Fair Start Scotland employability service - year 4: focus group discussions

Findings from a series of focus group discussions with participants of Fair Start Scotland (FSS) employability service who are disabled or have a long term health conditions or are from minority ethnic groups. It covers year 4 (April 2021 to March 2022) of FSS delivery.

3. Results

The overarching themes that emerged from the analyses of focus group discussions are:

  • barriers to work for participants in the above groups (Section 3.1)
  • understanding how they came into contact with the service and their reasons for joining (Section 3.2)
  • how they were treated in relation to FSS' commitment to treating all participants with dignity and respect (Section 3.3)
  • their experience working with key workers (Section 3.4)
  • the nature of support that they received (Section 3.5)
  • experiences with the service during the Covid-19 pandemic (Section 3.6)
  • views on future delivery of employability services (Section 3.7)

Where findings are based on discussions with a distinct group of participants e.g. ethnic minorities, parents, disabled people, people who have moved to Scotland recently, then this is made explicit.

3.1 Barriers to finding and staying in work

A range of different types of barriers to finding and staying in work was discussed by focus group participants. These barriers often related to participants specific circumstances such as being disabled or having a long-term health condition, being from an minority ethnic group or having recently moved to Scotland or UK including as a refugee, being a parent including being a lone parent or a combination of all the above. Wider structural factors including the availability of jobs and professional training and employer attitudes were also discussed.

3.1.1 Unsuitable working environments

Many focus groups participants reported living with a range of conditions including mental health conditions, addiction, learning disabilities, depression, menopause and chronic pain and talked about how these affected their experience of work.

One person described how symptoms of endometriosis, a health condition associated with chronic pain, had affected them and how there was lack of understanding of the condition among the employers.

"It's really, really painful. I can wake up some mornings feeling crippled. That's with the pain, that's how bad it is. (…) A lot of employers I have worked for in the past (…) would take… but what is that? It's nothing. You look good. [This is because] you don't see the pain."

Another focus group participant described how having a mental health condition impacted on their ability to do certain types of work.

"Actually I suffering from PTSD. A few times I find a job and it's… I don't like noisy places. I don't like that, especially when a boss is aggressive I do more wrong and get stress. After a while if they don't sack me, I sack myself because the situation come up. (…) When somebody says 'Do that!', 'Do that!', all of that, I'm confused, more confused. But when I'm alone I do it as proper, good. (…) Most of the time it's so upsetting because I can't find a job."

Participants also discussed the impact of menopause and highlighted difficulties accessing adequate treatment and support, and employers negative attitudes.

"Nothing worse when you're sitting when the flushes are just coming out and you feel embarrassed because it just comes for the neck and goes right up, the head down. And that's a… I think that's a big one just now that doesn't seem to be, because in my last work as well, I felt that they didn't take things like that into consideration."

3.1.2 Discrimination

Focus group participants from minority ethnic groups discussed how being an ethnic minority individual was linked to their lower chances of being selected for a job and how discouraging this felt.

"It's sad. It's really sad (…). You submit CV, you do everything, but still they won't give you… as soon as they see your second name, that's it. And then they'll still post there that they're looking for people, which is really bad. (…) Sometimes I see a job which I really, like, but then I will just think if I apply for this I'm not going to get it. To be honest, that's how… meanwhile, like, because you have been going for interviews and I know I'm doing well. They will even say in front of your face, but at the end of the day you're not getting it."

Participants also discussed the impact of being from a minority ethnic group on the availability of employment opportunities and building a career across different sectors, and how people from ethnic minority groups often had to limit their choices of employment to specific sectors.

"Like here you see a lot of minority groups they do care but because if you do, like, maybe accounting, they'll just tell you if you do this you're not going to get a job. A lot of people they have to train, they have certificates, they will tell you, you will not have a job here because you do it… yeah, just leave it for yourself. You're not going to have the job."

Focus group participants from minority ethnic groups also described discrimination they experienced once they started on a job, for example being excluded from opportunities for work progression.

