Unemployment can affect people in all sorts of ways. It isn’t just about a loss of income, it goes deeper than that. How we respond to it is crucial in terms of survival at any time, but particularly in times of low economic growth with all the feelings of anxiety that surround it. Unemployment is something that has to be managed like anything else in life. The process of managing it involves effort on the part of the individual and a support system that can respond to their efforts. Managing unemployment means doing things to maintain your health and your self esteem, so exercise and a healthy diet help a lot. But the crucial factor in managing unemployment is to be proactive in terms of getting back into employment. Personal contacts, social networks and recruitment agencies are various ways people can be proactive. Another way for people to do this is through internships.
Kathryn’s life was very different not so long ago. This time last year she was unemployed and experiencing the various symptoms that accompany it – loss of confidence, frustration, disillusion. Kathryn, like a lot of people today, had plenty of experience under her belt, but finding herself jobless in a shrinking job market put her under a lot of stress and a sense of panic set in. Kathryn had 15 years marketing experience working with tech companies in London and Silicon Valley in the US, as well as Baltimore Technologies and O2 here at home. Unemployment was frustrating but Kathryn was proactive in her response, and so began a process of reaching out to find people and companies to which she could add value. Through a friend of hers, Kathryn heard about a 12 week programme called Begin Again. Facilitated by the Irish Centre for Business Excellence (ICBE), a non-profit organisation, the programme’s objectives were two- fold:
- Assist unemployed people with qualifications and skills to re-enter the work force.
- Enable host companies complete a project that adds value to their business.
Kathryn liked the basic objectives of Begin Again and decided to forward her CV. She went to the Begin Again website and completed the application process. The process, as it turns out, was pretty quick and Kathryn was called in the next day to meet up with one of the programme’s facilitators. Begin Again was about trying to find a ‘good fit’ between applicant and host company. To determine this good fit, the applicants were chosen based on CV content and an expression of interest. Positions were assigned and meetings with host companies began. The first two weeks with Begin Again involved basic training in planning and managing, communication and awareness, leadership and resilience. In the third week, the interns began job placements with companies looking for the skills matching those of the applicant. Kathryn’s placement began with Blue Moon Communications, a PR agency specialising in communications skills for individuals and companies seeking brand promotion.
Kathryn’s experience at Blue Moon had its pros and cons. On the one hand she felt like there was little by way of direction on the job, but on the other hand this forced her to use her own initiative. Or as Kathryn puts it, “I focused on achieving results by myself.” Which, in the rough and tumble world of PR, is probably a good thing. Week three also saw the introduction of a Trainer; for Kathryn this meant receiving guidance from Tricia Cunningham, co-founder of LEAP. Having spent time in America as a training professional, Tricia returned to Ireland to join Nortel Networks as a Training & Development Manager. After Nortel she co-founded LEAP as a leadership and management consultancy firm. Much of her time is spent with clients who are entering a new phase in their careers, that of management. A big part of this transition involves clients asking themselves, “What value can I bring to this new role?” There are similarities between her work with new managers and that of her mentoring role with interns on the Begin Again programme. Firstly, there is the issue of transition, something which many people can find daunting. Just as employees are being considered for management roles in their companies and must embrace this change, the unemployed are facing a tough transitional phase of their own. Supporting people through this transitional phase is part of the mentor’s work. Secondly, mentoring both management clients and interns is largely about building up their confidence to a level whereby they recognise their own worth, and start to believe in their own capabilities. Thirdly, Tricia focuses on setting goals and this is an aspect of unemployment that can often suffer due to the stress of being let go from a job. People lose focus and goals are not pursued; in some cases goals are never set in the first place.
For Kathryn, having a trainer who understood where she was coming from made all the difference. “Tricia was brilliant to work with. She focused on practical things and provided great support. She believed in me,” says Kathryn. This was a crucial part of the recovery process for her because, as anyone who has experienced unemployment knows, one of the first things to suffer is your own confidence. You may have the skills and the qualifications, even high levels of experience, but when the number of job opportunities decreases and the competition for jobs increases, even experienced people can start to doubt themselves; its human nature I guess.
