Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Unemployment case study – Harlow's jobless over-50s

The number of people claiming unemployment benefits has fallen again. But tell that to Kevin Forbes. The 56-year-old IT professional lost his job at a City investment bank five years ago and has been out of work ever since.

Standing on the drive of his home in the Essex town of Harlow, he points to other houses around the estate where men of his age group have faced a similar fate. Some have found work in warehouses and as drivers. Others, like Forbes, are applying for jobs but just not getting the calls back.

The recession may be over but for those over 50 and out of work there is little sign of any recovery in job prospects. Yesterday's official data showed 21,000 more over-50s joined the long-term unemployed in the three months to February. In total, 143,000 people in that age bracket were out of work for more than 12 months – the highest total since the summer of 1998.
For Forbes, despite having more than 30 years of IT and management experience, the older he gets and the longer he is out of work, the harder he feels it is to get a job.

"When I was made redundant I thought I would walk into roles. But it was downhill. The worst thing is time. The time out is against you," he says.

He has applied for 4,700 jobs over the past five years and been invited to just two interviews. Alongside jobs at senior management level and banking he has also applied for taxi driving, warehousing jobs and baggage handling at nearby Stansted Airport. "I hit rock bottom last year and applied for a job at Harlow crematorium."

Forbes is angry when he hears talk of the jobs market recovering. For a start, people like him do not show up in all the statistics. Because of means-testing, a married man like Forbes who has a home and savings, does not draw any benefits. Instead he is working through his savings.

"Nobody could plan to be out of work at 51. At the end of the day, your money runs out," he says.

Forbes has invited over two neighbours to tell their stories.

Insurance professional Peter Martin, a 52-year-old father of three, lost his job last November. Ken Holland, a computer security specialist, was made redundant at the end of 2008. Now 51, he too has been living off his savings. "We have been cash cows for the government up to this point and in our hour of need we don't get anything," says Holland.

Martin's experience at his job centre is that most people trying to help do not have any experience of finding work for candidates of his experience level.

For all three, employment is a key issue at this election, which in Harlow sees Labour and Conservatives battling over one of the most marginal seats in the country, with only 97 votes separating them at the last election.

"Whoever wins has to somehow bring more employment into Harlow," says Martin. After one of the town's biggest employers, British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, announced 380 job losses in February he fears the situation will only get worse: "You are going to have more people going for the same vacancies."

Labour candidate Bill Rammell, Harlow's MP since 1997, says the situation would have been much worse without Labour initiatives to keep people in work.

"It's undoubtedly the case that because of the international economic downturn in the last two years, Harlow has been affected but it's not as bad as the recession in Tory times," he says.
Rammell has helped broker a deal for the Health Protection Agency to use part of GlaxoSmithKline's premises, creating "at least as many as were lost."

Robert Halfon, prospective Conservative MP for Harlow, says creating new jobs is a key campaign point for the constituency. He says: "In general it's unbelievably difficult to get jobs. Firms are still not employing people because they can't take the risk."

Peter Andrews, who runs local courier company Go Express, echoes that trend. "We are not looking at hiring at the moment. I don't want to promise people work. It's just not fair." When he did last advertise a vacancy at Christmas he was overwhelmed with 76 applications.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) paints a similar picture for the whole region. With bigger employers laying off workers in Harlow, small firms are being seen as key to picking up the slack. But businesses are still very nervous about calling a recovery, says FSB regional organiser for Essex Keith Brown. Almost a quarter of FSB members in the east of England expect the business situation to worsen in the next three months, with 40% expecting no change.

Brown says: "Members say they are worried that even if they are busy now they are not sure they will be in six months' time and because of the size of the business the new person working alongside you becomes your mate and it is very difficult to then get rid of them."

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