Fair Start Scotland - evaluation report 5: qualitative interviews with service participants - years 4 and 5 - November 2023

Part of a series of reports on the evaluation of Fair Start Scotland (FSS) employability service. The report presents findings from a series of qualitative interviews with FSS participants. The report covers years 4 and 5 (April 2021 to March 2023) of FSS delivery.

3. Prior experience of work search and unemployment

3.1 Working history & job search experiences

Respondents were asked to describe their working history and whether they were actively looking for a job prior to joining FSS. Several respondents reported that they had previously been working in the hospitality sector, often in short stints. In some of these cases, respondents had been made redundant because their employer went bankrupt, sometimes linked with the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Others had a history of casual, lower skilled work such as working in farming or fishing, working in warehousing, answering phones, working as a porter or doing factory work[7]. Often these were seasonal or short-term jobs; these respondents had had intermittent employment histories as a result. A small number of respondents had previously worked in higher-skilled occupations such as law, accounting and real estate, with two respondents previously working in a higher-skilled occupation in a foreign country. Some respondents were long-term unemployed.

Many respondents had been actively looking for work prior to joining FSS, searching for varying lengths of time ranging from a couple of months to ten years. A couple of respondents were returning from a career break taken due to having caring responsibilities or having been on disability benefits, while some were returning to work after having been signed off due to an illness. In connection with the high cost of childcare and the lack of accommodating schedules, many respondents who were parents had been out of work in order to care for their children. A common difficulty was respondents struggling to find a job that was compatible with childcare.

"I didn't want a desk job any more...I wanted something that would be flexible for the kids at school.... to pick them up."

FSS Participant, Glasgow

Respondents had been searching for work with varying levels of intensity: some described searching for jobs online every day, while others applied to jobs sporadically and without much motivation, linked to an awareness that they were not qualified for some of the positions available. One individual mentioned they were unable to find permanent work specifically due to their lack of training and qualifications. Some respondents had been trying to leave the industry they were working in previously, as they were looking for a different work environment and greater flexibility.

3.2 Type of work respondents were seeking when joining FSS

Respondents were asked what sort of roles or types of jobs they were looking for at the point of joining FSS. Many respondents were searching for a position with flexible hours to fit around caring responsibilities (this was common among respondents who belonged to a 'priority family' group) or to promote a good work-life balance.

"I didn't want a 9-5 job…I'm a single mum so I wanted to be working in a flexible manner."

FSS Participant, Glasgow

Some respondents were looking for part-time work because they had a physical or mental health condition which meant that they felt unable to work full-time, at least in the immediate term.

"First I was looking at part-time to see how I coped […] if I managed to do that then I could do more hours and ease myself into it."

FSS Participant, Lanarkshire

Respondents were split between wanting to change directions in their career and look for a job that fitted with their previous experience. The former group often wanted to leave the profession or industry they had been in before, for example teaching, hospitality or retail. There was a range of reasons for this, including being physically unable to continue in their profession, needing to find flexible work to fit around childcare responsibilities and simply not wanting to work in the industry anymore.

"I don't want to be a chef anymore…it's not fun anymore."

FSS Participant, North East

Alternatively, respondents were drawn towards a specific profession (e.g. office administration, healthcare, joinery).

"I wanted to give back to the community and I wanted to help people [in health and social care]."

FSS Participant, Glasgow

There was a mix of working conditions that respondents were seeking - some indicated they were looking for a job which would allow them to be active, rather than sitting at a desk all day, while others were looking for a sedentary job because they had an injury or a physical health condition. One individual was specifically looking for a low-stress job to protect their mental health. One individual expressed that they specifically wanted a position which would allow them to work from home.

Looking for a job in their local area was important to many respondents:

  • some did not drive and would therefore need to use public transport, so the location of their work needed to be convenient to them
  • one referenced childcare responsibilities, as they would need to be able to pick up their child from school
  • another wanted to work locally to remain close to their family

Finally, a couple of respondents indicated that they were looking for any kind of job at all, either because they were desperate for any paid work or because they wanted to gain some experience of being in employment.

"Something to get on my CV – it might not be my cup of tea, but I'll do it." FSS Participant, Glasgow

3.3 Barriers to employment prior to joining FSS

Respondents were asked what main difficulties they faced in trying to find work before joining FSS. Several common difficulties emerged.

3.3.1 Lack of suitable jobs

Many respondents felt there were no or few jobs available that met their needs. Either in their chosen sector or industry, or in their local area.

"It's very hard in a rural area for a man to get a job - only retail - and there's no jobs out there."

FSS Participant, South West

Furthermore, some respondents noted that Covid-19 had reduced the number of jobs available. This particularly affected respondents working in the hospitality sector[8]. One individual noted that after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, people who were made redundant during lockdown were given priority upon re-hiring, making it difficult for them to find a job. Several respondents were unable to find a job with enough flexibility to fit around their caring responsibilities, while others struggled to find a position that would be suitable given their disability or health condition.

"90% of the roles I was looking at I wouldn't be able to do [due to a health condition], it took my options down quite a lot."

