Employability in rural areas
Victory (part of the Flagship Group) is a relatively small housing association with around 5,000 homes. The employment support team are a small but close-knit group of just three support officers and their manager, covering the two thousand or so square miles of wonderful Norfolk. Employment support officer Louise Bennett tells us about the rural nature of the county and the challenges this brings for the team and communities.
Norfolk is big. We are not being sizeist - we love Norfolk, it is a beautiful place to live - but we face quite a trial, not only to ensure our service is accessible across the many rural and scattered communities that we serve but also to create and facilitate suitable opportunities to help the people who live in those communities to move forward.
Distance is a real problem; the logistics of public transport can be prohibitive, and we know that low-income job seekers and families often cannot afford to run a car. All of this makes it extremely difficult to pursue suitable and sustainable employment opportunities. But when Victory set up the EST, we didn’t see targets and numbers – we saw people. Isolated, lonely people, cut off by poor transport links and a deficit of support in the places that needed them most.
Take Mundesley for instance. It’s a small, pretty, coastal town, only 20 miles from the city of Norwich where employment is far more available. There are no trains of course, but there is a regular bus from Mundesley to Norwich, so that sounds great!
The reality is – to travel those 20 miles - you would have no choice but to leave home at 6.15 in the morning and you would not be walking back through your door until 6.45 in the evening! You might be lucky to find a job that fits those hours – but you might not. Moreover, how do you factor the availability and costs of childcare into that - never mind the work-life balance?
This rural challenge also means that resourcefulness and partnership working are all the more important. In order to bring the service to communities like Mundesley we have to be inventive: job centres, community centres, libraries, cafes - even doctors’ surgeries – we can and will set up shop literally anywhere! We sweep our hair back like Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans – We will find you! We also research and signpost ways to develop our residents’ independence such as Kick-start’s moped rental, refurbished bicycle schemes, not to mention trying to create opportunities closer to home where we can by liaising with local employers and providing funding for things such as equipment and childcare.
However, there is more to this problem of distance than just the logistics of travel. It also brings social isolation, a sense of hopelessness and seemingly insurmountable barriers that, in turn, contribute to significant mental health problems. This is where our highly personalised, versatile and custom-made service comes into its own. Our residents need more than just a CV and help with job applications; they need empathy, an advocate, someone to help them build their self-esteem and motivation from the ground up. Someone who will go with them on the bus or train the first time because they are too anxious to go alone.
I am incredibly proud to work for Victory and the EST. We are a leg up – a guiding hand – the vehicle that can get them where they need to be, but all credit to our residents, the amazing people we work with. They are the ones that take that first step and get on board.