Success and the City

Landing a job can be difficult for young people who lack skills and confidence. But a project in east London is providing the training needed for jobs in nearby Canary Wharf, says Robert Nurden

Wayne McKenzie's business-studies course at a north-London further education college appeared, on paper, to be just what he was looking for. It gave an introduction into office-management procedures, marketing and sales. But, after a few weeks, he found the syllabus dry and irrelevant, and the classroom atmosphere remote from the world of work of which he was eager to become a part.

Wayne McKenzie's business-studies course at a north-London further education college appeared, on paper, to be just what he was looking for. It gave an introduction into office-management procedures, marketing and sales. But, after a few weeks, he found the syllabus dry and irrelevant, and the classroom atmosphere remote from the world of work of which he was eager to become a part.

So, he left and faced up to the prospect of another period of unemployment. Luckily, he quickly found out about a small college whose approach was radically different from that of his first one. East London Advanced Technology Training (Elatt) in Hackney prides itself on offering programmes of study directly linked to employment or work experience, and which put the student at the centre.

"I really took to the beginner's IT course there," says Wayne, 19. "I passed the exams and now, while I'm waiting to enrol for an advanced IT study programme, the college has taken me on as a receptionist. It's all part of learning about the world of work."

Elatt favours people-based learning, characterised by its modules on assertiveness training, mock interviews, CVs played out in the form of dramas, even modules in personal development - all designed to boost individuals' confidence. At each stage, full student participation is pivotal to this "soft skills approach".

Gary Taylor, Elatt's employability manager, says that the college is under no illusions about how hard the job search can be for a young person. "Most of our students - who have to be unemployed to come here - are from ethnic minorities in the Hackney area, and securing that first job is particularly hard for them.

"We go to great lengths to prepare them psychologically. We don't just arm them with a stack of qualifications. These people have a lot of talent, and IT, the area of study on which we concentrate, is a field that is wide open to anyone, regardless of background."

To give its students an even better service, Elatt set up a branch organisation known as the East London Employability Forum (Elef) in February, a loose consortium of employers, recruitment agencies, community education bodies, training organisations, colleges and regeneration groups. It acts as a platform for its members to share ideas and make contacts, with the express aim of improving employment prospects for Elatt students.

Being near the City of London and Canary Wharf, Elatt is, in theory, in a prime position to tap into the lucrative jobs market in IT. Though staff recognise that it will be a slow process, the new forum is designed to open up these employment pathways. Some students from its computer-engineering course have been involved in a work experience scheme at a company called Bannersol, an IT consultancy that troubleshoots clients' PC problems. "By using these students, we are able to respond immediately to our customers' needs, and the students get valuable experience," says Michael Pollard, managing director of Bannersol. "They are up to what is required, and there's every chance that we'll employ them on a full-time basis. Having them here leaves the managers in the company time to develop the business."

Pollard says that he prefers taking on younger people because of their keenness to learn. "Technically, they are often as good and efficient as anyone who has been doing IT work for a while, and I suppose that's a tribute to the teaching they've had. It shows that apprenticeship is still a good way to learn."

Atif Khan, who runs Elef, refutes the idea that the work-experience scheme is just using students as cheap labour. "Everyone benefits," he says. "It is a very useful entry for students into the jobs market. In 90 per cent of cases, the student goes on to land a job within six months at the work placement itself or in a similar company."

The jobs of Elatt's Gary Taylor and Atif Khan are funded by Deutsche Bank, one of many large companies eager to fulfil its corporate social responsibilities. But while City firms will readily reach out a hand and offer money to such initiatives, they are more reluctant to consider taking on staff from unfashionable areas just down the road.

The effort involved in getting companies in Canary Wharf to recruit locally is known only too well to another organisation trying to bridge the divide. The Cedar Centre, an educational charity for asylum-seekers, refugees and socially disadvantaged people, is right in the heart of Docklands, yet it could be on another planet.

"Just two per cent of people employed in Canary Wharf are local," says Amanda Menezes, a trainer and employment officer at Cedar. "Last week, a Vietnamese student, who had completed an English-language course with us, phoned up a Docklands company to enquire about a cleaning job. As soon as they heard her accent, she was told they were no longer recruiting. A minute later, I called and I was offered an interview. I slammed the phone down. It happens all the time. There ¿s no point in complaining - what can you do? Yes, there is racism at play here."

The East London Business Alliance (Elba), another member of the 30-strong Elef group, takes a more philosophical view of the problem. It believes that partnerships between education and business have to be built up slowly, and that nothing happens overnight. It believes, too, that large corporations and financial institutions are quite willing to employ local people, but don't know how to go about it.

"It makes sense for these firms to exercise their corporate social responsibility locally," says Jane Risley, Elba's employment manager in Hackney. "And if they can be made to see that by employing newly qualified local students they are doing more for the community, then they will respond. Many of these companies haven't a clue what to do to get involved locally - but forums such as Elef can help."

One of the happy educational outcomes of Elatt's focus on IT training has, paradoxically, been the improvement in the students' literacy and numeracy skills. The stigma attached to "not being able to read or write well" prevents huge numbers of people from enrolling on basic-skills courses. They fear that their inadequacies will be shown up. But, by offering "fashionable" IT courses, the college can introduce, under the umbrella heading of "new technology", some training in written and oral communications, too.

"This is not something we foresaw," says Taylor, "but these two aspects of learning can co-exist. Being literate and numerate is essential in getting a good job, so both the student and the employer benefit."

To overcome the stigma of knocking on the door of the employment office, every Monday and Wednesday students can take advantage of Jobcentre Plus's unit being at the college itself. They can use a range of laptops, research employment sectors, and get advice from the unit's staff.

It is good that Elef's pioneering work in bringing together such wide-ranging organisations in London's East End has been recognised: it has been nominated for a Libraries Change Lives award from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. "I think that it shows we're on the right track," says Khan.

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