FSS Participant, Lanarkshire

Some respondents were unable to find stable work, having previously relied on labour-intensive, seasonal work which was no longer physically tenable for them or which did not offer sufficient hours.

3.3.2 Transport difficulties

Transport was a common barrier for respondents in finding work before FSS. This included the inability to drive, either because they didn't have a driving licence and/or access to a car. This meant they were unable to travel long distances to go to work and were unable to juggle work and childcare, for instance they would be unable to pick their children up from school in time. This also meant the number of jobs available to respondents was much smaller, as they had to focus on jobs within walking distance or rely on public transport to get to work. The public transport available where respondents lived could be unreliable or severely limited, especially in more rural locations, limiting respondents' job options further.

Some respondents added that some employers require that job applicants have a driving licence, further limiting the availability of viable job opportunities.

3.3.3 Childcare provision

Difficulties finding childcare provision either for children of pre-school age, or before and after school provision was also a barrier for some respondents. A lack of local childcare options in general was exacerbated by difficulties finding childcare that was affordable for what respondents could earn should they find employment.

"It was quite hard to find a job because nurseries are very, very expensive."

FSS Participant, Lanarkshire

"[Affordable] childcare doesn't really exist in this part of Scotland."

FSS Participant, North East

"[The lack of affordable childcare], I think that's the biggest issue for everybody."

FSS Participant, Lanarkshire

Limited hours of childcare services also presented difficulties, with available hours not always matching up to the working hours required by job vacancies. Difficulties with childcare was a particular concern for lone parents. This issue sometimes intersected with transport difficulties, in that respondents needed to collect children from school or nursery, but getting there from a workplace in time was not always possible. For example, one respondent had previously used a taxi to travel from work to collect their child, as the timings of the local bus meant they would have been too late, but this was not feasible long-term.

3.3.4 Previous economic inactivity

Respondents who had previously taken time out of the workforce felt that the 'gap' in their working history was often a barrier when applying for jobs.

"Mainly my CV that's holding me back because there's a gap."

FSS Participant, Glasgow

They had usually taken this time out to care for their children or elderly relatives, or due to illness or disability.

3.3.5 Inadequate experience or training

Many respondents struggled to find a job because they did not have the right experience or training for the jobs they were applying for. Many had worked in hospitality before the pandemic and as the supply of hospitality jobs dwindled, they struggled to enter a different sector without the required experience or qualifications.

For those who had been economically inactive for a long time, experience or qualifications they did have was sometimes from some years ago, and could be perceived as 'out of date'.

"Mainly my CV that's holding me back because there's a gap. […] Obviously they're going to give someone who's more qualified and younger!"

FSS Participant, Glasgow

3.3.6 Previously working overseas

Related to experience and qualifications, some respondents had received their training and qualifications in a foreign country, and these were not recognised in Scotland. For example, one individual was qualified as an accountant overseas but their certificates were not recognised in Scotland. They also needed to gain an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) qualification.

"Why do I have to do it when I can speak, read and write English…"

FSS Participant, Glasgow

Similarly, work experience gained abroad (for example in the legal sector) was not always recognised in Scotland. This was often the key barrier to employment for these respondents, and sometimes resulted in them having to apply for roles below their educational or skill levels. Respondents reporting this issue in the research were all from minority ethnic groups.

3.3.7 Lack of confidence

Many respondents lacked confidence in looking for and applying for jobs. For example, one individual did not know where to start with their job search because it had been a long time since they had last looked for a job. Others had been job hunting for some time without success, which had affected their self-confidence, especially if they were making many job applications and getting no response. Another mentioned their Asperger's tended to make them 'clam up' in interpersonal situations, including interviews.

"Had a lot of confidence issues […] I don't do well with people a lot of the time. Most of my job-seeking would end at the interview stage - if I got one."

FSS Participant, Highlands and Islands

3.3.8 Mental health difficulties

Some respondents mentioned their mental health in the context of difficulties in finding work before FSS. This was often linked with confidence, with those experiencing mental health difficulties often citing a decline in their self-confidence, or feeling apprehensive about job applications or interviews. Some respondents had experienced depression or anxiety, which meant they struggled with motivation or the organisational skills to apply for jobs. Indeed, research has shown that depression can impact concentration, clarity of thought and decision-making, suggesting it can impact the ability to search for and apply for jobs[9]. A couple of respondents specified that they had developed anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic, and for one individual with a health condition, the requirement to shield had prompted anxiety about their vulnerability.

3.3.9 Covid-19 Pandemic

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was felt by some respondents during their job search, such as fewer jobs being advertised, being unable to access services face to face, and pausing their job search, either because they perceive the general messaging to the public to be not not go out of the house unnecesarily, or because they felt it was futile.

"Over Covid, they told us not to do any job searching…to not leave the house even…and after Covid it was harder to find jobs."

FSS Participant, Glasgow

It also exacerbated existing barriers. For example, local businesses closing down during the pandemic added to already challenging local job markets. Respondents reported that when things began to re-open, those who were unemployed prior to the pandemic had to compete for jobs with those who had lost theirs in the pandemic, and therefore had more recent experience.