3.1.3 Lack of access to training and qualifications

Those focus group participants who have moved to Scotland relatively recently discussed difficulties with accessing relevant professional training and difficulties with gaining relevant professional qualifications.

"But the problem is [different services and support programmes are] working with you but they don't give you qualification, like real qualification. So without that, without qualification you can't work in any childcare."

Those who had past work experience or professional qualifications from countries outside the UK discussed difficulties with these being recognised in Scotland and as a result not being able to find work in the skilled profession they were trained to perform.

Some also described lack of prior work experience in the UK and the associated lack of references as a barrier to finding a job.

"I did two, two interview with two companies [for a] security guard. But the problem is they ask me about five years check history. (…) Yeah, exactly. The problem is before that I didn't have any experience or they didn't have any job here in the UK during this period. (…) We call the government about this. The government are not… are not giving you this, because you don't have anything in the system. That is the problem."

3.1.4 Low confidence

Low confidence or lack of confidence was discussed by many as an important barrier to finding work. This was often discussed in a context of being unemployed for a long period of time or in the context of having a long term health condition.

"It's confidence (…) If a person's been out a lot for years and years and have got addiction problems and the way they've come to the end of that, they'll end up sitting like what I do now. You don't know what skills they have."

3.1.5 Lack of access to suitable childcare

Focus groups participants that were parents discussed difficulties related to the availability of jobs that offer them enough flexibility so that they could both work and look after their children. All participants who raised and discussed these difficulties were women. For example, one person commented that she was looking for a job that she could do between 8pm to 8am so that she can look after her children during the day. Another person, a lone parent, commented that they while there were a lot of jobs she could do, it was about finding a job where she would still be able to drop off and pick up her child from school.

"I received an offer from [major retailer], but the offer was like seven in the morning, so towards seven who is taking my child to school?"

3.2 Initial contact and reasons for joining

When discussing ways of finding out about the service, the majority of focus groups participants talked about being referred to FSS through either Jobcentre Plus or other services including a GP practice, Community Centre or the Refugee Council.

Some focus groups participants also self-referred to the service, for example after learning about the service from a friend or seeing an advert for FSS on social media.

"I found it out in the internet. I think it was Facebook I was on and it came up on Facebook (…) Obviously I was looking for a job when I saw this popped up and it said get help to get back into employment. I think that was what motivated me to try a way to sort of, like, yeah, I'll give them a call. So I ended up taking the number and contacting [FSS]."

When discussing reasons for wanting to take part in the service, a lot of focus groups participants indicated that their main motivation was to find a job.

"[I was] looking for something, something there that will get me in that job, get my feet on the step. Yeah. And that's why I [joined FSS]."

Some also described how they hoped joining FSS would help them realise their specific career aspirations.

"I have a media background. So I know how hard it is to find jobs in media. So, it was always to have a job where you've got the funding to move to that. So that's always been my aim. And so that's why I [joined]."

For reasons other than starting on a job, some focus group participants had hoped FSS would help by giving them the confidence and skills needed to progress towards work.

"I wasn't looking for a job because I've suffered with depression for years, so I came out of the job at the beginning of the pandemic, (…) So I wasn't looking for a job, I was on the sick [leave]. And this just popped up and it didn't just say helping look for a job, it was help you with your confidence and that's what I needed. I needed something to get me back in. I knew I would eventually look for a job, but at that moment I wasn't looking for a job when I came here."

Finally, one person commented that it was the voluntary nature of the service that was an important factor for wanting to take part in the service.

"Because as a whole scope, because it's voluntary, they don't feel that forced, and if you want, I mean, I think that's one of the factors [for wanting to join]."

3.3 Experiences of being treated with dignity and respect

When discussing what they thought dignity and respect meant in relation to FSS provision, focus groups participants spoke about the importance of the key workers and other staff being polite and respectful towards them and towards other service participants.

"When you come here you feel comfortable. Some places you can't feel comfortable, but the people… each time when I come here I feel comfortable because everybody is polite and respect the customer. It's a very important that… Never see the angry staff."

