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Introducing our "Employability Chats" Q&A with Hannah Brooke, Head of Partnerships at Renaisi, a UK-based social enterprise on a mission to combat economic and social exclusion at its roots. Hannah shares her insights on addressing the complex challenges of exclusion, supporting refugees into employment, and the multiple barriers they face accessing jobs.
Q: Welcome to “Employability Chats” Hannah. You are Head of Partnerships for Renaisi who are on a mission to strengthen communities across the UK by challenging the root causes of economic and social exclusion. Can you tell us more about Renaisi, its mission and the work it does?
We’ve been around for 25 years and are really proud of being a social enterprise. We don’t need to return value to shareholders, so we can absolutely invest in our mission which you have just described there. While trends and terminology has changed over time, our work has always been about economic and social inclusion. We firmly believe that unless you tackle the root causes you are never going to get to the heart of the issue and you are never going to create and sustain real change and that’s ultimately the goal. We use our experience across our business, our insights and our partnerships to ensure we have that impact across the UK.
We are a multifaceted beast - we do social research and evaluation, we act as learning partners for not for-profits, funders, public sector and do frontline delivery work, adopting a combination of systems, place-based and person centred change approaches.
Q: Although a complex question, what does Renaisi see as the root causes of economic and social exclusion and what are the best ways to tackle those causes?
It’s a big question isn’t it! In our day to day work, we see what you would call the symptoms of the root causes - long term unemployment, people living in insecure housing, poor mental health and also broader patterns or trends like poverty. We take an approach of thinking about the underlying structures to that - what is it that is helping to create and perpetuate that? That could be, in terms of the work we do supporting refugees, hostile immigration policies, non-inclusive recruitment practices or more broadly the unfair distribution of power.
If you go one step further, you can see that those structural barriers are underpinned by mental models – many of which are “isms” such as colonialism, racism, ageism and sexism.
You asked the question how can we tackle those root causes - well there is no silver bullet. People’s identities and lives are complex, and so are the barriers they face and there is no single programme or service to fix them all but we do know that the way in which employability programmes are funded and designed generally often drives the wrong behaviours and leads to adverse or poor outcomes.
Q: What about your own career journey - what has been your path leading up to your role at Renaisi?
I have worked previously in the corporate sector - I was in financial services. Also, in the not for-profit sector both in a voluntary capacity working overseas in international development and here in the UK in a membership organisations that supports businesses to be more responsible. The golden thread underpinning all my roles, has been a sense of purpose, it hasn’t been enough just to show up, it is really important to be doing something where I am helping to move the dial on some of these big issues.
Q: I know from our previous conversation a few months ago that Renaisi supports refugees into work. Can you share some of the work you are doing here and the various communities you support?
One of our flagship programmes is “Transitions” -an inclusive recruitment service that restarts the careers of refugee professionals, we do that by connecting them to our inclusive employment partners and together supporting them to thrive.
Our candidates are engineers, built environment professionals, architects, urban planners etc. Then there is a growing pool of business services professionals such as tech talent, financial experts, project managers. They hail from a range of countries and communities - some arrive in the UK through safe routes others are forced to find a path by hook or by crook.
We work with everybody - Ukrainians, Afghans, people from Hong Kong, Sudan, Syria, Eritrea – anyone who is subject to persecution or fleeing conflict, has arrived in the UK and has the right to work.
Q: From your own experience at Renaisi, what are the main barriers the refugees you support face and what support should the wider net be focused on so people like them can start working?
I can get onto some of the barriers but what we have learned from working with this group of professionals is that empowerment is key to helping them rebuild their lives. You need knowledge and confidence as well as the skills to access work that is commensurate with your skills and experience.
The work we are doing falls into two broad categories. Firstly we work with individuals to help them overcome the personal barriers they face. For example, they might not understand how the UK labour market operates so we can walk them through that. We help them understand what a UK CV is expected to look like - 2 pages not 10. We help them to understand how to navigate or approach a competency based interview and while those interviews are designed to treat everyone equally, our candidates have often never experienced these before and so are not set up to perform well in them so we have to coach them in how to approach them. On top of this there are barriers around working in English as a second language.
