What future for Community Employment - as it is abolished in schools?

on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 41 For Richer for Poorer: Three Issues of Fairness?, 2001

December 2001

 

Tom Giblin SJ, looks at how CE can become more effective by becoming more responsive to its participants. He also examines the abolition of CE places in schools.

A Decision to Rationalize

In recent years the Community Employment Scheme (henceforth CE), run by FAS, has come under increasing pressure for rationalization. The arguments advanced for rationalization espoused by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and others are twofold;
many CE workers could get standard jobs for which workers are needed a good number of CE workers are doing jobs that properly belong under other Government Departments such as Education, Health, Environment etc.

 

A decision has been taken, in response to these considerations, to reduce the numbers on CE schemes from about 30,000 to 28,000 by the end of next year. The means chosen to implement this decision is to transfer the 43m pounds budget for all CE workers involved in schools to the Department of Education and Science.

Given that the total CE budget is about 300m IR pounds this represents a 14% reduction in the CE scheme affecting something in the region of 4000 plus CE workers. In future years it is planned that a similar kind of transfer of budget will happen between the CE scheme and other Government Departments. This is subject to future negotiation between FAS and the relevant Departments.

Our purpose here is to examine and evaluate the potential impact of the current decision. In order to do that however, it is important to look at the CE scheme itself.

The Future of CE?

Now that CE is finally reaching those most in need of help in joining the labour market we want to cut it back

The original purposes of CE schemes were to meet social and community needs, and to intervene in the labour market to help those who had most difficulty getting a job.

Evidently the near full employment situation in Ireland over the past few years carries implications for CE in terms of these objectives. In conditions of high unemployment many people who were capable of holding a mainstream job participated in CE simply because jobs were scarce. Most of these reasonably skilled candidates have got jobs during the economic boom.
The outcome for CE has not been a decline in the numbers on CE. Instead the type of persons using CE has changed. A far higher proportion is made up of people with particular difficulties, lone parents, persons with disabilities, mental health issues, addiction problems, relational difficulties, or limited literacy.

There is a real irony here. Now that CE is really reaching those in most need who have real difficulty in participating in the mainstream labour market we want to cut the program. During the years of high unemployment when those on the scheme only really needed it as a stop-gap activity till they could get a job, public policy was to increase the number of places dramatically. The political optics of reducing the numbers registering as unemployed was a key motivation at that time. That no longer applies, instead the issue is our commitment to the most disadvantaged.

We believe that the strategy for rationalizing CE is not particularly rational and certainly not favorable to the most disadvantaged. We also believe that CE itself is in need of reform but that reform should focus on generating better incentives for transition into ordinary jobs rather than setting more restrictive limits.

CE was initially designed as a scheme through which a person should pass into a standard job rather than a scheme on which a person would be destined to depend. Indeed therein lie some of its problems. This objective is in some tension with the objective of meeting social and community needs because of the destructive stop/go rhythm it imposes on projects that depend on CE.

CE has explicitly designed limits, the main ones being.

It is age restricted - you have to be over 25
It is restricted to the long-term unemployed (LTU) i.e. unemployed for more than one year.
It typically only runs for 12 months.
If you are over 35 and LTU you can stay on CE for three years
There are two issues at stake here.

The point of CE is to make a real difference to participants ability to get a job.
For many this requires better training and a longer spell on the scheme

1) Incentives versus Limits

The first is that there is a difference between setting a limit (stick) and generating an incentive (carrot) in ensuring a good outcome. The limits manage the flow through CE schemes by restricting those who get on CE and then forcing those who do, off CE. Some limits are necessary. For example, it is important that the scheme is not simply providing cheap labour to employers. In our view however, the limits, if they are to be efficient, should be fully effective in helping the particular groups that use CE to progress beyond it.

The rationalization strategy in cutting the number of CE places by transferring portions of the FAS budget to other Government Departments belongs to a similar limit setting logic. Numbers on CE are to be reduced by cutting the stock of CE places.

There are other methods to reform CE however, generating better incentives. CE viewed in this way, would concentrate on ensuring a more effective flow through CE by generating adequate incentives for people to develop while on CE and to move from CE into the mainstream labour market.

One key issue is training and support. At present there is no training and support given to Sponsors within institutions that provide work for CE workers to do. This despite the fact that they may have no experience of working in a position of authority with someone with a disability, a mental health or literacy problem or a refugee or asylum seeker. Some training for supervisors has been put in place but this can only be described as introductory.

