The pandemic has been tough for everyone, but especially for the women we support. For women with convictions, finding employment was already tough – add to that a pandemic, job losses and, for many women, 24/7 family care and the situation becomes almost impossible. More women have registered and were referred to our services in 2020 compared to 2019. Some clients that we’ve previously supported into work returned to us because they lost their jobs.
We are grateful to be able to continue supporting these women, who have shown incredible resilience and hope despite unprecedented challenges. Today, in celebration of #EmployabilityDay, we want to share some of the ways we’ve adapted our employability support due to the pandemic, and the lessons we learned along the way.
Rising unemployment has meant that women with convictions are facing an even tougher challenge.
Head of Employment
1. Going digital
Like most organisations, our range of one-on-one support and group workshops – from CV writing and disclosure guidance, to skills like workplace communication – have moved online. Our frontline team and clients soon discovered the wonders and tribulations of Zoom workshops. It’s not without challenges. “Not everyone finds it easy to build rapport over telephone or video and it can be harder to build relationships with people you’ve not met”, our Head of Employability Helen Sweet says.
We’re also acutely aware of digital exclusion, and how it impacts low-income women in particular. While most of our clients have been able to adapt to virtual support, some struggle with having stable internet while a few don’t have smartphones or laptops. With libraries closed during lockdowns, many women also lost access to quiet, private spaces where they can focus. We have been able to continue supporting them via phone, and we remain committed to ensuring that our services are inclusive and accessible.
2. Expanding our reach
On the other hand, one great thing about virtual support is that we have been able to expand our reach far beyond London. No longer confined to our office, women can access our support from wherever they live. We now have clients from Scotland, Wales and northern England.
“It’s made our services accessible to more women further afield. Also for some women it’s more convenient to access services over the phone or on video call as they don’t have to arrange childcare or worry about travel time”, Helen shares. Going forward as lockdown eases, we look forward to providing hybrid support. “We will always want to be able to offer face-to-face support for local clients, but it’s great to know that for those further afield, we can still provide quality support”.
3. Wellbeing is a priority
We believe employment support goes beyond skills like CV writing and interviewing, and holistic support is what’s needed to help women fully be ready for success. Mental and emotional wellbeing is one of our priorities. We had already been offering optional, free therapy to our clients since before the pandemic, and this was expanded to include temporary counselling to address covid-related stresses. Since the pandemic, we also began offering regular wellbeing workshops.
“The associated worry and isolation from the pandemic and lockdowns are a risk to emotional wellbeing and a barrier to us being able to provide employability support”, Helen explains. “Each week we shared tips and tools and provided a space for women to support one another with positive messages and ideas to empower and keep up their spirits. Although the need for this support has eased as restrictions are lifted, we have continued to deliver these monthly.” Mental health support will always be a crucial element of what we offer, long after the pandemic.
We shared tips and tools and provided a space for women to support one another with positive messages and ideas to empower and keep up their spirits.
Head of Employability
4. Adapting to a changing landscape
Since the start of the pandemic, many people including a number of clients we work with have been furloughed or made redundant. “Rising unemployment has meant that women with convictions are facing an even tougher challenge getting through the application stages, and continue to face rejection for having a conviction,” our Head of Employment Katy Doolan says.
The financial pressures from lockdowns have also shifted priorities. At Working Chance we support women in finding a fulfilling long-term career. In the last year, we have also worked with women to find short-term solutions like part-time or fixed-term work, while developing their long-term plan. “The Employment Services team is building partnerships with a wider range of industry sectors, influencing change at top level and developing resources to support women into self-employment as well as volunteering opportunities and apprenticeships”, Katy explains.
5. Being inspired
As difficult as this past year has been, we are incredibly grateful to work with the women we do, who have shown admirable resilience. Our clients have had to juggle job searches with taking care of family, helping their children with home schooling, while also attending to their own complex individual needs. Several of our clients have had to pause our programme to address more immediate needs. But we’ve also had clients who succeed despite these obstacles.
Katy says: “One of our clients who has faced constant rejection with her direct applications due to her conviction has just started a really exciting permanent job opportunity with one of our employers. Another client was hired on a fixed-term contract basis, which a lot of employers have been doing. The employer really quickly recognised her skills and abilities and she has now been promoted to a managerial role!”
As the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) notes, “One of the key challenges moving forward will be to ensure that those groups already at a distinct disadvantage within the UK labour market are effectively supported by the employability sector as we emerge from the shadow of COVID-19.”
We look forward to continue working closely with all of our clients to understand their evolving needs and keep improving our support to meet those needs. We hope you support us in this journey!