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SocietyOctober 11, 2018

A business admin course changed the lives of mums on benefits. Then it was closed down

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Pallas Hupé Cotter took a part time role helping women transition from welfare dependence to paid employment. She says participants loved the course, and it seemed to be working. So why did the government cancel it?

It’s not often I’m moved to tears by helping people write their CV or LinkedIn profile. But when I worked with sole parents trying to transition off the benefit and into paid work, it happened repeatedly. When I pulled together words to describe not just what they do but who they are, blending in both their work and life experience, unpacking both hard and soft skills, they’d read the words and gasp. “Wow – that’s me!”.

They’d say it first with surprise and then again with a well-deserved sense of pride.

The women I worked with had never seen their strengths like that, written in black and white, their value made crystal clear. One told me, “It was like seeing another side to myself. I couldn’t stop reading it to people!”

When I first agreed to it, I’ll admit that I didn’t fully appreciate how life-changing the work would be. I was a contributor to a brand new business administration course, equipping solo parents with cutting edge skills and helping them get clear about what they offer as individuals to potential employers.

As one participant put it, the course helped the women “see the potential in us that we can’t see in ourselves.”

Racheal is a solo mum with an only child. She’d worked as a barista off and on for 13 years but when she gained full custody of her daughter she had to go back on the benefit, because of the odd hours cafe work often requires.

After graduating from the business administration course, run by Strictly Savvy and funded by the Ministry of Social Development, Racheal landed a full time job as a receptionist at a local physiotherapist’s office. Six months on, she tells me how proud she is to be able to do more than just provide for her daughter, but also secure a “place of our own”. She and her little girl are both thriving, she says, and then quickly adds that they aren’t the only ones.

“I know a lot of the kids were very proud of their parents for going to school and getting a job. They’ve seen their number one role model going for gold, and they’re going to want to go for gold too.”

She’s right. Research shows that parents who continue to achieve their educational goals throughout life can positively impact their children. So does having meaningful employment.

In 2017 there were 112,000 people in New Zealand willing and able to work more hours – making them officially underemployed. Statistics New Zealand reports that, “For every one underemployed man there are two underemployed women, primarily because there are more than twice as many women who work part-time than men”. And 83% of all sole parent families are headed by women.

Business admin course participant Racheal with her graduation certificate, left, and course head Jo Jensen, right. (Supplied)

The barriers to full-time, meaningful work are complex. But the women I worked with on the business admin course shared some common obstacles: not just outdated or limited experience and qualifications, but also needing flextime to care for children, having low self esteem and an overarching lack of confidence. I learned that while they wanted to change their circumstances, many had no idea where to start.

Racheal says signing up for the course helped her, and the other women on the course, knock down one obstacle after another.

They trained to be administrative assistants, or even virtual assistants, a career some didn’t even know existed. And “career” is an important word here. Research reveals that when people consider what they do a career, not just a job, it begins to give them a sense of their own identity and status as well as improved overall wellbeing.

The women on the course earned certifications in Xero, Microsoft Office and G-Suite, all modern tools and apps that make workplaces more efficient. These are recognisable, in-demand qualifications and skills. They also underwent DiSC® personality profiling to figure out their strengths and improve their communication skills. They built self-confidence and self-reliance and learned how to present themselves professionally, especially in interviews. These are components that you can find in various other courses, but Racheal had never seen them all offered under one roof.

Pam was in Racheal’s graduating class. Her past work included stints as a security guard, at a call centre and as a dispatcher. But Pam says she kept running into challenges and couldn’t build enough traction to keep those jobs.

“The road was rough and took a massive toll. I found it hard to believe in myself.”

With two kids at home, she never gave up completely. “I wanted to get out there and work, I didn’t want to stay home and feel sorry for myself.”

So she’d pick herself up and try again. But it got harder each time. “I kept getting denied, denied, denied every time I sent off a CV, I’d never get the job. You can tell when you walk in, when you see the look on their faces, you aren’t going to get it.”

Pam says her case worker was excited when she found out about the business administration course. She tells me, “The case managers hadn’t seen a course like this before.”

She says the course transformed the women. “We walked in feeling defeated. We walked out ready to use the skills and make them practical.”

And it was more than just the new skills they’d learned that made a difference. “Being able to be with 14 others ladies who were in the same position, I realised I wasn’t alone. We supported each other every single day. As soon as you walked into the classroom, you were in the zone. Everything was all positive.”

She also says the organisation that created the course has offered “continuous support even after graduation”.

After graduation, Pam says that she walked into interviews with a different attitude. She says she felt comfortable, as if she deserved an opportunity for the first time in her life. Now she’s coming up on six months in her new role as a payroll adviser and feels far more financially secure than she’s ever felt before. “I’m able provide for my children, to live comfortably. My cupboards are full of food.”