The budget for training of CE participants has been fixed at 300 pounds per person for a number of years. The INOU found that 80% of CE supervisors thought the 300 pounds grant was inadequate. CE supervisors we spoke to, in preparing this article , suggested that a level of 500 pounds would restore the real value of the training grant to what it was some years ago and bring it up to a realistic amount. We would recommend that it be increased to this level. It might also be a good idea to have a supplementary training fund that could be used for people with training needs that cost more than 500 pounds. This is not to say that no good developments in training on CE are taking place. The expansion of the second phase of Core Skills/Customised training to a larger number of CE participants is a case in point.
There are also issues about non-take up of training. In this context, the knowledge that the scheme is only of one-year duration is a significant disincentive for CE participants in taking up training. Why start something that will lead nowhere?

We think that there should be an evaluation of the needs of each candidate presenting for a CE scheme. The consultation about each candidate for CE should involve contacting other services with which the person has been engaged prior to CE participation. Training needs should be identified in this process. In line with the INOU study Community Employment (August 2001) we think that pre-CE training should be provided for the most vulnerable who are assessed as needing it. Funding for post CE training would be equally important. This could be funded from the Supplementary Training Fund. The point of these changes is not simply to spend more money, but to allocate sufficient resources to training so that CE participants find the scheme responds to their individual needs and gives them sufficient training to make a real difference to their ability to enter the mainstream labour market. It is inefficient to spend money on training that only gets a candidate half way to nowhere.

Allied to training then, is adequate inter-agency communication and cooperation about and with each CE participant. Contact with Employment Services and also other Probation, Welfare and other Services should be maintained through the CE program. Specific recommendations should be made with each CE participant identifying the steps forward for them at the end of the scheme in consultation with these services.

In the absence of this the CE worker is like a swimmer in a swimming pool with different lanes each sealed off from the other. For each lane there is a different coach and the coaches do not talk to each other. The worker swims down the CE lane with the CE coach, then they get out and start all over again with a Local Employment Service (LES) coach in the LES lane, a Probation coach in the Probation lane etc.

One key issue that should be addressed in this consultation at the end of CE is whether the candidate should continue on CE for another year or not. In particular, continuation should be facilitated for those who would benefit through completion of a training programme that would enable them to transition off CE into the workforce, but who would find it very hard to make that transition in the absence of the training.

This needs based approach begs the question however, of what criteria should be applied in allowing people to continue on CE beyond one year. At present only 10% of candidates who are under 25 and long term unemployed can apply to continue on CE for more than one year. This is the second key issue to examine.

The Part-Time job incentive scheme could provide a good follow on from three years of CE for persons whose particular needs mean they cannot get a regular job, because they would be paid the going rate for the job

2) Longer Term CE for more?

The fundamental question is whether the State should be willing to subsidise employment of some groups for longer periods of time and in some cases indefinitely. We think that it should in principle be willing to do this for specific categories of people.

It is important that the groups be clearly externally identifiable if CE is not to subsidise the normal labour market in a wasteful manner. Categories of persons who struggle with externally verifiable issues such as literacy problems, disabilities, mental health problems, and lone parents can all readily and verifiably be identified within the general workforce. Each of these groups could benefit greatly from changes to the CE rules about continuing beyond one year.

It is worth noting that longer term CE costs the Exchequer very little. CE money is only about 20 pounds a week more than social welfare. Some of that additional money is clawed back in increased rent and further offset by PRSI payments. We note in passing that many single people, quite a few living in more or less shabby bed-sits, who do CE for more than one year see most of their 20 pounds a week additional CE earned money go on increased rent. This is CE income for landlords not the participants! Consideration should be given to exempting CE participants who stay on CE for more than one year from losing that extra income in increased rent costs.
More broadly when one factors in the improvement to human health and well being through CE work rather than unemployment, longer term CE probably benefits the Exchequer over time by reducing Health and Social Services expenditures. Furthermore these benefits also accrue to children in the homes of CE workers and carry on into the next generation in terms of better nutrition, more self-confident parenting etc. These benefits should be taken into account as offsetting the FAS staffing, supervision, and administration costs.

The key aspect in using incentives to generate throughput from CE into the mainstream labour market is adapting CE to the real needs and requirements of the participants. Intermittent stop-start CE is not the most effective way of helping vulnerable people in our society to develop and move forward. It simply recycles many of them. That said CE in its one-year format continues to be appropriate for some who become unemployed for more than a year but have a good chance of getting another job when economic conditions improve. A more flexible CE scheme is needed for other groups with higher need however.


Getting connected

Persons with disability and persons with diagnosed mental health problems are clear-cut examples of this at the moment. While integration into the mainstream workforce is a desirable goal for many people facing these challenges, frequently it is not possible. The limit that these people face of having to be over 35 in order to apply for the three year version of CE seems totally unreasonable. This is all the more true when one considers their training needs. The same age rule should apply to people with disabilities and mental health problems, as applies to Travellers i.e. that they can avail of three year CE at any age if they are unemployed for over a year.

