Wise ways to work

One Glasgow company appears to have cracked the problem of finding unemployed people permanent, fulfilling jobs. Raymond Ross reports

When it comes to getting unemployed people off welfare and into work, the Wise Group believes it has some of the answers.

Of the 890 paid trainees who joined Wise last year (43 per cent of whom had been unemployed for more than two years) 57 per cent had found a job within three months of leaving.

The group connects unemployed people to the job market. It provides training, work experience on socially useful projects, and a living wage. By using what it calls its national "intermediate labour market" - its subsidiary companies, Heatwise, Landwise, WiseStart and Newhamwise - and by transferring its expertise to associated but independent companies, the group aims to open up routes back to work.

The company monitors its own success rate by offering trainees who find a job a Pounds 50 bonus to report back. (It does check their claims with the employer and National Insurance.) In 1996 an independent report commissioned by The Rowntree Foundation followed up on this method by interviewing 200 leavers in Glasgow and 50 in London. The Rowntree report, published earlier this year, found the employment figure was actually marginally higher than the Wise group's own figure.

The foundation also found that the success rate applied equally to the short-term and long-term unemployed and it agreed that most of the jobs were full-time.

"This flies in the face of the Government's own Training for Work and other employment service schemes," said Alan Sinclair, the Wise Group's chief executive.

One key to this success may be that, after an eight-week induction, the trainees are paid for the work they do (Pounds 119 per week, giving a "take-home" pay of Pounds 104) which takes them off benefit. But there are other factors too.

"The key requisite is confidence and self-esteem," said Alan Sinclair, who is a member of the Scottish Office "new deal" task force. "This is the real starting point. We give people a meaningful job of work to do, work of worth and merit from which they can get a sense of satisfaction.

"Unlike other systems we take people off benefit after the eight-week induction. They meet new people, and we work on confidence building. We organise sports and activity days which take people out of their immediate environment and this helps with personal development," he said.

The majority of the trainees have few or no formal qualifications as well as an antipathy towards classroom-based training programmes.

"Most of the long-term unemployed we deal with hated school and are allergic to classrooms," said Mr Sinclair. "Putting these people back into the classroom to 'retrain' has a negative effect. We try to get people out on the job as soon as we can so that they are working again.

"If a system is classroom based, the usual reaction is it's just 'another f***ing scheme'. We call our process 'intermediate labour market' because it's a stepping stone between unemployment and full-time work, and it's a process that adds value to the community as well as to the individual."

The Wise Group trains people to work in insulation, energy advice and home security as well as in landscaping, child care and in running call centres.

According to the group's 1996 review: "The insulation, energy advice and home security work we do helps put money in our clients' pockets. It is estimated that the work we have done in Glasgow, since 1983, has led to energy and fuel bill savings of Pounds 5-Pounds 8million."

"We are also planting an urban forest in and around Glasgow and we have planted more than one million trees in the past four or five years," said Mr Sinclair. "As well as planting we maintain the trees. The 'dear green place' of Glasgow will become something of a reality."

At its Charlotte Street headquarters, Wise has set up a call centre which offers people training in what is a huge growth industry in the city which now boasts more than 30 call centres. The call centre gives information on the company's training and back-to-work strategies while giving the operators work experience.

Of the first 17 trainee operators to come on the 13-week programme which began in February, 16 have found jobs in this field.

The operators, insulation and home security trainees at Wise's Cambuslang depot, were unani-mous in their praise for the "practical and enjoyable" Wise approach compared to other "schemes".

"The attitude is better here. The trainers don't treat you like children and they know their stuff. We feel as if it's real," said one trainee.

All the trainees remarked on this "reality feel factor," not mentioning the "course" or "scheme," but the "work". About a quarter of trainess drop out during the induction period. According to Mr Sinclair this is "often because of family or care responsibilities or a health problem. Also, sometimes they don't like what we're doing or we don't like them because they're disruptive or don't try. We can't do much for that group."

In keeping with government policy, trainees have to have been unemployed for at least six months to apply to Wise. Trainees must be between 18 to 60. The average age is 23 which partly reflects the number of under-25s without jobs, but also that the wage Wise can offer may not be enough to take someone with dependants off benefit.

The Wise Group is at 72 Charlotte Street, Glasgow, G1 5DW, tel: 0141 303 3131. The Rowntree report Bridging the Jobs Gap is available from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York, YO3 6LP.

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