Earlybird Employability Chats: Q&A with Barbara Strong

March 23, 2023

In this Earlybird chat Q&A, we welcome Barbara Strong, an experienced employability professional with more than 30 years in the employability sector. Barbara shares her insights, the changes, and the challenges facing job seekers.

Barbara Strong
Q: Can you tell us about your experience and roles you have been involved with in the employability sector?

I have been involved with employability and the benefit system for over 30 years, starting as a  single mum on benefits for 6 years. My first low paid job was assisting on the notorious mandatory 2 week, 35 hour Job Plan Workshop for very long term unemployed (5 yrs plus). Known for aggression, anger, violence, disruptive behaviour, poor attendance and clients with extremely complex life situations, generational benefit dependency, I sat as a new assistant, in front of this angry and negative group of 20 people. There was really important information in the course, but it was patronising, boring, demotivating, uninspiring and presented so badly. As “an outsider” I saw the delivery itself created many of the problematic behaviours. So on that first day, I made a commitment, underpinning my work and beliefs. 30 years later my priority is the job seeker and their needs.

To increase my wage, I moved to another provider, this time to engage JCP staff to broker referrals & on prog starts. I found new and exciting ways to work with JCPs that increased referrals by a huge 80%. After working for 6 years, I was still on in-work benefits and the scrutiny of DWP was causing me worry & anxiety, so I took a more senior management role, in a College. Finally I was off of benefits.

I then set up Be Strong Works and became a specialist freelancer supporting frontline staff and projects with specific flexible services to add value to and support their hard work. I learnt a lot about what works and doesn't work on the frontline of getting all kinds of people into sustainable work and off of benefits.

After so many years and feeling I had gone as far as I could professionally, and being on my own personal development journey, in 2012, I went overseas to volunteer and help communities in Nepal, Thailand and India. That journey evolved & I was overseas for 8 years. Since coming back to the UK, I recently started a new role with Croydon Community Partnership

Q: What role have you enjoyed the most and why?

Genuinely every single one of them.  I still vividly see in my mind, a group of 15 women, literally strutting around declaring out loud their personal profiles and sticking hearts on each other. So much joy. Inspiring to be a part of. My proudest moment was being the Creative Careers Advisor for a 3 day international youth skills event for BBC Education.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in the sector in the last 20 years?

With a 30 year perspective, the biggest change is universal credit. There have always been sanctions, mandated programmes, penalties imposed on jobseekers but UC is more invasive and the sanctions are much more extreme compared to previous decades. The creation of IEP (Institute of Employability Professionals) is the most important change to me personally and professionally. At last, the work I have been doing since the late 80s has a name “EmployAbility”. I have always felt that our work wasn’t recognised as Specialists. There were no routes for progression, for mastery, or increased income unless you become a manager, which frequently takes skilled people away from client facing work.

Another change is seeing unconscious bias being tackled in recruitment, at last. I could see this tool being developed and used as part of frontline and JCP staff development, as the relationship between client and advisor is extremely subjective and unconscious bias may affect sanctions,expectations and level of service delivery all which affect outcomes.

Q: What impact have changes of government had during your time in the employability sector?

Governments come and go, but the experience on the frontline remains pretty much the same. I've worked through 4 changes of government and while the names of the provisions but essentially the delivery and models for helping people into work remain largely the same.  The priority groups remain the same, lone parents, PWDS, ex- offenders, 50+, people in part time-work. The biggest impact I ever felt was the austerity cuts of 2009, cutting public and 3rd / charity sector funding. This cut off a source of vacancies from employers more accommodating to unemployed and applicants with more complex life stories.

Q: What have been the 3 consistent barriers you have experienced for people trying to access work?

Lack of motivation, self confidence and limiting beliefs. Poor CVs despite attending many services and training providers. Lack of empowerment, not being TAUGHT how to find work, for life. As well as, the barriers of benefit dependency and the benefit trap.

Q: What technology could best support an employment adviser or employability teams in their roles?

An overall reporting system, complementing all funding streams would help free up time that advisors could give to their clients, so one input is reported across all contract reporting. Technology is useful for completing skills, personality, aptitude tests, assessments to enhance advisors work and save time.

Q: How can we better support young people with barriers so they can find work?

By ensuring that we have more highly skilled trainers and presenters, that young people can look up to and be inspired by. We should be actively looking for the young stars and natural talents on the frontline to shine on those in the darkest of moods. Technology plays a role in making learning fun and interesting, but not at the expense of excellent training and presentations.

For young people the world is changing quickly and will continue to. More industries will be mechanised and made redundant, especially at the lower end of skill sets, retail, production, leaving real challenges and opportunities for young people in the future beyond finding a job.

Offering more programmes around entrepreneurship, business, money management need to be more widely taught and teaching young people how they can manage and take control of their minds and so their lives.

Q: As we celebrate women's history month - which woman has inspired you the most and why?

A woman that inspired me was the American poet Maya Angelou. In my working class, ignorant, uneducated world, no one even considered things like inspiration and one day while watching Oprah, I heard her poem “Still I rise”. I felt as a woman, possibility and inspiration. And in my journey it has always been women who inspire me....always

Q: If you had a magic wand and could make one change for the sector in 2023 what would it be?

Genuine out of the box thinking and beginning to work with job seekers at the fundamental level.

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