Retail therapy boosts inner city

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Tesco has teamed up with local communities to create jobs in some of the most socially deprived areas. Sue Jones reports

Collaboration between business, public services and the local community is creating 3,000 retail jobs in 10 schemes across the country. And more jobs are likely to be created with the launch of a further 10 schemes next year.

The initial Leeds-based project has changed a leading supermarket's recruitment policy and spurred on a major regeneration programme.

Leeds City Council wanted to ensure that local unemployed people were not left out of the area's current boom. And with a Government ban on further development of supermarkets on green field sites, Tesco was looking to older urban areas to expand its operations.

The result was an inner-city regeneration partnership between Tesco, the local authority, the shop workers' union USDAW and other businesses. The local authority undertook the recruitment and training of local unemployed people and Tesco promised them jobs in the new Continental-style hypermarket it has built in one of the most deprived wards in the country.

Seacroft estate on the outskirts of Leeds, with its boarded-up houses and burnt-out cars, held few attractions to pull in customers to a Tesco Extra hypermarket. And despite pockets of high unemployment, staff of the training and experience Tesco wanted weren't available either. How could people with few skills or the wrong skills get the jobs on offer?

The partners had to bring their specialist skills together, with Tesco's job guarantee as the keystone holding the structure in place. The well-established East Leeds family learning centre displayed the new supermarket plans for discussion in a disused shop.

Open days were held to explain what was on offer while the employment service's database ensured that the news reached the right people. And Tesco guaranteed that anyone who was accepted on the training scheme and completed it would have a job.

But though Tesco believes it can train anyone with the right "people skills" to the necessary retail competences, being customer-orientated needs a positive self-confidence that has often been driven out of those who have been made redundant or are long-term unemployed.

The East Leeds family learning centre had the job of getting these people through their "first impressions" interview with Tesco and into the job with training guarantee. They worked on individual assessments leading to a programme of confidence-building, interviewing, CVs, basic skills and ICT. There were 147 applicants in groups of 12 to 15, all at different stages of progress and aged from 20 to 64.

Funding was painstakingly pulled together from a multitude of sources, including the New Deal, the TEC, the European Social Fund and the Single Regeneration Budget.

Unlike in many training schemes, hardly anyone dropped out. As well as individual weekly reviews supported by Tesco, the family learning centre helped with personal problems such as childcare, benefits and transport. And those who didn't get through their first impressions interview the first time could have another go. Motivation comes from knowing that once you are accepted, you are guaranteed a job.

Roger, Ray and Sarah have all been through the recruitment scheme and now work at Tesco. Getting into work after up to two years of unemployment has boosted their confidence and optimism. "I'm Tesco's through and through now," says Roger. "It's in my veins."

Martin Venning, Tesco's UK Regeneration project manager, started the partnership scheme as a commercial venture to expand Tesco's operations, but soon realised that both problem and solution were more profound than he had anticipated.

"People are usually unemployed for many different reasons. But if you can get one person into work, it can influence a whole household," he said.

By employing people from the immediate community, the store is bringing pound;3 million a year in salaries into the estate. An area that had almost no public transport now has a new bus terminus next to the store, and other shops are opening up.

Vandalism has been much lower than expected - the security guards are all local and likely to recognise troublemakers - and youth and community workers can persuade even disaffected young people that Tesco's is a local asset.

Tesco's scheme works closely with the council's broad regeneration approach. The East Leeds family learning centre was set up in 1996, and community involvement teams have been developing issues such as health and community safety. Long talks with Tesco's Martin Venning led to the concept of the job guarantee, which Venning then had to sell to the company's board of directors. Its recruitment policy had been to take the best available people from open competition. Now they were being asked to give first priority to the unemployed.

"Too often we ask people to leave the security of benefits and go out to learn when they may not get a job at the end of it," says Chris Peat, Leeds learning centre co-ordinator.

"We don't value unemployed people's time or commitment."

Giving unemployed people first access to the scheme and a job guarantee if they completed it raised their confidence and commitment. "It changed disadvantage into advantage," he added.

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