Two more areas of the West Midlands region have signed up to an innovative project to help people who have been unemployed for a long time get back into the job market.
Local partnerships in Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent will deliver the Connections to Opportunities programme, funded by Advantage West Midlands (AWM), which aims to unlock potential by finding the keys to the region's worklessness.
The £11 million programme, which runs till March 2013, aims to help more than 5,000 people in the region get back to work. It enables all areas to provide specific, targeted support on top of that already provided by JobCentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council.
The Staffordshire Connections to Opportunities project has received £1.2 million funding from AWM. It will be delivered by local voluntary services led by Staffordshire Moorlands Community and Voluntary Services(SMCVS) on behalf of the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Consortium of Infrastructure Organisations (SCIO).
The aim is to recruit buddies who will go into the community and offer their help and support to people who have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years. This could range from just initial advice to offering mentoring and training, or helping them start up their own businesses. The project will be fully operational in the summer.
Jill Norman, Chief Officer of SMCVS, said: "This is about reaching out to people who may feel demotivated and be facing a number of barriers to taking up employment, such as poor health.
"It is likely that many of those who have been on benefits for a long time will have low self esteem, made worse by their unemployment. They might appreciate a buddy to help them tackle their barriers, improve their self confidence, develop new skills and make real progress towards a job or even starting their own business."
The Staffordshire project aims to reach 1,000 out of the 4,500 people who have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years and succeed in helping 500 of those make significant progress towards employment.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council's Connections to Opportunities is delivered by VAST (Voluntary Action for Stoke) and has received £690,000 funding from AWM to generate new social enterprise jobs and identify opportunities for workless people in Stoke-on-Trent to learn new skills.
Social enterprises are typically set up to meet a community need and any surplus funds are reinvested for community benefit. They create jobs and offer training to long-term unemployed people who would otherwise not get an opportunity in the mainstream labour market.
The Stoke project went live this month and will provide business mentoring to social entrepreneurs. It will also provide an Investment Fund award of up to £30,000 for new or existing social enterprises to help with job creation and training.
Mike Romano of Stoke on Trent City Council said: "Social enterprise is a key vehicle in providing the first opportunities into employment for residents who can work but are not working for a variety of reasons. This funding means we will be able to increase the capacity of the social enterprise sector to create new opportunities and link up with existing programmes to ensure we help people back into work."
Mark Pearce, Corporate Director Economic Regeneration at AWM, said: "A one size fits all approach does not always work. This programme aims to catch people who have fallen through the cracks of mainstream support and offer them hope for a productive future.
"Each area and individual has different barriers to employment, like travel, impaired mental health, or language problems.
"By working with Local Strategic Partnerships across the region, and giving them the opportunity to tailor-make innovative programmes that are right for their area and which go the extra mile, we hope to give thousands of people a new lease of working life.
“We have also established a ‘Learning Network’ around the programme to ensure that experience gained and lessons learnt are used both for this programme and other support programmes.”
Latest Government figures show the West Midlands currently has some 240,000 unemployed people of whom around 75,000 (31%) have been out of work for over a year.