20 January 2006

The changing face of employment issues in North Belfast


The Mater Hospital is involved in a new initiative that tailor trains people out of work for posts that suffer a staffing shortfall at the hospital due to lack of local expertise. The new project has cross-party support.

Each year statistics are produced that show the extent of unemployment and deprivation in the North, with the data produced pored over by government experts who pledge to work hard to make sure things improve.

The rate of progress can often be very slow, and as initiatives and programmes get bogged down in bureaucracy and political wrangling, the situation on the ground changes little for the ordinary person, who still face problems such as lack of employment and poverty.

Under these circumstances, people in deprived areas in North Belfast on both sides of the community will be forgiven for not getting too excited to know that members of the North Belfast Partnership Board met with Direct Rule minister Angela Smith in Belfast Castle this week, to announce yet another employment initiative. This time, however, a radical new approach to these problems could signal a breakthrough that both the British government and all the local political parties are confident will benefit everyone in the community.

Called the Equal Employability Access Project (EAP), it’s the first initiative of its kind that seeks to solve a range of problems in the North Belfast area through interaction between the North and West Belfast Trust and a range of employment agencies.

The theory behind the project is that the Mater Hospital, a major employer in the area, which faces constant skills shortages will train prospective employees and tailor that training to the hospital’s needs.

Under the terms of the EAP those people who are out of work would be given support and encouragement to build up the confidence to apply for these jobs, and if they are successful, will then get training once in the position to fulfil the needs of the hospital.

The benefits of the system are clear to see. Not only are jobs being created in the local community, but also one of the community’s main resources, the local hospital, is operating with sufficient staff and therefore providing a better service to local patients.

Speaking at the launch of the EAP Angela Smith said everyone in North Belfast would see the positive knock on effects of the programme.

“This project will not only benefit those who gain employment through the scheme and the Mater Hospital, but also their communities who can only gain from having higher employment. “This project is a demonstration of how we can join up different parts of the public sector, to create better public services and at the same time create good quality employment opportunities for the people of North Belfast.”

An issue that has dogged employment schemes in the past has been the question of how sustainable the jobs being created are. Over the years a raft of initiatives have been introduced which did little more than cook the employment figures and place the unemployed in temporary jobs with little or not prospects.

Angela Smith says the fact that the Mater Hospital is the primary source of employment will ensure the jobs are sustainable.

“In the past we have often used the voluntary and community sector as a basis to create employment, but this hasn’t always been sustainable. I am delighted to see the Mater Hospital interested in this process, and seeing how they can use their employment opportunities for the benefit of people in their area.

“They know that if they can get local people, with local understanding and good skills they will have a stable labour force, able to provide high quality services.”

The minister went on to say she would be following the scheme’s progress with interest and said the plan was to roll it out in other areas.

Director of Human Resources at the Trust and chair of the EAP, Eamonn Molloy, also emphasised that the scheme would offer viable employment, acknowledging that any post would have to be competitive and offer good conditions to those who are recruited.

“We understand that when the person improves their confidence and is ready to enter the job market there is choice out there, but we are confident that the jobs we have available will be attractive. “We have developed a DVD which explains the opportunities available in the health service to unskilled long-term unemployed people.

“We hope that by using this medium we can convince people that a future in the health service is worthwhile,” he said.

Sinn Féin councillor for Oldpark, Carál Ní Chuilín, is joint chair of the North Belfast Partnership Board and she sought to allay fears that the unemployed will be forced into unsuitable work.

“The EAP is about growing the confidence of people and creating community empowerment. “My party would never back a scheme that forced people into work when they were not ready,” she said.

“If someone does take part in the six week job preparation and personal development programme, and does not feel ready for employment, then they will not be forced into work.”

Cllr Ní Chuilín said the scheme was a very good way of improving confidence, and added it was good news for North Belfast.

“The project is very rewarding and through devices like the DVD it can spread understanding about what the options are to those who are unemployed so that we can get them back into work when they are ready.”

DUP Councillor Ian Crozier is the other joint chair of the North Belfast Partnership Board. He echoed Cllr Ní Chuilín’s support, praising the scheme and the benefits it will provide for North Belfast.
“This is about using the Mater to help employment and I hope that it is a success,” he said.

“Although you may come in at a basic level, there is opportunity to get promoted and this is to be welcomed.

“There is funding there from Europe to help make this a success and the trade unions are also involved so along with the other support and training, there is recourse to meaningful employment.”

Journalist:: Evan Short

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