YOUNG unemployed people have said they gain invaluable experience at Horsham District Council by taking part in the nationally controversial unpaid work scheme.
The Workfare scheme co-ordinated by Jobcentre Plus has been running for about a year and involves unemployed people claiming Jobseekers Allowance working unpaid in a wide range of companies.
Nationally it recently received widespread criticism with big players, including Tesco, forced to pull out amid protests that they were using people as free labour and denying them and others paid work.
Following the controversy, the Government was then pressurised by companies and charities taking part in the scheme to not dock claimants’ benefits if they chose not to continue with the placement for any reason.
Companies said it should be truly voluntary with no penalties.
Last week HDC leader Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry) openly told this newspaper Workfare was a ‘worthwhile initiative’ and this week young people doing placements at the council agreed with him.
Since the middle of January the council has taken on thirteen 18 to 25-year-olds for placements of between one and eight weeks, with most staying for the full eight weeks.
James Hurst, 22, who is in his third week of working in performance management, said: “The press nationally have been universally dismissive of this scheme. I don’t think that’s fair.
“I’m overseeing a project of data mapping - getting lots of data together from the council’s archives and putting it online.
“It’s been very useful.”
Oxford University law graduate Rebecca Crosdil, 22, from Colgate, has ambitions to be a solicitor, but lack of experience is blocking her career path.
She said: “I’m in my seventh week in the legal department.
“I’ve been really enjoying my time getting lots of experience, getting used to the legal jargon and I’m enjoying the planning aspect.
“I want to qualify to be a solicitor, but it’s getting the law placements for experience. To get eight weeks here is really good.”
Likewise, 19-year-old Cameron Aitchison, from Horsham, and Kayleigh Attfield, 21, from Billingshurst have used the experience to get closer to their career goals.
He said: “I’m working on the Community Safety Partnership and want to be a policeman.
“I’ve been working alongside the police and road safety partnership. I’ve learnt loads about lots of different things.”
Kayleigh Attfield, 21, who has been out of work for eight months, said: “I’m working in economic and development managing events. I’ve always wanted to get into events management and I’ve never had the opportunity to be able to get the experience.
“I can put it on my CV and I’ve got an interview as well.”
Critics have said companies are using young people for their own gain, but David George, 23, a volunteer in strategic planning for the past five weeks, said that was not his experience.
“The first thing I did when I got here was sit down with my manager to see what I wanted to get out of the placement and how I could get the maximum benefit out of the job.
“I can understand people at Tesco feeling used, but it’s been largely beneficial for me.
“Also I’ve now been able to apply for jobs I wouldn’t have been able to go for without this experience.”
Others have been able to find out how they can use their interests in a job.
Jason Waller, 24, from Horsham and 23-year-old Nick Isaacson, who lives in Billingshurst, are working on an exhibition at Horsham Museum due to take place later this month.
Jason said they were able to do work which other volunteers do not have time to do.
“We’ve been working through the chemist’s collections.
“I’m looking at curating and it’s been really interesting for me.”
Project officer for economic development and leisure and manager of the scheme at HDC Leigh Chambers defended the scheme saying they were not taking roles of people who would otherwise be paid.
He said: “We try to place them in areas they want to do and where it would be beneficial for them.
“These are new placements. We cannot do everything we would like to do and there are specific projects will add value to the council, to the young people and to the residents of the district.”
Jason added: “We know it’s a voluntary project and you go into it knowing you’re not going to get paid.
“Tesco have so much profit there’s no excuse, but the council doesn’t have as much money.”