Happy As Larry
Dressed in his whites, rubber gloves and what looked like some kind of blue shower cap; Mark, standing in the middle of his very busy (and noisy) workstation, proudly told BBC reporter Natasha Sayee that "right now I'm as happy as Larry."
Six months ago, Mark was one of the 46,000 young people in Northern Ireland not in education, training or employment. One week ago Mark, now aged 21, left care.
Labour statistics each month draw our attention to the fact that more than one in five 18-24 year olds are not in work here. However what the statistics fail to show is that regardless of whether we're in a 'boom or bust' cycle, a particular group of young people have always been furthest from the labour market and are likely to remain there unless government and employers do more.
Using advice provided by the Equality Commission and their 'Outreach Positive Action' guidance, the Health and Social Care Board has been instrumental in assisting young care leavers to access employment opportunities.
Only 14 per cent of young care leavers aged 16-18 obtain five GCSE grades A*-C or higher; compared with 72 per cent of general school leavers. Almost half have no qualifications; compared with two per cent of their peers. And of care leavers, where information was available (ahem), more than a quarter are unemployed with an additional nine per cent economically inactive.
Under fair employment legislation it is lawful for employers to give preference to people who have not been in employment for a defined period of time when applying to fill vacancies. This means that reserving specific job vacancies for unemployed persons or only recruiting from individuals who have not been in employment for a period of time is possible.
Mark filled in his application form like everyone else. He went for an assessment like everyone else and took part in a grueling interview process, just like everyone else. He was appointed because he was the best person for the job.
Mark has seven GCSEs, one A Level and two catering qualifications. For six months he has been cycling five miles to and five miles from a full-time permanent shift job, which he loves, at Knockbracken Foods - the 'cook chill food production unit' operated by the Belfast HSC Trust (his corporate parents).
And this approach can be easily replicated by socially responsible employers in other sectors too, where all parties involved are supported and willing.
It's probably worth noting that I haven't been hiding out in a magic anti-recession bubble, I am fully aware that every time we hear about jobs being created, they're only too soon followed by news of jobs being lost elsewhere. But this isn't about jobs, this is about opportunity.
A young person having a job is one thing; a young person having a meaningful job that gives them a feeling of self-worth is another. As Mark so superbly puts it, he's now as 'happy as Larry.'
Equality Commission staff provide advice to employers in relation to legislative provisions as well as to offer support to those organisations that aim to facilitate those not in employment into work.
Visit us here.
NB: Each of the five Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland have Employability Services, aimed at improving the number of young people leaving care who engage in education, employment and training. Include Youth delivers this aspect of the service with the 16+ teams in Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, in partnership with Opportunity Youth, and in the Western Health and Social Care Trust.