Secondly, there are structural barriers that sit within the recruitment systems of employers. There are things like where the ad is posted - is the candidate going to see it, is the language accessible or is it going to exclude certain people. Then there are biases people might hold such as declining CVs with gaps on them - our candidates have gaps due to relocation or not being legally allowed to work while they apply for asylum, but if you probe you will find that these candidates will have been doing volunteer work and focusing on upskilling such as learning English or seeing to the needs of their families. If you think about an algorithm, which perpetuates human bias, looking at that CV – again it is most likely to be rejected.
Another key barrier is not having UK work experience, we understand that there are some jobs where you need it and that’s ok, but for the majority of jobs targeted upskilling can address the difference in knowledge.
Not recognising qualifications can also be a major barrier and one of the things we chat to employers and candidates about is that individuals can go to a body called ENIC and they can get a comparability statement or assessment that will say that their BA from their country that they acquired is the equivalent to a BA in the UK and that helps give some assurance. There are some professions where that won’t fly so they will need to go through a requalification process.
We essentially enable the employers we work with to tackle socio-economic exclusion by addressing bias and developing more inclusive recruitment practices. There are simple adjustments that can be made and companies can then plug their skills gaps and build a more inclusive and diverse workforce.
Q: What role does technology play in how you support people or how could it make supporting people easier?
We learned as a result of the pandemic that we can work with professionals remotely so that was a bit of a game changer. While previously we might have been London focused, now we can support candidates throughout the UK as long as they have access to a device and the internet. Digital exclusion is a factor across some groups and while typically the refugee professionals we work with are highly skilled and digitally savvy, Renaisi more broadly works with other underrepresented groups such as over 50’s. We run a programme called “Wise Horizons” that helps this group who are digitally excluded and focuses on how we can support people back into work by using tech and developing digital skills.
Q: Renaisi recently published its 2023-2026 strategy document called “Let’s push things forward” - can you share some of the key focus areas in relation to supporting people into work?
Our new strategy acknowledges that many systems and services are broken. It's time to work differently whether that's the direct delivery of services, commissioning, evaluating or developing them. Our aim is to push things forward step-by-step, layer-by-layer, and with those at the heart of the issue playing a central role.
In our frontline work that means moving away from the large-scale contract work we have done in the past to focus on playing a more impactful role in the system. We want to work with the people who are most marginalised, underrepresented and left behind. We want to collaborate with others so we can deepen our impact and we absolutely need to ensure that the people closest to the issue are central to what we do from the beginning. We are continuing to focus on refugees, older people, people with long term health conditions, racialised groups, and shaping support to meet their needs.
It’s all about providing high quality support - we focus on empowerment to overcome the cultural and systemic barriers. We want to equip people with the skills and confidence they need to get a job and coaching has been an integral part of how we are doing that. We see coaching as a way that candidates can take back power they have lost in elements of their life and enable them to take ownership of their journey into employment.
Q: When you are not focused at Renaisi, what do you enjoy doing outside of work for balance?
I am a busy mum with 3 boys and do a lot of grass roots football supporting and cheering and I enjoy that. I am also a crossfitter when I’m not with the family, I love my CrossFit community and doing workouts that make me feel strong and able to cope with whatever life throws at me.
Q: If you had a magic wand and could make one change to help deliver better job outcomes for economically and socially excluded people, what would you do?
It’s a really tricky question. I think the biggest difference I could make if I could wave that wand would be for funders to actually work with providers and the people they want to support so that their lived experience and expertise could drive the design of where money goes and not targets or outcomes designed from up on high by people who have no knowledge of what it's like to live in insecure housing and face some of the other barriers we have talked about. That would go a long way to fixing the problem, but I would like to hold on to that magic wand and keep on going!