FBD and recovery
Kathryn’s journey took her from unemployment to Begin Again to an internship with Blue Moon. However, the struggle for employment didn’t end there. The internship ended in March 2011 and afterwards Kathryn spent another period of time unemployed, but the confidence she had gained from the Begin Again programme helped her through this. Then in September 2011 Kathryn got the break she was looking for. Irish company, FBD Insurance advertised a position for events and marketing. Kathryn applied and got the job and her new role has given her a whole new lease of life. FBD are an insurance firm with over 40 years experience and are one of Ireland’s largest insurers with over 500,000 customers. They have local offices nationwide. So did such a prestigious firm intimidate Kathryn? The short answer is no. Her very first assignment for FBD was the National Ploughing Championships (NPC), an event which drew over 150,000 people to Athy in Kildare. www.npa.ie/. The fact that Kathryn was able to handle an event with such huge scope as the NPC is not just a reflection of her own abilities and experience, but also a reflection of the confidence she gained from Tricia and Begin Again.
I asked Kathryn what advice she would give to others who find themselves unemployed. She had this to say: “I would encourage people to get involved in a programme like Begin Again. I would also recommend that people devise a plan for themselves. Start researching companies that you would like to work for, the more research the better. Try to learn as much as you can about them, do your homework, don’t go in blind into the interview. Be assertive and believe you can add value to the company. Believe that I can do this.” So how is life now compared to this time last year? “Much, much better,” she says. “I’m excited about things now.” This story had a happy ending for Kathryn after a challenging year of unemployment. But this happy ending only came about because of her willingness to engage with an internship programme, something some qualified and experienced people won’t consider. This open minded approach is proof that creativity and tenacity are as much a part of the recovery process as upskilling.
Funding stops – why?
In Kathryn’s case the internship didn’t immediately lead to employment, but her time with Begin Again gave her a renewed sense of focus and confidence and that in itself can make the difference between short and long-term unemployment. No-one is suggesting that internships are a panacea for unemployment or a stagnated economy, but since June 2010 more than 720 people have participated in the Begin Again Programme. More than two thirds of the participants are now re-employed or have started their own businesses with advice and support from their trainers. The programme was funded by the Labour Market Activation Fund set up by the Department of Education and Skills. When you consider the results the Begin Again internship programme produced, it makes the decision to cease funding of it all the more bewildering. In June 2011 funding for the programme ceased, presumably due to the pressure of the current fiscal crisis our government faces. However, according to the Begin Again website they are continuing to seek funding and will re-launch if successful. The site also states that ‘unemployed people with transferable skills – and businesses interested in providing work placements – may continue to apply online.’
One would assume that the more interest expressed from both the unemployed and host companies, the more likely the Department of Education and Skills would be to re-launch the programme. It is in everyone’s interest to do so because the more people Begin Again can place back into the workforce on internships, the more people are likely to be hired on a full or part time basis as the previous round of funding already proved. This in turn will lead to people earning a wage and paying tax which is what the government needs to ease their fiscal problems. It also takes pressure of the social welfare system. So the intern wins by getting back their confidence and hopefully getting a job. The employers win because they get the ‘good fit’ they need to fill the role on a specific project their company is working on. The government wins by receiving more tax and paying out fewer benefits. It’s a win-win-win situation for all considered so the decision to cease funding this initiative couldn’t have been made at a worse time. Now more than ever this country needs precisely these types of initiatives to help both the unemployed with skills and qualifications, and employers with project staff requirements, to connect with each other in a much more efficient and effective way. The cost of operating such a programme must surely outweigh the benefits for the Irish economy as a whole. And it can certainly help individuals like Kathryn to find a new direction.