Another important factor related to dignity and respect was the perception that their key workers and staff delivering FSS actively listened to them, showed interest in them and that their specific needs and circumstances were acknowledged. One focus group participant described how their dyslexia related needs were acknowledged and addressed.

"I'm dyslexic, so the moment they found out I was dyslexic it was like would you be… do you need things done different? Do you need this, do you need that? So they're always equipped for my needs and basically I've been taught like everybody else."

Being treated with dignity and respect was associated with a number of positive outcomes. This included: perception of being treated equally irrespective of any personal characteristics such as disability, religion or minority ethnic status and also better engagement with the service throughout the duration of the person taking part.

In one example, a person described how spotting a prayer mat in one corner of a FSS office when first visiting the office made them feel welcomed and indicated everyone who joins the service was being respected which led to developing a positive perception of the service.

"You know when I came here I saw they have the prayer mat at the corner (…) I was like, oh my gosh. I like this place. (…) Yeah when I saw the mat I was just like oh my God. So it's made to respect everyone that come in here."

There were also some negative examples shared by focus group participants where they felt they were not treated with dignity and respect. One person described how having to share details of their personal circumstances in a crowded open space made them feel distressed and humiliated.

"My first day I come in and just sitting out there with a crowd of people and just trying to tell [the FSS staff] how you're feeling and everybody's watching you. That was, to me, that was really bad. (…) But then I felt humiliated because people were looking up and I'm sitting sobbing and then it's like, right, we'll put you through for this, we'll put you through for that. (…) Even the way it's set out there with the desks and things as well."

3.4 Experiences of working with a key worker

Focus group participants described working with their key worker, which was often in the context of developing participants' employability related skills, such as job searching or taking part in job interviews.

Many focus group participants shared examples of positive experiences working with their key worker. Some individuals spoke about the close relationship they developed, including praising their key worker and highlighting how much they valued help and support they received. Key to this positivity was the key worker acknowledging the specific circumstances and needs of service participant, then personalising the coaching and support offered.

"From my personal circumstances, I was a drug addict for years, but I've been of drugs for a few years now. But because of that with my [key worker] we worked to see, so we would try to look, for example I went and got a job interview [in addiction services]. That was (…) my keyworker actually helped me with that. So after speaking to me and getting to know my circumstances she put me in a direction that I found was a positive direction because of my own personal experiences. So started to look at things like, as I've just given you an example, what I think to do with addiction things like that. So I think I've been very positive to be honest with you."

One participant shared an example of a situation where they felt they would benefit from receiving more support and guidance from their key worker to meet their specific needs at the time but ultimately these needs were not acknowledged or addressed by their key worker.

"One of the jobs that I'd gone for, it required a bit of computer skills and to upskill (…). [The key worker] said to me, why don't you just go online and take a course? And I thought, well, what courses are there? And why would you just say, just go and get it? And, you know, I felt as though that could be a little bit more assistance there."

Key workers also served as a point of contact and information about other types of support available to service participants including courses, workshops and other group activities.

"I already had my CV, so [my keyworker] helped me to put some more things there and, she put me to the two classes, one classes because I was a bit, you know, depressed with the things now. So she put me the classes like mental health. And I joined with them and I came to another session, like, interview skills"

Communication including the key worker staying in regular contact and returning calls was a critical factor shaping focus group participants experience of working with their key worker, taking part in the service and ultimately impacting on the resulting outcomes and impacts for service participants. For example, one focus group participant shared how important it was for them that they were always able to reach their key worker on the phone.

"They're always there at the end of the phone, the line when I've been with them because you always get where you need help, they're always there and they're always chase up, or, you know, chase you up if they've missed you. So you always feel like you've got that connection, that tag person."

When the working relationship between the key worker and service participant went well this had a range of positive impacts on service participant. The key impact being the improvement in a range of employability skills and, for some starting on a job. One focus groups participant described how they were offered a job at one of a chain of high street cafes after their key worker coached them to improve their skills related to searching for job and answering questions during job interviews, which they then applied when searching for a job and then taking part in a job interview.

