'We tell them never to give up': Inside Hackney's job centre

Staff at Hackney Job Centre Plus have been helping the unemployed back into work.

Staff at Hackney Job Centre Plus have been helping the unemployed back into work. - Credit: Clementine Scott

Rates of unemployment and Universal Credit claims have skyrocketed since the pandemic all over the country, and Hackney is no exception. 

By November 2020, the number of Hackney residents claiming the income support had increased by 140 per cent. This dramatic rise necessitated Job Centre Plus’s new shopfront on Hillman Street, a couple of minutes away from its parent establishment on Mare Street. 

The Hillman Street Job Centre’s customer service lead, Funmi Sanya, is acutely aware of the help residents need in the present times.

“We need to be there to give them a headstart on the road back to economic recovery,” she said. 

This applies even more so to young people on the government’s Kickstart scheme, who are often recent school or college leavers with no prior employment. One of the centre’s career advisors, or ‘work coaches’, tells of the confidence issues he has observed in young people. “Some of them are saying, ‘oh, I have some experience but my CV’s not good enough, I wouldn’t get anything, I’ve had no interviews.’ I always tell them to never give up, keep trying, keep applying.”

Nishant, a team leader for the work coaches, often observes “customers not having the experience, but still having an interest in a certain field”. 

The centre’s partnership manager Steven sees the potential for a job centre to be a bridge between education and employment, and has set up several effective partnerships both with educational organisations, such as New City College, and with employers seeking to train young people. “As the labour market becomes re-energised and reactivated, we have a sort of swap model, where we can give some skills training and work experience [to school leavers], and the job interview is the outcome of that.”

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The centre’s good relationships with local employers means it can successfully create a comfortable atmosphere for its clients at interviews and in the workplace, especially when those clients have disabilities. Ade Adediran, the centre’s disability lead, praises the Disability Confident scheme, which the centre uses to hold employers accountable about their disability adjustments. In the context of job seeking, these might include taxi fares paid for physically disabled employees, or alternatives in place for interviewees on the autism spectrum who may be uncomfortable with group interviews. “We tell employers the positives of being Disability Confident, that there are people with disabilities [in Hackney] who will be attracted to their businesses if people with disabilities are employed there,” says Adediran.

While the centre works hard at making employment more accessible and can provide help to its customers in acquiring basic qualifications in mathematics and English, and training in employability skills, its work is not merely focussed on getting jobs for its customers. 

“You’ve got to address the complexities that job seekers face, especially in such a diverse place [as Hackney],” says one work coach, referencing how customers suffering from mental health issues or the aftermath of sexual assault will have their immediate needs prioritised before entering the workforce. 

More than 20 people are chasing every job centre vacancy in Hackney

Job centres are helping people get, and stay in, work. - Credit: Archant

Similarly, the centre collaborates with Hackney Council in tackling homelessness, domestic abuse and gang-related violence amongst its customers. “With gang tensions, we’ll liaise with different job centres if it’s not safe for a customer to come in here…” explains Nishant, “if someone is in a violent situation or in poor health, we definitely put their [employment] commitments aside and focus on whatever needs to be focussed on.”

The work also does not stop after a customer has found a job. The centre is able to provide travel costs, accessibility requests to employers, and childcare for lone parents, as well as holding regular meetings with employed customers for a six-month period. “It’s about keeping them in a job as well as getting it,” says Adedura. 

Despite all the struggles and complexities of gaining a job in Hackney, there are still success stories — work coaches are effusive in their praise of a disabled boy working in the hospitality sector, and a 19-year-old care leaver working in the Job Centre Plus office. As one work coach puts it, “we have good news stories on a daily basis.”