Spear has been helping young people to develop skills and move into jobs. A separate arm of the Resurgo Trust, Resurgo Venture, trains new social entrepreneurs.

Spear is now established in eight London churches, from St Paul’s, Hammersmith, in the west of the city, to St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, in the east. And it is expanding: the Trust’s income has doubled in five years, according to figures published by the Charity Commission, and the first Spear programme outside the capital is being planned in Brighton.

In the past ten years, it has helped more than 5000 people aged between 16 and 24, including 400 at St Peter’s. It boasts an impressive range of contacts — the company visits include trips to British Telecom, Visa, and the Royal Courts of Justice — and an even more striking record of success. According to the charity’s own data, three-quarters of the people who complete the programme have found jobs and are still in work a year later.

To achieve this, Spear provides “a coaching programme, which helps unemployed young people to become work-ready and then to enter sustained employment”, Helen Trew, the Centre Manager in Harrow, says.

The process is relatively straight­forward. Young people can contact Spear themselves and ask for support, or they may be referred to the charity by someone else, typically by the council or job centre. Most, Ms Trew explains, are trying to overcome significant social disadvantages, whether school exclusion, a spell in prison, or a tough time with their mental health.

They then work with the charity for a full year, starting with six weeks of intensive coaching. During this phase, they come into St Peter’s for three afternoons every week to have regular one-to-one time with their coaches and the chance to focus on a series of questions: what do they want to achieve? how good is their communication? what does a job interview involve? and what will add a bit of colour and life to a CV?

Spear is about more than finding someone a job, however. The sup­port starts to build up the confidence of people whose lives have, in various ways, been knocked out of shape. “The biggest thing that people say is ‘My confidence has grown and I’ve realised I can do things that I didn’t realise I could do before,’” Ms Trew explains.

RESURGOWork under way in a Spear training room

At the end of the six weeks, everybody comes together for a “celebration” — this is what Ms Kendrick, Ms Margaroo, and their friends had been enjoying the previous evening — when the partici­pants make presentations on stage in front of an audience of more than 100 of their peers. The coaches then stay in touch for the rest of the year, providing continued support as the young people put their new skills and experiences into practice, in a period the charity calls Spear Career.

Crucially, this support is tailored to individuals, and to their hopes and dreams. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping young people figure out what they want to achieve and how to get there.

All of this is underpinned by a philosophy. A year with Spear will challenge young people enough to take them out of their comfort zone, but always in an atmosphere that allows them to learn from the risks that they have taken, Ms Trew explains.

“When you have high challenge and no support, people get crushed,” she says. “When you have no challenge and high support, it’s just flattery, and nothing changes. But when you have high support and high challenge, you feel safe and you do things that scare you. I think that’s a winning combo.”

Chiku Bernardi, the Investment Director at the venture philanthropists Impetus-PEF, has also seen this philosophy in action. Impetus-PEF has backed Resurgo since 2010, providing both advice and substantial long-term funding. Ms Bernardi speaks admiringly of what she calls the charity’s “very tough-love-style approach to young people”.

“They were willing to challenge things head-on,” she says: “issues like having a victim mentality, issues like entitlement, which a lot of people would really struggle to name, let alone work on. I was struck by how, in a very compassionate way, they were able to challenge some of the behaviours they saw in young people.”

Ms Trew speaks warmly about the help that Spear has received from Impetus-PEF. The injection of funding is, no doubt, welcome, but their experts have also helped the charity to understand and refine the work that they do in that crucial first six weeks. The coaches assess progress against five measures — including communication skills, levels of self-awareness, and personal responsibility — to make sure that the programme and its participants are on track.

It can sound like a cold and technocratic approach, but Ms Bernardi is at pains to point out that this is the best way for the charity to create a more effective service for the young people who rely on it.

“We have such low expectations of charities, because they are chronically under-funded,” she says. But if an organisation has the resources to measure and improve its impact, it should. “That process of trial and error, of learning intentionally with a lot of data to support your intuition and your decision-making — we really back that. We believe that young people deserve it.”

RESURGOWork under way in a Spear training room

SPEAR is trying to find a small-scale solution to a longstanding national problem. The question how to solve youth unemployment has plagued policy-makers for years.

An alarming number of young people who should, in theory, be setting out on their careers are, in fact, trapped doing nothing. More than 800,000 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK — roughly one in nine of that age group — are not in full-time education, employment, or training, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics.

These numbers are creeping up. In her book Radical Help, the author and activist Hilary Cottam looks only at 16- to 18-year-olds, and esti­mates that the knock-on costs when these young people are frozen out of the economy reach at least £12 billion per year.

Cottam’s principles for reshaping the welfare state would be instantly recognisable to the coaches and young people at Spear. “We must make a radical shift,” Cottam writes, “that leaves behind the twentieth-century emphasis on managing needs and sticking people back together when things go wrong.”

This is the logic that informs job centres and other services, she argues, and should be replaced with an approach designed for “supporting individuals, families, and communities to grow their own capabil­ities: to learn, to work, to live healthily, and to connect to one another”.

Cottam and Spear both place stronger social connections at the heart of improving life chances; so it is probably no surprise that the charity has found its physical and spiritual home in a community of churches strung across the city.

The Vicar of St Peter’s, Harrow, the Revd Rod Green, is a cerebral figure whose book-lined office is quietly tucked away, slightly removed from the bustle elsewhere in the building.

“We want to be a church that is large enough to change thousands of lives, to change culture, and transform society,” he says, trying to explain how the charity working on the floor above his office fits into the wider life of his church.

He sees a continuity between the support that people will find at St Peter’s though their faith and the practical help that Spear can offer.

“We are not just in the business of saving souls,” he says. “For me, the Christian hope is about the renewal of all things, and God calls us to join in with that. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says: ‘Behold, I am making everything new.’ I think that means the Church needs to be about, yes, the spiritual renewal of the cosmos in that sense, but also social and cultural renewal as well.”

The church remains a place of comfort for some graduates of the Spear programme, he explains, with growing numbers returning each week to meet, eat, and talk together.

(The ready-made networks and infrastructure of the church also provide a business advantage, Ms Bernardi points out: partnering with the church is “a route into market, because you’ve got premises, and you’ve got passionate staff who want to do social-transformation work in their local community. This is something that most charities don’t have.”)

Watching Spear at work has also helped Mr Green question some of his own assumptions about who might benefit from such an effort for renewal. “I rather naïvely thought when I first came across Spear that all these guys were in the situation that they were in because they were ‘too cool for school’, were in gangs, or were over-confident,” he confesses.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. These guys were socially awkward, they were often isolated, they were struggling with mental-health issues. They had no confidence whatsoever.”

RESURGOWork under way in a Spear training room

BACK upstairs in St Peter’s, Ms Kendrick and Ms Margaroo sit with their Spear coaches. The official session is slowly drawing to a close, and serious, patient conversations about body language and confidence have been replaced with gossip about the celebration the previous night.

The topic turns to public speaking, and people relive their nerves about standing on stage and making their presentations. Everyone in the office agrees: it takes confidence to stand up and talk to a room full of people, and it takes skill to do it well.

The past six weeks have focused on exactly this combination, of encouraging self-belief and building talent. The next phase, of turning that into employment and greater happiness, lies ahead.


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