"I told my keyworker, because at first when I started I had my CV already, but then I was telling her, like, I don't usually get job offers and stuff, so we actually did it together and we looked through what I wrote on my CV and we changed certain things. And then actually she showed me where to look for certain jobs (…) but then I was not comfortable with interview skills (…). So I told my keyworker, and then we went through in the kind of questions what to answer, and then sometimes she will answer questions and then I will answer, and then she will tell me, oh, this is not the way to answer. So it really helped me build my confidence and everything. (…) I went for an interview with [high street cafes chain]. And (…) I was really confident. Like, for me, before, I wouldn't… I'd be shaking and stuff. I didn't. I was just confident."

Another focus group participant, a lone parent, described how their key worker helped them to secure a part-time job that was suitable for them, allowing them to be able to drop their child to school in the morning.

"The same to me. I'm a single mum. My keyworker helped me to get a part-time job that would suit me when I drop my child to school."

Some participants felt that their relationship with their key worker was not working so well - they were not getting much out of working with their key worker, their key worker did not keep in regular contact or the key worker changing frequently. When this happened, this led to a range of negative impacts and outcomes. This included developing negative perceptions of the service which was linked to the risk of disengagement and leaving the service early. One participant, who did not hear back from their key worker for several months and whose key worker changed several times over the their time taking part in the service discussed how they considered leaving the service early as a result of this lack of contact.

"So I've got a keyworker who's just left, and she's put me on to another keyworker who's leaving as well. So I don't know where I'm going to go. (…) Why am I wasting my time? Why am I even bothering? And especially like where you coming here all the way, making the effort and then you're being told go on Google, google Indeed. (…) [The idea of just walking away] did cross my mind. Not going to lie. I thought do you know what, I'm not getting anywhere. And then when my keyworker left I had no contact from anybody. That was like what am I even doing here, you know? (…) They don't come back to you."

As the key worker was the main point of contact and provided information about other forms of support available through the service, when a key worker did not stay in touch, this meant that participants were at risk of not being aware and benefiting from a range of different types of support available to them through the service.

3.5 Experiences of support and services offered

In addition to working directly with their key worker, focus group participants also discussed other forms of support they received when taking part in FSS. Varied forms of support were discussed however, most focus group participants spoke about their experiences of attending courses and group activities on topics including employability skills, IT skills, professional skills, and mental health support. Focus group participants described both positive and negative experiences of taking part in this type of support.

A key factor to having a positive experience of taking part in courses and group activities was where the course was perceived to be of high quality, including having the "right" person deliver the course.

"One of the courses that I did, several of us did regarding confidence building and leading up to applications. The quality and style of the presentation was on one level that you felt it was a professional organisation and you were professionals and you were being spoken to, (…) you've got the right people."

Courses, and group activities that provided an opportunity to meet regularly and for face-to-face interactions were also regarded positively. This was especially important for those who experienced mental ill health or social isolation.

"I think that's why group discussions are important because a lot of people I think they have a lack of confidence because their personal circumstances, whatever that may be. For my case it would have been a drug addiction for long term. (…) So you put people in that group and they can open up and feel comfortable opening up and they've got the confidence and the people that are doing the group are the right people, you feel confident enough to speak to other people who know a certain amount of your piece, you know what I mean? You won't feel alone. You start listening to other people. You see everybody's own personal story..."

When focus groups participants reported less positive experiences of attending courses and workshops this was related to factors such as a perceived mismatch between the person's level of skills and the type of material covered by the course or participants perceiving the quality of the course to be low. Some focus group participants also commented that the courses they were meant to attend were cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute or that they were interested in attending a specific course to help them build professional skill but they were ultimately not able to access it through the service.

"The IT [course], I thought I was going to learn, again, because I had lost my skills in it, I thought I was going to learn how to send text emails, all this, how to add pictures, how to do all this kind of stuff. And it wasn't. It was basic IT, how to get on the computer and how to get on the internet."

