The Wirral starts its programme for getting the jobless back to work in January. Ngaio Crequer reports
The late shift starts at 10.30pm at Premier Biscuits in the Wirral, and if that's when an employee wants to get on with his or her education, then that is when the local college will provide it.
Premier Biscuits has nine different shift patterns spreading over seven days. Wirral Metropolitan College has designed an on-site series of educational programmes for the 850 employees, using multimedia PCs and an Internet connection to provide an accessible, user-friendly "classroom", including both computer and tutor-marked assessments.
It is a method of delivery that may well be welcomed by employers when the Government's "New Deal" for getting the jobless back to work starts to be implemented. The Wirral is a pathfinder area for the New Deal and starts its programme in January.
Those gearing up to provide the programme stress that it will only work if there is a genuine partnership between those involved: the Employment Service, local education authorities, the careers service, the voluntary sector, colleges and employers.
Jenny Shackleton, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College, said: "If this company decided to participate in the New Deal and take somebody on, they would already have the infrastructure to handle the education and training component.
"Some companies are reluctant to send their managers on courses because they are needed at the plant. With Open Access learning they can go away for ten minutes or an hour, but they are always available for emergencies."
In the Wirral they have been getting down to the nitty gritty. The Employment Service has been finding out more about the people who will form the client group for the New Deal. There are just under 13,000 on the unemployment register and one-quarter of these will be in the 18-24 age group to be helped back to work, education, a job with the voluntary sector or a place on an environmental task force.
"We have been conducting client interviews and looking at people's level of qualifications, their reading and writing skills, and health," said Dave Brooks of the Employment Service. "We have had some surprising findings. Over 60 per cent have qualifications such as GCSEs and 15 per cent have degrees. We hear a lot about the problems of literacy and numeracy, but only about 6 per cent fall in this bracket.
"These clients have genuinely welcomed this initiative as something that will provide real support for them. A great deal of them are actively seeking work."
The programme starts when the client enters the "gateway" and has an in-depth interview with a caseworker, helping him or her to examine aims and aspirations. There will be constant careers guidance and support services if, say, there has been a drug problem, or the person is an ex-offender.
Ms Shackleton, who is on the task force looking at implementation, said there would need to be individual specification, looking at each person's needs.
"What we are talking about here is jobs and employability. In education we are talking about covering the whole gamut. A graduate, for example, may have problems with key skills, such as working with others. Others will need basic skills. We will try to harmonise the skills the person needs with what the market-place desires."
Peter Davis, executive director of Groundwork Wirral, an environmental charity, is a potential deliverer of part of the New Deal. He knows that the environmental option has already been criticised as a "sin bin" for those who cannot or will not pursue one of the other options.
But he is very positive about the role his organisation can play. "We are only at the brainstorming stage at the moment but we are exploring the idea of "green apprenticeships" which can be built on the back of Welfare to Work. We are looking at ways of funding schemes for, say, 12 or 18 months, to provide real opportunities for young people.
"We can attract people who enjoy doing practical things and may, for example, wish to develop their horticultural skills. We have to ensure we provide a really high-quality option. The educational element will be fastened on to all parts of the environmental element.
"We have recently been running a programme called young leaders. When people come in they are very cynical, but we work with them to help them to improve the deprived estates they come from. You quickly see the cynicism go."
The Prince's Trust Volunteers is another organisation which expects to help in the delivery of the New Deal. The volunteers, who can be employed, in education or training or in a paid job, come together in groups of 15 and devise projects which they think will help their local community. In doing so they develop their skills in working and communicating with others, and in problem solving. Programmes last for 12 weeks and are accredited through the City and Guilds Profile of Achievement.
The programmes have been remarkably successful. A MORI poll found that 12 months after leaving the volunteer scheme, 77 per cent of all participants were either working or in education and training.
"The New Deal offers us an opportunity to broaden our impact across the range of young people," said Sue Ringwood, training and development manager with PTV. "It is sometimes difficult in 12 weeks to get someone to turn their life around. With New Deal we could use our programme as a core and then guide young people towards the next step, be it a job, a voluntary placement or a combination of both.
"Some young people need a mix of encouragement and education, and the New Deal offers that opportunity," said Ms Ringwood. "Young people have got the ability - they are amazingly resourceful, they are very enterprising on the street. What they need is confidence, confidence, confidence. That is the only model there is."