The Job Club at Gillingham in Dorset provides a free support service for those who are out of work and especially for those with more intensive support needs. It offers a low-cost approach which, with the right people to manage and deliver it, could be replicated in other rural areas.
Gillingham is a town with almost 12,000 residents in the Blackmore Vale in north Dorset. The nearest Jobcentre Plus offices are around twenty miles away. Those without an income from employment may struggle to afford the expense of travelling to support services elsewhere. In any case, public transport options can be few for those relying upon them.
In practical terms Jobcentre Plus, the national organisation charged with helping people to find employment, has quite limited time it can devote to each client. Some people need more intensive support in order to become employable and to find work. It might be that they have complicating issues, such as illiteracy, or it could simply be they have never learnt to use a computer, considerably restricting their ability to job search and causing problems when applications are expected to be made online.
The idea for a Job Club in the area arose out of a discussion between a local Councillor and a manager at GB Job Clubs, the initiative which supports the establishment of community-based support for the unemployed. That Councillor, who is now the North Dorset District Council Cabinet member leading on economy and development issues, established a job club in the Town Hall building in Gillingham in November 2010, with the aim of serving the town and its surrounding parishes. A Supervisor was recruited to make it operational.
The Job Club works closely with the Jobcentre Plus service, from whom many of its clients are referred. Although a wide range of people come through the door, the focus is mostly on those who have the greatest support needs to succeed in the jobs market. Volunteers at the Job Club are able to provide tailored support, taking them through the whole process of finding employment.
With input from club members and volunteers they have developed a template which they run through with any new client to assess their experience and skills, and to understand their support requirements. That support might include help with job searches, with CV writing, with filling in application forms and with interview preparation. It also frequently involves signposting to other support services, for example to Citizens Advice where there are also debt issues identified or to Adult Education services if they find literacy or numeracy issues.
The Job Club has computers which its clients can use for job searches, CV writing and other key steps to finding employment. This is hugely important for those who have no computer themselves. Indeed, it helps some meet personal targets, set for them by the Government’s Work Programme, to log-in regularly to their Jobcentre online account in order to prove that they are actively searching for work. Clients are given a memory stick by the Job Club to take away, which contains their prepared CV.
The Jobcentre Plus office in Yeovil sends through its weekly list of job vacancies to the Gillingham Job Club. Other vacancies are notified to them directly by local employers. Since starting up the Job Club has written to every business in the area, with some help from the Chamber of Commerce, and its level of contact with employers has grown steadily.
A second Job Club has now been set up in Blandford Forum, sharing a building with various other support agencies, and there are plans for opening a third in Shaftesbury.
Benefits and outcomes
Around ninety people have now been helped into employment by the two Job Clubs in Gillingham and Blandford Forum. The team are especially pleased that the newer one made rapid progress and achieved its first placement into work after just three months of operation.
The Job Club sees a key part of its role as being to raise the morale of job seekers. The initial assessment is partly about building people up by recognising the skills and experience they have.
In Councillor Walsh’s words:
“When you lose your job you lose your identity. Often people come through the door with their head down. By the time they leave their head will be held high”.
The aim is that no-one should ever leave a session at the Job Club without having gained some sort of answer to their needs.
The initiative is also seen – rightly – as contributing to the local rural economy, by helping employers and by increasing local spending power.
There is also a benefit cited for Jobcentre Plus, since the intensive support which is offered by the Job Club undoubtedly takes some strain off that public sector service.
In 2011 these achievements were recognised with an award from Action for Market Towns. The Gillingham Job Club won its most outstanding market town project in the Business and Economy category.
The Job Club has no paid staff. Both the Co-ordinator (the Councillor who oversees the Gillingham and Blandford Forum operations) and the Supervisor (who manages delivery of the Gillingham service) undertake those roles on a voluntary basis.
In Gillingham there are ten further volunteers who help to provide the frontline support to Job Club clients. Some of them bring specialist skills, such as experience in the adult learning sector. Unsurprisingly, the search for volunteers is a constant feature.
It may seem unusual that this Job Club received no external funding at the set up stage. They found they had to prove its viability before any funding could be sourced. To the extent there were start-up costs they were therefore born personally by those starting the initiative.
The Job Club now receives help in-kind, such as the provision of its office space in the Town Hall which – under the banner ‘Gillingham Direct’ – is becoming a one-stop-shop where residents can access local authority and other services. They have also benefited from charitable giving by, among others, the local Rotary Club and a significant local employer. Recent grants from the Big Lottery Fund and Comic Relief have enabled the purchase of much-needed replacement laptops.
Lessons for others
The Job Club model is one that is highly transferable to other areas. Indeed, Gillingham has already provided advice to those setting up something similar in four other locations.
Its success is partly based upon having a very low cost base. It is run entirely by volunteer effort and there are few fixed running costs. There are few expenses other than the basics associated with running a small office and its IT requirements.
They also stress the importance of being well connected with the range of other support services in the area. Being able to signpost clients to others who can address their particular needs is a key element of the approach. The volunteers know the area well and keep an eye out for recruitment opportunities for their clients.
It is important, though, not to under-estimate the commitment and inter-personal skills of those running the Gillingham Job Club. Their belief in what they are doing comes over loud and clear in discussion.
Councillor Walsh puts is simply, when describing how clients can switch from being downhearted to becoming motivated:
“It is so fulfilling, so satisfying to see what a difference we can make.”
As noted above, there are now plans afoot to open a third Job Club in Shaftesbury. Indeed, the longer-term ambition is to create a Job Club in each of the rural towns in North Dorset district, recognising that it can be difficult for the unemployed to travel to support agencies. As ever, they are on the lookout for further volunteers, especially those who could help in Shaftesbury.