Opinion

Care leavers find it much harder to get a job – but any company would be lucky to have us

New research released by Spectra for National Care Leavers Week found that 28% of care leavers said their upbringing makes it harder to get a job

Sophia recently joined The Big Issue as Deputy Digital Editor

On Saturday 28 October, iconic buildings across the UK, from the London Eye to the Blackpool Tower, lit up blue to raise awareness of the 10,000 children each year who transition out of the care system and into adulthood.

Compared to other 16-25-year-olds, these young people – known as ‘care leavers’, most likely have no familial support net, no financial security, and often a lack of guidance when applying for their first job.

As a care experienced person, I know this all too well. As a 16-year-old, still in foster care, I was turned away from countless waitressing and customer service jobs as I had no one to help me write a CV or prepare me for the rigmarole of job applications. One situational judgement assessment – a phrase I had never heard previously – left my teenage self in floods of tears when after an hour-long online test, I was told I was ‘not skilled enough’ to be considered for an interview at a high street drugstore.

Falling midway through National Care Leavers Week (25th October – 1st November) the initiative to light up iconic buildings blue was spearheaded by the Care Leaver Covenant, a national inclusion programme supporting those leaving care aged 16-25 to live independently.

Funded by the Department for Education, and diversity and inclusion specialists Spectra, the covenant’s latest campaign ‘Care Leavers Wanted’ focused on encouraging companies to commit to hiring care leavers into their workforces. This three-word phrase was pictured on JCDecaux billboards across the UK during the awareness week, bringing national attention to the campaign.

The London Eye lit up blue for National Care Leavers Week 2023. Credit: Care Leaver Covenant

Mainstream representation for care leavers

Last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert memorably revolved around the story of a family preparing to take in a new foster child – or in particular, the attempts of the protagonist to learn how to skateboard in order to bond with the new family addition.

While a touching advert in its own right that was praised by care experienced people and campaigners in the sector for bringing foster care into the mainstream, John Lewis went one step further. As well as donating presents to children in care last Christmas, the high-end department store committed to hiring people with lived experience of ‘care’.

Thousands of companies like Amazon and ITV have also committed to hiring care experienced people. The latest of these is Merlin Entertainments who signed up to the covenant’s initiative in August of this year with their programme called Merlin Illuminate. In the two months they’ve been a part of the scheme, the entertainment company has already employed more than 50 young care experienced people into new jobs and is offering a 50% care leaver discount to all of their attractions in the UK.

While unsuccessful in my own 16-year-old quest for a job in hospitality, the first role I landed ended up being at Legoland aged 17, the Merlin Entertainments-owned theme park. With no online situational judgement test in sight and a practical group interview where I could show the employers what I was capable of in person, I felt on a much more level playing field with my peers.

However, the job was three trains and one bus away from my foster placement, and it took well over two hours on public transport. It could have been a 20-minute car journey, but I had no one to drive me, or the money to learn how or buy myself a car. So I would set off three hours before my shift started in order to get there on time, whilst spending 20% of my already low daily salary on travel.

Wellbeing in the workplace

Earlier this year, an academic study funded by the Nuffield Foundation found that many care leavers were entering work that was “unlikely to provide a sound platform for their long-term emotional and economic well-being”. Due to the majority of young people leaving care needing to fund independent or semi-independent living, the level of pay offered for apprenticeships and employment was a “strong disincentive” to engage with work or work-focused training.

Figures from the study revealed that almost one-third (32%) of care leavers aged 21 in England are not in education, employment or training (NEET). This is compared to just 2.4% of the general population and 13% of 21-year-olds.

New research released by Spectra for National Care Leavers Week found that 28% of care leavers said their upbringing makes it harder to get a job, and a quarter say they have faced negative reactions from employers when applying.

That same research, however, also showed that 80% of care leavers believe their lived experience makes them more self-reliant, 78% think more adaptable, and 79% think more resilient than the average candidate. 

‘You were in foster care? What did you do wrong?‘

In my last term of university, I showed my tutor the CV I would be sending out to employers and she asked, “Why isn’t your care experience on here?” Startled, I asked why that would be relevant, and she replied, “Well it makes everything on your CV look twice as impressive.”

For a few months, I briefly mentioned my care experience in my CV, but swiftly removed this after one manager offhandedly remarked, “Foster care? You must’ve been a bad kid. What did you do wrong?”

But my tutor was onto something. While there continues to be stigma around the care experienced community, there is so much this group has to offer, both in the workplace and in making society a more inclusive place.

The care experienced community, while diverse and varied as individuals, is a group of people who are mature beyond their age due to having to grow up faster than others. A group with innate independence and autonomy, learned from having to be the only person in their corner. And a group that understands empathy perhaps on a much deeper level.

Any company would be lucky to have a care experienced employee in their ranks.

Find out more about the Care Leaver Covenant and download their Inclusive Employment Kit

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