Volunteer mentors can't do this job

For many troubled job-seekers looking for work via the New Deal, only professional guidance works. Neil Levis reports.

You're a New Deal mentor talking to a jobless person about the reasons he can't hold down a job. Suddenly, he starts to reveal the reasons holding him back: abuse from childhood, bullying, drugs, perhaps a family crisis.

The choice is tough: if you think the situation is serious, you might refer him for specialist help, but that could leave him with psychological wounds open but untreated for three months while counselling is arranged.

"Once they have opened the box, you can't shut the lid again," says Sasha Clare, senior mentoring co-ordinator with the Training Network Group in the North-west. "A lot of the problems stem back to childhood - many have suffered bullying at home or at school. Their attitude is: 'I don't want to get a job because I might be bullied there.'" The mentor's dilemma is exacerbated for a volunteer with a busy schedule. If you let down the person who needs help, you confirm a pattern that's been happening to them all their lives.

That is why the Training Network uses professional mentors when dealing with those resistant to work. Its success has been noted and national guidelines for New Deal mentoring will now recommend the use of professionals.

It seems that when mentoring first came into vogue, people underestimated how demanding it could be. "The theory was that most people would only need a small bit of assistance," says Gwynneth Lunt, a mentoring co-ordinator with the group, " a dress code for work, how to open a bank account, how to behave at work...

"However, the majority are not like that: many of them have immense issues which have been stopping them getting jobs."

The stories the mentors hear are grim: the girl who was left hungry and cold, locked in a cupboard with an electric current passed through the door to stop her escaping while her parents went out; or the smartly-dressed man who lived an immaculate house but had huge gambling debts which endangered himself and his family as the loan sharks closed in; or the depressing realities of drug abuse.

So wearing are such stories that all the group's mentors undergo monthly debriefing with a counsellor so they can offload stress.

Which only reinforces the point that volunteer mentors are not appropriate for the most taxing cases. The job of the mentoring co-ordinators is to decide which cases are appropriate for volunteers.

"It's hardly rocket science," says Janette Faherty, the Training Network's chief executive. "We concentrated on those with multiple problems who were resistant to training and work. No one had ever done this before. Lots of long-term unemployed were alienated by the traditional approach.

"One head said to me: 'Mentors don't work.' I told him: 'Yes, they do, if you use the right people.'" "The aim is to work side by side with the client, going where they want to go," says Eileen Cleary, another mentoring co-ordinator. "If it's not the direction you would like, you have to draw them back on to the desired path."

The first session is spent listening to the clients, getting them to open up about what they want to do. The mentors are looking for a hidden passion - such as that of the girl with A-level art who was condemned to shelf-stacking. "She was passionate about art," says Mrs Cleary. "We have to look for the passion in people because that's what's going to motivate them in a job."

But most of the time staff are working to boost self-esteem.

Since the New Deal was extended to over-25s in 2000, the mentors have been dealing with mature candidates, such as the 58-year-old laid off after 26 years at Ford who was resigned to the dole for the final seven years of his working life. His mentor noticed how fit he was and used this as a lever to encourage him to train as a driving instructor.

"He had no problem with working," says Sasha Clare. "His problem was with his self-worth."

For all the mentors, the real joy is to see a client empowered. But for every success, there are those who find it impossible to solve their problems.

Fortunately, the work can have its funny side. One family rang up to complain: their grandson had got a job, the first in five generations in the family to find work; they were annoyed that his alarm clock was waking them up every morning.

SUPPORT 'SAVED ME'

For David Matthews, there was no one to turn to when he felt his life was falling apart. At 23, he'd left home but, with no qualifications, he was not getting regular work. Then, out of the blue, he was attacked outside his flat.

His New Deal adviser sensed deeper issues were preventing David getting work and put him in touch with Eileen Cleary of the Training Network Group in Runcorn.

"I was a bit iffy about talking to someone I didn't know," says David,"but, after a while, something snapped inside and I poured it all out."

David has spent most his life being bullied. He failed to finish school because he wanted to avoid the bullies. He is estranged from his father and brother and felt uncomfortable talking about his situation to his sister and mother. After his beating, he hardly felt like going outside - never mind chasing jobs.

But Eileen Cleary helped him regain confidence. "I could speak about what was worrying me and it was getting me through it," he says.

"Before, I didn't know whom to trust, now I know whatever I say doesn't go any further... I was still frightened but I've learnt from my mistakes and am now trying to get work."

Now, after doing a landscaping course David has been promised work with Halton Council as a gardener. He needs a driving licence to do this so he is having free lessons through another local training agency, Crosby Training.

"In six months I hope to be working and happy. I don't want to get to 40 and say: 'what have I done with my life?' There are people far worse off than me but mentoring has saved me."

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