It has to be said in passing that FAS does increasingly provide flexibility for continuing beyond one year and in some cases beyond three. This is done in an ad hoc manner however, it is not evenly applied nationwide and it is not an entitlement that disabledpeople can build their lives and development around.

There is also a strong argument for provision of longer-term places under an expanded Part-Time Job Incentive scheme. Those who particularly vulnerable groups who realistically cannot find standard jobs on finishing CE could continue to work indefinitely under this scheme being paid the going rate. It would be important that they retain secondary benefits albeit on a means tested basis. The advantage of this scheme, as a more permanent provision of employment for more vulnerable groups, is that they have the dignity of being paid the going rate and are not simply cheap labour. That becomes more important the longer one stays in a particular job. So this scheme would make an ideal post-three year CE next step for particularly vulnerable people who have received adequate training.

Lone parents are a second key group on CE. Many have the skills to get relatively low skilled jobs in the standard labour market. There are several obstacles that they face however. Firstly, parenting responsibilities make flexible part-time work essential for them. This type of job is in short supply at the low skilled end of the jobs market. Secondly, they face withdrawal of the medical card after three years if they go into a standard job and earn more than the means test limit. Thirdly, child-care costs, when added to transport costs, often remove any financial incentive to working in a low paying job.

In the absence of any State policy to address these obstacles to participation in the mainstream labour market, it is a good investment to allow lone parents who have been long term unemployed to continue on CE for at least two, if not three, years. It will give lone parents a stable framework for living during that time that should benefit their children. Similarly it will help bridge the gap in income that many lone parents face.

A recent study by the Vincentian Partnership entitled One Long Struggle shows the extent to which CE matters to lone parents. The study interviewed 118 people (of which 56 were lone parents) in 12 community centers in 7 parts of Dublin.

A typical example detailed in that of a 28 year old lone parent with two daughters living in Tallaght. On social welfare Shirley faces an average weekly shortfall of 26.59 pounds even on the most meager pattern of essential spending.

"She copes with this reality in a variety of ways by cutting back on her own food, juggling the bills- paying one bill this week and another next week, borrowing from her single brother and, when things are very bad I go to the Vincent de Paul who are good to me and the kids. She finds this constant struggle to make ends meet a de-energising experience, never having enough takes the heart out of you- no matter what you do you know you will always be robbing Peter to pay Paul, she says."

She remarked on the difference that a CE scheme meant to her living.

"I had a bit more to start with so I could buy better food and got some things for the house like new plates. With extra money I was not terrified of getting into debt and I found I could sit down with the girls and help them with their reading. When you are on social welfare you are all the time worried so it is hard to concentrate on anything other than getting by. If only I could get part-time work. If I got a full-time job what will happen to the kids? A job is the way out for me but who will be there for the kids when they come home from school? My mam and dad would mind them but they live too far away from us."

A key recommendation of the study is to

"Extend the best advantages of CE schemes locally based employment with childcare provision, with flexible, family-friendly working hours, to education and employment schemes for parents of young children. This is needed to ensure that people who have completed CE schemes are not reduced to severe poverty if they are not able to find appropriate employment.."

In our view this extension of CE to two years would be most effective if it were accompanied by policy interventions that address the blocks facing LTU lone parents in finding mainstream part-time work. If they are to work vouchers for child-care are vital. These could be issued as required given the age of their children when they leave CE. A transport allowance would also be important especially for those in low paying part-time jobs.

Retention of the medical card entitlement should be extended to six years for long term unemployed lone parents who go back to work and have young children. Finally post-CE training vouchers could be very important not only in directly allowing lone-parents to complete their education but also indirectly in enabling them to pass that education on to their children.

Since objective literacy tests are readily available it could also be argued that those with severe literacy and numeracy skill deficiencies should be allowed continue on CE for two years while they participate in training or at the very least access post-CE training subsidies in order to complete their literacy and numeracy skill training.

A final feature of CE that needs attention is the fact that successful participation in CE for one year is rewarded by fewer hours work if one continues for more than one year. This gives a perverse picture that the work is somehow a pure nuisance, or of zero worth. It also means that the second year is likely to be of less benefit rather than more benefit in terms of transition into the workplace. Instead successful participation should be rewarded by a supplement to that individuals training budget to enhance the benefit they gain from continuation.

Our recommendation then is that the rationalization that occurs in the CE scheme should involve a relaxation of some of the limits within CE and boosting of training resources for those people who have most difficulty in accessing conventional employment. This will be particularly important in the economic downturn because inevitably the better able and most qualified snap up the jobs that are out there. There are also broader policy issues such as the incentives for lone parents to move into conventional part-time employment and the obstacles in the mainstream labour market to employment of persons with disabilities or mental health problems. FAS could play an important role in addressing some of these public policy issues reflecting on the experience it has of working with these groups of people.