3.3.10 Other issues raised

There were several other difficulties in finding work mentioned by individual respondents. These included lack of computer or internet access and suspected discrimination due to age or ethnicity from employers. Those who had more recently moved to Scotland raised language barriers and/or a lack of knowledge about job-hunting in the UK. Another difficulty was the length of time some applications took, reducing the number of applications a respondent could get through each week.

3.4 Challenges encountered in previous jobs

Respondents (who had previously been in work) were asked whether they had experienced any challenges in former jobs that made it difficult to continue in that job.

Firstly, many respondents found it difficult or impossible to continue working in their previous job because their physical health was worsening or because they became ill. For example, one individual had pneumonia and was no longer physically able to do their job, while another had muscle tears which made their job as a porter difficult.

"[After diagnosis]…Everything changed and I had to rethink my entire life, especially career paths."

FSS Participant, Highlands

Secondly, a few respondents mentioned that their mental health was negatively affected by their work. This was linked to personality clashes with co-workers or employers, a high-stress work environment, working hours and shift patterns, a lack of support provided by employers and a poor work-life balance.

"I worked in a canteen. Working under the head chef was a hard job... they were very demanding, [the head chef] had an ego problem... You were not allowed to have a bad day, you just had to get on with it."

FSS Participant, East

One individual mentioned that their autism made it difficult for them to be in social situations for too long. They felt overwhelmed after a two-week training course at a call handling centre and did not progress with the job.

Other challenges mentioned by respondents included having a job that was incompatible with childcare responsibilities, unstable employment (for example, zero-hours contracts), getting paid late multiple times by their employer and not working in their preferred industry.

3.5 Experience of other employment or skills support services

Respondents were asked whether they had received help from any other employment or skills support services prior to FSS. Many had not, but among those who had, the Jobcentre was the most common service used.

Support respondents described receiving from the Jobcentre included help with CVs, guidance in searching for jobs online, help to fill in application forms in English, and access to computers and the internet. Experiences of the Jobcentre were mixed, with some finding the support helpful, and others finding it less helpful. Those who found it helpful praised the kindness of the staff and the support with CVs and applications, but others had hoped for more support looking for jobs that fit their particular needs, or saw it as more of an obligation they had to undertake to receive their benefits.

A couple of respondents expressed that they were grateful the Jobcentre had directed them to FSS.

A few other services were used, with varying levels of helpfulness to respondents:

  • a local charitable organisation supporting young people with education, training and employability skills; this service was considered helpful, particularly due to the workshops and days in industry provided
  • one individual described a service similar to FSS focused on helping autistic people; they found it very helpful because of the care shown by staff and the bespoke, individualised nature of the support
  • an employability service (outwith their FSS delivery): this service was considered helpful, particularly because it contacted employers and sent CVs directly, and due to the confidence-building courses offered
  • one participated was referred by their GP to an NHS confidence building course which they found to be very useful

3.5 Effects of not being in employment

Once respondents had shared their experiences of searching for work before FSS, they were asked to share how not being in paid employment had affected them, including any impacts on their mental health, family life and finances.

Most respondents had experienced a negative impact on their mental health from not being in paid employment. Many had experienced feelings of depression, often compounded by feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Being rejected or not hearing back on job applications made respondents lose confidence and feel like they weren't 'good enough'. One individual remarked that being in paid employment is a big part of a person's identity in our society, which contributed to them feeling 'useless' when unemployed. Many respondents described feeling bored and lacking in motivation. One individual mentioned feeling guilty for being on government benefits. Respondents generally felt unsettled by having a lot of time on their hands and felt their life was on hold, as they could not make future plans. A couple of respondents had experienced mental health breakdowns during this time, and some described a negative impact on their relationships.

"I think not being in paid employment and the pandemic together made me feel rather useless […] it felt a bit isolating."

FSS Participant, North East

"Good days and bad days, the boredom gets me…I've had a couple of bouts of depression."

FSS Participant, Lanarkshire

Some respondents described a physical health impact in connection with the mental health impact they experienced (e.g. weight or hair loss, becoming less physcially active).

Another impact from being out of paid employment related to financial consquences. Respondents described serious impacts like almost having their house repossessed, as well as day-to-day impacts like being unable to pay for hobbies or go on holiday. Most of the respondents interviewed who were in a 'priority family' mentioned experiencing financial issues.

"When I was working I was able to take the kids on holiday [...] You have to have a lot of money to go. […] I'm sick of having to say wait until I get paid to get [my kids] something they want or need."

FSS Participant, East

Some respondents noted they had to rely on family members or a partner to support them financially. The financial impact was particularly strong for respondents who had family abroad: one individual mentioned being unable to send remittances to their family, another mentioned being unable to visit their loved ones abroad. A few respondents did not describe experiencing a financial impact from being out of paid employment which they attibuted to receiving Jobseekers' Allowance or Disability Allowance.


Email: employabilityresearch@gov.scot

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