Pam tells me that she was looking forward to going back and sharing her story with the next class and was shocked to learn there would be no more.

“I was so angry when I heard they pulled the plug. Don’t they realise that what they teach us, what they offer us, what they give us is just as important as landing a job? If they can make an impact on just a handful of us, imagine what kind of impact they can have nationwide?”

She stops to let that sink in and then adds, “To them it was a numbers game. We’re not numbers.”

An article in the Sunday Star Times outlines what happened. The prototype course was measured using the numbers of jobs graduates secured, although job readiness was supposed to be the initial focus. Once those metrics were made clear, the course was adapted. My own role shifted from workshops on building self confidence and a personal brand to writing individual CVs and LinkedIn profiles. After the shift in focus, 66% of the participants secured jobs and that number hasn’t changed six months later. I’m told that the four who haven’t secured jobs are still actively looking and haven’t given up hope.

Even so, Racheal says it’s about far more than measurable outcomes. “I know a lot of girls in the class didn’t talk in front of people or make friends…but they came out of their shells by the end. You can’t deny what you get out of that course.”

Jo Jensen presenting in a business admin class (supplied)

Jo Jensen is the founder of Strictly Savvy, the organisation that created the course. She has assured Racheal and Pam and the other graduates that she’s committed to finding another way forward. “After hearing so many stories about how life-changing the course was for them, I owe it to all the other women around the country who could benefit from what we have to offer. It would be such a shame – such a waste, really – just to walk away from it and take that opportunity away.”

She’s now exploring private sponsorship options and ways to put more of the training online, which could potentially lower costs and make the programme scalable. Ideally, she’d love to take it nationwide.

Rachael believes in Jensen’s mission. “This could change the single mother demographic in New Zealand. It could benefit so many more people, in so many ways. And not just upskilling. So many solo parents – dads too – tend to feel stuck. They think, ‘Oh I can’t do this because I have children.’”

She wants to be sure that I understand how important that last point is.

“It’s a powerful feeling. I’ve felt it before. When you’re on the benefit you feel ‘what’s the point?’. You don’t feel productive. It affects your mental health. You’ve got nothing to strive for. It makes you feel worthless, in all honesty. It makes you feel like it’s too hard and you want to give up. That’s what a lot of people do, chuck it in the too-hard basket, and sit on the benefit.”

I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s innate to want to feel productive and worthwhile. From my background in news reporting, I know that when people don’t have the tools to be resilient and don’t feel valued, it impacts families and communities, often leaving lasting, sometimes generational effects. Feeling “less than” can be toxic.

Clearly, no one programme alone can fix that. And this particular programme wasn’t the right fit for all of the women who signed up for it. On average, three dropped out of each course, either because they weren’t entirely committed, had health or family challenges, or other courses simply better suited their needs.

But for those who did stick with it, and graduated, the course offered more than confidence and certificates. Graduates also created their own community. They continue to offer each other the critical support that research shows people need from like-minded peers, especially as they face new and different challenges navigating careers.

While my role in the programme and in this space is clearly limited, I did observe a pattern that was familiar. I saw it when I was reporting the news and more recently, when I got a peek behind the scenes as a mentor to startups: ideas that are disruptive and innovative are too often not given enough time, feedback and resources to test their viability, and pivot when necessary, in order to succeed. Short-term ROI is deemed more important than long-term transformation.

While bottom line numbers are important, they narrow the focus and don’t tell the full story. That shortchanges both individuals as well as society.

I admit that the work that I did for this fledgling programme was deeply satisfying and seeing it come to a premature end is deeply frustrating. But that’s not the reason I’m sharing this story.

I don’t just want to highlight this challenge, I want to help find a solution. In an increasingly algorithm-driven world, we need more than ever to remember to look at the full picture, from a human angle. We need to have the courage to challenge, innovate, or scale our response to make sure we invest in what’s not showing up in the numbers now: the long-term payoffs of having confident, supported and contributing members of society.


The Ministry of Social Development responds:

We haven’t renewed our contract with Strictly Savvy because we’ve been disappointed with the results for sole parents who took part in the programme. Our other providers in the Wellington region have been roughly twice as successful in assisting work seekers gain skills and go off benefits, and they provide their programmes at a lower cost.

Sole mums and dads and other job seekers put a lot of time and energy and commitment in when they sign up for a programme. So it’s important to us that any programme we offer is worth their involvement and gives them a really good prospect of getting a job.

Unfortunately of those who took part in Strictly Savvy, only 28% came off benefits. In comparison, those who took part in other similar programmes in the Wellington region came off benefits in 58% of cases.

We’ve renewed our contracts with those other providers, as we’re satisfied that they are catering well to the needs of the administration sector and a higher proportion of their participants are getting jobs after finishing their programmes.

– Kay Read, Group General Manager Client Service Delivery

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