© Reuters. Zara Asamoah poses for a photo at Arriva Rail’s London office, Watford, UK, March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Paul Childs
By William Schomberg
WATFORD, England (Reuters) – When Zara Asamoah graduated early in the coronavirus pandemic, she had no permanent residence and her chances of finding work seemed slim.
Now, thanks to an acute shortage of applicants as the UK economy reopens and thanks to the support of Beam, a crowdfunding charity that helps the homeless find work, Asamoah has a job with a London railway company and lives in a shared house.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of pressure off me,” said the 25-year-old, who found it difficult to apply for jobs without a permanent address and to get a house with no steady income.
Globally, a shortage of people to fill jobs after the pandemic is driving changes in labor markets, alarming central banks who fear wage demands will fuel inflation, which has been high for decades.
In Britain, the problems are exacerbated by a decline in the number of EU workers after the country left the European Union. The vacancies are the highest ever. As a result, organizations that work with people that employers have long been wary of, including the homeless and other typically marginalized groups such as ex-offenders, have been able to open up more opportunities.
Beam estimates that employer interest in its services has tripled since the start of the pandemic. It has ramped up operations to help nearly 30 people a month into jobs so far this year, compared to about 3 a month in 2019, before the pandemic.
While hard numbers on the number of homeless people now being drawn into the workplace are hard to come by, the potential pool of workers is large.
In December, charity Shelter estimated 274,000 people homeless in England, most of them like Asamoah who crashed with friends and family, instead of sleeping rough.
STIMULATE VACANCIES, PERSONNEL CRIMES
The ratio of 4.1 vacancies in the UK to 100 employee jobs is a record.
During the pandemic, many older workers took early retirement and young people chose to stay in education. At the end of 2021, the proportion of 16-64-year-olds who were unemployed and not looking for one was 21.2%, up from 20.2% at the beginning of 2020, government data shows, equating to about half a million missing workers.
Sonali Punhani, UK chief economist at Credit Suisse (SIX:), said the problem is currently even more acute in the United States, where emergency benefits have sidelined many workers.
But Brexit meant Britain’s recovery was likely to be slower.
“Workers will come back this year, but I don’t think participation will return to pre-pandemic levels,” Punhani said.
Emily Hocking, head of talent acquisition for buses and trains at Arriva Group, the parent company of Arriva Rail London that hired Asamoah, said the situation was “incredibly difficult” for employers.
“Brexit, COVID – it has completely changed the landscape,” she said.
Faced with shortages of candidates who were “unsustainable,” Arriva sought more employees from new sources. Following a successful trial between Beam and its London facility, Arriva is now planning a national-level partnership.
A WEEK BECOMES YEAR
In addition to the high demand for labor, organizations like Beam are key to breaking the circle that keeps homeless people out of work.
Asamoah was without a permanent address for the first time in 2016 when her mother was evicted because of rent arrears. She stayed first with her then-boyfriend, then with a family friend, and then with her sister, doing part-time work only occasionally.
“A week turned into two weeks. Two weeks turned into a month. A month turned into a year,” she said. “I realized we just weren’t going to get the family home back.”
Despite the turmoil, Asamoah continued to study filmmaking at university. After graduating in 2020, she struggled again to find a place to stay when her congregation put her in touch with Beam.
Crowdfunding just over £3,000 ($3,936) brought Asamoah into a shared home a year ago and covered the cost of a laptop and other expenses. Beam coached her on job interviews and introduced her to employers, including Arriva.
Alex Stephany, the founder of Beam, said companies can meet the challenge of workforce shortages by “doing the right thing for society” and hiring ethically and diverse staff.
Interventions Alliance, an organization that helps former offenders find jobs, said it is now much easier to place its clients with a wider range of businesses, including transportation and hospitality companies that were previously reluctant.
“There’s a lot more openness now,” said Suki Binning, executive director of the Justice and Social Care group.
For Fox Group, a transport and construction company based in Blackpool, in the North West of England, there is potential in nearby Kirkham Prison.
A shift to online shopping during the pandemic made drivers some of the most sought-after workers, exacerbating the loss of about 4% of Fox’s drivers and construction workers after Brexit.
Fox currently employs two former inmates of the prison and seven others who are allowed to work during the day. In the coming weeks, Fox will open an academy to train and potentially employ 45 inmates as machine operators on day-release and once fully released.
“It’s a bit of a no-brainer,” said director Lee Hardy. “There are a lot of guys who want to work and we have work to offer.”
(Changes Beam status to charity social enterprise)