I write this en route home to Cardiff from north Wales where I have spent the day with workers on a pair of parallel community-based employability programmes that operate in many Welsh communities: Communities For Work and Communities For Work Plus – CFW(+). I have been spending quite a bit of time of late with CFW(+) teams elsewhere in Wales too.

The programmes essentially provide intensive mentoring and support for people into work, or at least closer to the labour market. As a general rule, CFW operates in former Communities First (2003-2018) areas, while its Plus variation operates beyond those borders in a ‘wrap-around’ fashion.

Interestingly, one of the managers in a south Wales Valleys local authority told me recently that the CFW activity has benefited greatly from the years of Communities First presence. Its prior engagement providing a solid bedrock for CFW to reach into communities, gain trust and develop relationships. CFW+ in non-former Communities First areas, however, has had to dig its own foundations.

When Communities First came to end at the end of March 2018 yours truly was one of many hundred who faced redundancy, so it has been lovely to catch up with some of the ‘refugees’ from Communities First who have found employment on CFW(+).

But not as many as I was expecting to be honest.

Nonetheless, it’s been encouraging to see values-driven people who recognise they can help people into not just work but can help them empower themselves, make positive choices in a myriad of inter-connected aspects of their lives, and contribute to their local communities. I am minded, however, of the classic traditions of Radical and Professional community work.

The Professional approach might posit that the benefits of gainful employment – income, sense of self-worth, purpose, routine, structure – lead to people, and by extension communities, to be better off, enhancing cultural and social capital. Or that people who find themselves disconnected from the labour market (for whatever reason) can be supported into work in a manner that considers their aspirations and works from within bureaucratic and institutional environments (such as the job centre, Department for Work and Pensions, etc.) to make processes more humane, dignifying, sympathetic and tailored to people’s individual needs. People can be skilled up to improve ‘their lot’, be it soft skills (such as increased confidence and assertiveness) or harder skills (qualifications and trades).

The Radical approach adopts a more oppositional approach to one’s practice and seeks to challenge the structural and hegemonic forces that cause, for instance, unemployment; are attuned to inequalities in the labour market (discrimination, gender bias, etc.); and see campaigning (such as for the living wage, or four day week) as something that is part of their raison d’etre, and not something that should be apolitically or passively observed from the sidelines.

From my time with CfW(+) it is clear that since they are government-funded initiatives, once drawing on European Union investment, they fall very definitely in the ‘professional’ camp.

Managerial in style, the programmes encourage their workforce to work with individuals to ‘shave off’ or ‘polish’ their rough edges. In so doing, do they serve to re-enforce the individualisation of people’s ability to find and retain work? I guess the clue is in the word ‘employability’ – one’s ability to be employed. Even their logos re-enforce this ‘leg up’.

There is a creeping acquiescence in these programmes – as there increasingly was in Communities First to be honest – to structural drivers of inequality. And to future issues that will affect the economy and labour such as automation and artificial intelligence. It is better late than never that the CfW(+) workforces have been informed about the recent Digital Innovation Review led by Prof. Phil Brown at Cardiff University that sets out what practical and long-term actions Wales can take to meet the challenges of digital innovation and the opportunities they present. From a community development point of view it is extremely encouraging to hear Brown emphasise:

“I hope this report acts as a catalyst to ignite a national conversation on what digital innovation means for the people and communities of Wales, not just the high-tech innovative businesses of the future.” (emphasis added)

But back to the here and now, and at their worst, employability programmes serve as publicly-funded employment agencies that serve up workers like succulent lamb for exploitation (short-term work, work that undermines fragile domestic caring/parental/familial relationships, leave people financially worse-off, etc.).

There is also little understanding in these programmes about the increasing precariousness of work across many sectors and a chronic lack of awareness of co-operative forms of employment and organising. This is despite there being repeated reference and homage across the Welsh polity and civil society to the Basque Mondragon co-operative model and a stated policy aim to increase the co-operative size and share of the Welsh economy.

The same goes for concepts such as universal basic income (UBI) and the four day week. These employability programmes seem largely ignorant of a future where there is potentially less work available for people. Are they cognisant of harmful work? Something that UBI would enable and empower people to reject.

I queried on LinkedIn a few months ago whether employability programmes ‘screen’ the ethics of employers with whom they engage and provide workers. Job fairs are a staple of these programmes, but do they reject employers who fail to (at least):

  • provide flexible working
  • pay the living wage
  • hold Investors In People accreditation
  • allow staff to unionise
  • allow speak in their first language with colleagues
  • offer the likes of a bike-to-work scheme, or credit union payroll deduction

The silence was deafening.

There is an approximately 500 strong CFW(+) workforce out in communities working with legions of economically inactive people – many of whom have common experiences of the labour market – so why not start by educating it about the principles of co-operativism and encourage community organising principles to pollenate within the programmes’ work?

I recently heard of a project in the Rhondda that is providing funding to a local community transport organisation to provide a minibus that gets people to a factory the commute to which public transport cannot cater for. Given that poor transport infrastructure and services disproportionately affect more disadvantaged communities this is, on a basic level, welcome.

But it is public funding that is underwriting the scheme and it isn’t clear whether sustainability to ensure the workers have a long-term transport solution has been planned for. Might there be a co-operative solution for the workers to ultimately own the minibus, which in turn can become a community asset and income generator for the co-op? The thinking needs to turn the dial to be more focused on community aspirations and solutions.

Community development workers – unfettered from programme targets related to people in work – inhabiting the spaces, the fissures, between sectors; within communities; not just networking, but to use Alison Gilchrists’s concept of ‘meta-networking’ – working to encourage groups to autonomously become better networked themselves – would better equip these employability programmes with the means of organising against economic and labour inequalities.

If Wales’ employability programmes continue to serve the needs of capital and not its communities and people, we cannot be surprised if in 10 or 20 years time work continues to not be the route out of poverty and towards prosperity.