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Paul Roberts - everyone has the capacity to be remarkable

Everybody has the capacity to be remarkable - and employers have a fundamental role to play. By Paul Roberts, Chief Operating Officer (Employment & Partnerships), Aspire Oxford

I am writing my first blog post from the ‘School of Social Entrepreneurs’ in London. It is an inspiring setting; founded in 1997 by the serial social entrepreneur, Michael Young (founder of Which? and the Consumers’ Association), it supports people who use entrepreneurial approaches to tackle complex social problems and promotes a fair and equal society where the potential of all people is fully recognised.

But what has this got to do with Oxford, I hear you say? And recruitment? Our city of gleaming spires, world-beating universities and science parks? Life’s good here for everyone; Oxfordshire has virtually no unemployment with more jobs than working age adults in fact. So, what’s the problem?

I’m sorry to burst a bubble here, but Oxford has a big problem, socially. And how employers recruit can exacerbate the problem or can be part of the solution to tackling inequality and poverty in our city. And more than this, it will be necessary if they want to survive and thrive.

I’m still surprised by how many people living in Oxford don’t see it. Oxford is perhaps the most unequal and socially divided city in England, with entrenched poverty afflicting East Oxford. It is a city where residents a short bus ride away from each other have a differing life expectancy of more than 8 years. It is a city with 10 wards in the most 20% deprived in England, where 30% of people are on low incomes and 25% of children live below the poverty line – virtually all in East Oxford. It is a city where rough sleeping has increased by 50% year on year since 2012; a city which has one of the highest rates in the south of England for young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) for 6 months or more; and a city which has one of the highest rates of crack and opiate use in the country, with 16.6 users per 1,000 residents.

So despite first, shiny appearances there are complex, pressing social problems in this city. And these are set to worsen, with single parents in particular affected by the new benefits cap and the imminent closure of local children’s centres and swingeing cuts to homeless support services in the pipeline. We need to act now, together, to arrest this unacceptable and unnecessary trend.

For now, let’s return to the labour market in Oxfordshire. Unemployment is at an all-time low - apparently. But what do we mean by this? The jobseekers’ register in the county, at less than 2,500, is one of the lowest recorded in the UK. Fact. This is the sunny figure you will see quoted in the local media. But what goes unreported is the fact that there are over 16,000 people in Oxfordshire on a long-term unemployment benefit, typically Employment Support Allowance (ESA). A figure that increased by nearly 10% in 2015.

Many of those on ESA are not fit for work and rightly should not be looking for it. But there are many thousands of local people who could and want to work – as of Spring 2016, there were 9,800 ‘economically inactive people’ wanting a job. They may be vulnerable to homelessness, juggling care responsibilities at home, recovering from addiction or a spell of long-term unemployment. They may have been in prison. They may have left school with little self-confidence and few qualifications. They may struggle with English and adapting to our work culture. But they all have potential; they all have the capacity to be loyal, remarkable employees. What they need is the right level of support, engagement and opportunity.

Securing sustainable, paid employment would be a critical, life changing step forward for them. It would also support the growth of a more resilient, inclusive local economy, with less taxpayer money spent on expensive interventions in the criminal justice, health and social services sectors as well as seeing individuals contribute through taxes to the Exchequer. Enabling their employment would be a first step towards tackling the social problems that currently blight our city.

I’m not suggesting employers do this purely out of the kindness of their own hearts. It will be good for their productivity too. All the evidence suggests that people from disadvantaged groups can become some of your best employees. They go the extra mile to secure results, tend to stay in a job for longer, have a strong commitment to their employer and lower rates of absenteeism. BITC research shows clear business benefits in becoming more inclusive, with over 90% of businesses saying it’s been advantageous and 92% saying it’s enhanced their reputation. Two thirds report that it has boosted skills levels across their workforce and around half say it’s benefited them financially.

It is also about taking pride in being socially responsible. Six million of us will be homeless at some point in our lives. 97% of homeless people want to work, but a recent survey indicates that only 7% of employers say they recruit homeless people. Giving people from disadvantaged groups a chance can help get their lives back on track. It is not only good for individuals but also for society. For instance, employment is proven to reduce re-offending by 33-50%. So, becoming more representative of the communities you serve doesn’t just help change lives – it can help strengthen your business and have huge benefits to society too.

Perhaps more pressingly for employers in Oxford however, is acknowledging that they face a fast-growing recruitment crisis. Employee retention is a big problem for Oxford employers offering entry level positions and low wages, given the sky high cost of housing and living. The churn rate is particularly high in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, where staff turnover ranges from 35% to 60% - unsustainable for any business. And Oxfordshire has a very high job density, with 115 jobs available for every 100 residents of working age. Throw in the alarming fact that the working age population is set to contract significantly over the next 10 years due to a rapidly ageing population – the fast-growing age group by a wide margin is the over 85s - and with Brexit there is likely to be much reduced access to migrant labour, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise supply and demand are moving quickly in opposite directions.

For any business to survive and thrive it needs to learn faster than the rate of change happening around it. What we are witnessing in the recruitment market is a failure to adapt; a recruitment agency model that too often undermines employment rights and drives precarious workers into the arms of exploitative companies is not fit for purpose. It is neither serving employers nor enabling local people to move into employment. Traditional recruitment agencies struggle to access or understand disadvantaged people and the potential assets they can be for employers as talented, motivated and productive employees. They forget that everybody has the capacity to be remarkable.

Social entrepreneurs combine a mission of calling out unacceptable social and public policy failures – child poverty, homelessness, substance misuse – and an ability to spot gaps in the market in which they can seek to innovate to do something positive to redress these shortcomings. A gap in the market is clearly presenting itself here – for an effective intermediary to help match employers to employees, in entry level, labour intensive sectors, from care to hospitality to retail to warehousing. To encourage and enable employers to change the way they recruit, so they engage with new groups of people to meet their recruitment needs now and in the future. Or face an existential crisis plagued by miserable employee retention rates and an inability to fill growing gaps in their workforce

This is the driving force behind the national employment campaign ‘See Potential’. It is backed by entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden and Simon Cowell, showcasing the talents and business benefits of hiring people from disadvantaged groups. It reinforces the social mission of my employment charity and social enterprise, Aspire Oxford. Together, we should and can do more to celebrate the work of employers who provide jobs and training opportunities to people from disadvantaged groups, showing other businesses why it’s worth their while reviewing their recruitment practices and illustrating the personal, societal and business benefits of giving people a chance in the world of work.

We believe that everybody has the capacity to be remarkable. If you’re interested to find out more about how you could change lives locally through your recruitment, please come and talk to me at Aspire Oxford.

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