Breaking down barriers to employment with bread and roses

Social enterprises are helping to create new pathways into work for people facing barriers to employment and learning, with the aim of not just connecting individuals with any form of employment but careers in which they’ll have the capacity to flourish.

One such example is NOW Group. It’s a social enterprise based in Northern Ireland that supports people with barriers to employment and learning, including all levels of learning difficulty and learning disability, autism and autistic spectrum condition.

NOW exists to equip people with the tools they need to make informed decisions about their future, from delivering accredited training which helps prepare for independence and the world of work, to the support necessary to find - and keep - a job they want.

NOW runs Loaf Catering, an outside catering delivery business, as well as three cafes; Loaf Cafe & Bakery beside Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, The Bobbin Cafe at Belfast City Hall and the Pottery & Coffee Shop in Crawfordsburn. In addition, NOW offers a family service to support new and expectant parents with a learning difficulty or autism.

"We see real potential for collaboration across sectors to create sustainable jobs," says Maeve Monaghan [above], CEO of NOW Group, on the opportunity for traditional businesses and social enterprises to work together to break barriers to employment.

Read: Understanding gender diversity in the workplace

"Businesses now realise that hiring a diverse workforce, reflective of their customer base, makes good business sense."

The law already seeks to promote employment equality and inclusion, and workforce diversity is widely seen as being of tangible benefit to businesses and the wider economy. One study published in the Harvard Business Review last year found that cognitively diverse teams (people with "differences in perspective or information processing styles") solve problems quicker.

"This isn’t your usual charity, this is the right way to do business," adds Monaghan. "What started as a discussion about creating jobs has led to new strategic partnerships between NOW and key employers in Northern Ireland."

NOW Group started small and focused on growth through supply chain relationships: "Companies employ our participants, order catering from and become JAM Card friendly businesses."

Read: Why businesses should be wary of hiring for 'cultural fit'

The results speak for themselves. In 2017 and 2018, NOW supported 46 people with disabilities into paid jobs, with a retention rate of 82 per cent. "That’s real people, happy in jobs where they are valued members of staff," says Monaghan.

"Feedback tells us that these strategic partnerships are mutually beneficial and should be the future for a social economy where we’re all part of the solution to the problems in our society."

NOW also measures the impact it makes on participants and employers, and can evidence that for every £1 invested in NOW, it returns £10 on social value.

Bread and Roses, a social enterprise that trains female refugees in floristry, was started in May 2016 by Olivia Head and Sneh Jani, together with florist Liv Wilson. It takes its name from a political slogan coined by American socialist and feminist Rose Schneiderman. She famously said women in low-paid jobs need more than just bread - the basics in life - to survive. They also deserve roses - dignity, respect and the opportunity to flourish.

Against a backdrop of dwindling support for refugees in the UK, Bread and Roses has sought to "help women on their pathway to employment by empowering and supporting them into jobs where they feel valued", and by creating opportunities to develop their language skills.

It’s a simple but radical idea. Organisations could sign up to support a participant on the training programme, and received a bouquet every week for seven weeks created by the participant in return.

That social enterprises are at the forefront of dismantling barriers to employment should perhaps come as no surprise. What’s truly compelling is the part traditional businesses might play in adding grist to that mill, for the ultimate benefit of everyone.

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