Numerous positive outcomes and impacts were associated with focus group participants taking part in courses and workshops. In terms of employment related outcomes, taking part in courses and workshops allowed participants to improve their employability skills such as preparing a CV, taking part in job interviews or searching for jobs online which in turn helped them to moved towards sustained employment.

"I'm not very good at computing and all of these things, maybe I have a more confidence of how to do send a CV to that place, all of this administration stuff (…) I did course here about IT here how to send my CV, how to search (…) Really. Really useful. (…) Very important for people who don't know how to deal with that. Nowadays everybody should know how to use their emails, send and receive, how to search, how to send documents, how to attach email CV."

Improved confidence was another impact of being able to take part in courses and workshops. Important to that outcome was that these courses and group activities took place in a face-to-face environment and on a regular basis over a period of time, which in turn allowed individuals to gradually develop confidence in a safe and friendly setting. For example, one person described how attending courses and group activities on a regular basis throughout their time at FSS allowed them to improve confidence starting from a point where they were barely able to speak to anyone in a social situation and ending with being confident with social interactions.

"They also say that, talking about the tailored part of it, when I first came here I had absolutely no confidence at all (..). And what I found that the workshops were invaluable for building up your personal worth, because I had none. And speaking in groups was something that I wasn't able to do for a long time. So bit by bit, they knew that I couldn't work right there and then."

One person described how taking part in FSS and gaining access to a range of courses and workshops improved her confidence and also allowed her to pursue her professional aspiration of working in the sector of their choice.

"For me when I was coming, my goal was to get a job because by that time I was so desperate to work, so that was my goal. But when I come, I see the things they offer, training and stuff like that. So then before I just come in I say I don't know what to do, because I don't have confidence to go for the care job, so I just told them, okay. But when I come for a meeting, they saw the things they do with care and stuff like that, so I tell them I want to go into care. So really I have the training and I was there for like a year, normally they do that so they help you with the CV and stuff like that. But later on the things they were offering, so that's why I can do many things, so that was my for the work. But after I just want to have more training, do more, to better my skills."

Finally, focus group participants also mentioned the positive impact taking part in courses and group activities had on their mental health and wellbeing.

"I know at times I've thought oh god, it's pouring with rain and I've got to come in. But I came in (…) and I liked the classes, especially [name of the person delivering the course] classes. (…) I don't know if there isn't a class I've come into that I've not sat and brought my heart in. But because you get to know people, we're all sitting and then I start somebody off and whatever. So there's quite a lot of classes that the positive mental attitude."

3.6 Impact of COVID-19

The research took place after all COVID-19 related restrictions had been lifted, and the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic were not the key focus of this research. However, many focus groups participants joined FSS while varying levels of restrictions were in place are reported on their experiences of receiving support through FSS at that time. This section briefly reports of participants' experiences of receiving support through FSS at the time when Covid-19 related restrictions were in place.

A common perception expressed by focus group participants was that due to no or limited face-to-face offer, the availability and effectiveness of the support received from FSS was very limited. As a result, some participants felt they would benefit from some additional time on the service where they would keep on receiving pre-employment support, to make up for time they felt they 'lost' due to restrictions.

"I think I might have asked myself because I'm coming to the end of my time if there's going to be any slight extension because of the COVID restriction period. So the first few months it was only limiting contact. (…) Because losing those few months at the beginning because of COVID, I guarantee, if I had them at the end I would be working. But COVID was no use. It was no use on the phone just getting a call (…). So you've lost months that you could have been in here and building up your confidence a lot sooner."

There was little mention of support received during COVID-19 related restrictions during the focus group discussion including describing support that was perceived as helpful. However, there was one example of provision of support through FSS to successfully overcome a particular barrier. Specifically, one individual noted that receiving a laptop with internet access made a real difference to them, in particular as they were able to take part in video calls more easily.

"Doing video calls but you try and do that on your phone, the size of your phone. I had a phone but I've my keyworker got me a Chromebook. So that made a hell of a lot of difference."