It is extremely unlikely that more than a few CE workers will get the jobs that will be created in schools though the extra funding

No CE in Schools - Evaluation

On the 11th of October 2001 the Department of Education and Science issued a Press Release entitled Woods Provides Massive Funds to primary and second level schools for secretaries and caretakers. In fact the bulk of the 46m is derived from the reduction in the FAS budget. Whereas this money used to be targeted on schools with CE schemes, which are predominantly in poorer areas, now this money is to be spread over all primary and secondary schools. The headline should have read Woods Massively Reduces the Money for Caretakers and Secretaries in Schools in Disadvantaged Areas by Spreading FAS Community Employment Money over all Schools. It is doubtful that the 2 million pounds allocated for transitional arrangements will have much effect in redressing this imbalance.


Social circles: outside looking in

CE workers who are employed in schools typically fulfill three types of roles, secretarial backup, caretaker, and general classroom assistant. The principals of schools with CE schemes that were consulted in preparing this study had no idea how they were going to adapt in the face of the withdrawal of the services of CE workers.

The difficulties are not just for the schools however. A reasonable estimate would be that about 60% of CE workers in schools, or about 2,500 people, are not really ready to take up a standard job either because they lack the skills or because the jobs market does not offer adapted employment for them. Many are people with particular needs and challenges that we have mentioned already. They are also people with a lot to offer if they find the help and opportunity to express themselves.

Our question is what is going to happen to the 60%? As things stand they will be able to finish out their 12 months contract on the CE scheme. They can of course apply for another CE scheme outside of the school context. In short the answer is that they are in the same situation as all other CE workers.

The remaining 40% are capable of entering the workforce but they are extremely unlikely to access many of the jobs that the new deal out of the government funds will generate.

All schools will receive a higher capitation grant under the budget line for secretarial and caretaker services. For primary schools this capitation grant is due to increase from 40 pounds to 100 pounds per annum over this year and the next. For second level schools the increase will be from 20 pounds to 78 pounds by the end of 2003. This increase will apply to all schools and not just schools that employed CE workers.

In acknowledgement of the fact that many CE workers are not doing secretarial and caretaker work the Department of Education and Science is allowing that schools spend some of this budget on general classroom assistants. The Department is issuing no guidelines on policy as to how this additional money will be spent.

Instead schools will be faced with the responsibility of choosing. The criteria they will apply will no longer be those applied by FAS, but instead those proper to the school itself i.e. what is best for the school. One can expect that in many schools the choice will be to use the additional money to create new full-time caretaker or secretarial positions. Naturally it is the most skilled workers who present for interview who will be employed in the school on a more standard basis. Few of these will be former CE workers. The provision to allow schools to pool their grants in the creation of posts further aids schools in creating well-paid full-time posts. There are also indications that some schools are using the additional money to increase the pay of existing caretakers and secretaries where their pay was too low previously.

This increase is substantial and is of real benefit to schools and is well warranted. To that extent it is to be welcomed.

Our difficulty lies not with the increase but with the transfer of resources away from CE as a means of funding this increase. Equity suggests that the Department of Education and Science should institute a special grant for caretakers, secretaries and classroom assistants for schools in disadvantaged areas. This would top up the general increases in capitation grants for caretakers and secretaries. The top up should be funded by the difference between the general increase they receive and the money transferred from FAS to the Department. The Department should then fund the general increase going to other schools from its own Budget.
This would be somewhat more expensive but well worth the price in our view. Schools in disadvantaged areas certainly have great needs in terms of maintainance of inadequate infrastructure (caretakers), frequently a very challenging classroom environment (class room assistants) and more complex and intensive interactions with the local community (secretaries).

Conclusion

The Community Employment Scheme is the main programme that helps those who are LTU it also provides workers for many community based projects around the country. We have not addressed the issues concerning the stability of these projects and their development of longer-term \'own\' funding. Instead we have argued that CE should become more responsive to the particular needs of its participants. This means reform in the areas of training, inter-agency communication, and addressing public policy issues relating to lone parents and those with disabilities and mental health problems. It also means re-setting the limits in an appropriate way for each group and also linking CE with participation in the Part-Time Job Incentive scheme for some who need more permanent \'sheltered\' employment. This we believe is the best way to rationalize CE.

The current strategy of reducing the numbers of CE places by transferring sections of the FAS budget to other Government Departments is not an efficient way of addresssing these challenges. Further more it has poverty implications which the receiving Department should address. The Department of Education should include the bulk of the 43 milllion pounds its has gained through abolition of CE in schools in a debit column alongside the credits it will be happy to see listed as its input to the new National Anti-Poverty Strategy.

 

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.