The removal of COVID-19 restrictions was perceived as extremely beneficial for focus group participants. Many spoke about the positive impact that moving from online delivery to face-to-face service delivery had, including the ability to engage with peers, improved well-being and mental health and being able to benefit from employability support offered through FSS more meaningfully.

Focus group participants described how attending face-to-face appointments and courses in FSS offices was an opportunity to "get out the house" and interact with other people and for social interactions.

"Face to face. I found it a lot easier than just standing at home. (…) I think being actually in somewhere and sitting with other peoples, I found that a lot better. The classes I've found and I've noticed you're doing discussions, people are a lot more comfortable doing that and you open up more. (…) And I've noticed when I've done some of the classes I've done and it's been doing in a group, I found it a lot easier and noticed a lot more comes about I think. So I think it could have been… another person, people, is a lot better than being stuck on a video call or something."

In contrast, some focus group participants decided to continue with mostly remote delivery of the FSS support (for example by keeping in touch with their key worker over the phone) once all the COVID-19 related restrictions were lifted.

3.7 Views on future delivery of employability services

As part of the focus group discussions, participants were asked to share their thoughts on future delivery of the FSS service and other employability services and how delivery of the services could be done better from their perspective. Several key themes emerged from these discussions.

First, several focus groups participants discussed how they felt that the employability services could be improved if they provided access to jobs across a variety of sectors. This in turn would allow service participants to develop a career in their chosen sector and also would provide service participants with meaningful employment opportunities matching their personal skills and aspirations. In this context one person described how they would like to be given an opportunity to build a career in a sector they chose.

"Something that does not just direct you to one type of job, so one sector but you could choose the sector and confidently like try to build the career in different sectors if you want."

Another focus group participant discussed how they would want to be able to find a job that matches their skills and aspirations through taking part in an employability service.

"So I wished the [employability services] can get access to a variety of sectors, not just cleaning in a hotel, or not just… I mean those jobs, there's nothing wrong with them, but you have to personalise the support that you're giving someone, because if I'm looking for a fairly specific job that I'm qualified for I should be able to be supported to go into that."

In a similar context, one focus group participant discussed how they felt employability service should provide access to jobs that offer sufficient income to help keep service participants out of poverty.

"Personally I think the service would be much better if they would help a wider variety of sectors, as I say before, or jobs (…) not just low, minimum wage jobs, (…) because that's the only way that we can, you know, progress and move from abject poverty. But if you keep holding people down doing minimum wage jobs and our contracts then it defeats the purpose."

Second, one focus group participant spoke about the importance of the employability services recognising that many of those who join experience mental ill health including for example depression and therefore should provide support that account for and support participants' mental health.

"I think [employability service] need to do more about mental health. I'm here because… I mean I look around and I see a lot of depressed people coming in here."

Third, several focus group participants discussed the importance of the space where the employability services are being delivered. One recommendation provided by focus groups participants was that there should be a dedicated enclosed space where a person can go to when they feel upset or if they want to talk to their key worker in private, for example during the initial appointment.

"They should have a special room for someone, anyone that comes for the first time should be taken in to a special room. And maybe right, we'll get you a cup of tea and then we'll sit and chat and find out about each other, what you want from me and what I want from you."

Finally, one focus groups participant discussed how the delivery of employability services would benefit from developing a clear procedure for raising complaints by service participants and then communicating to participants how complaints could be raised.

"I didn't know what the protocol was if you wanted to complain or if you weren't happy. Who would you go to? Because we only have a keyworker, we only have… well, I only have a keyworker, so I didn't know what the sort of layout is, who you go to, that would be another thing that would be quite helpful [to know how to raise a complaint]."

Focus group participants also shared their thoughts on ways employability services should be advertised to its potential users in the future. This included focus group participants discussing the importance of advertising the employability services widely including through social media and linking with other agencies and organisations so that as many potentially users as possible are aware of the service. Focus group participants also discussed that when advertising the service, it would be helpful to include personal stories of past service participants to give an idea of what can a person expect from taking part in the service. Finally, several focus group participants stressed the importance of including information on what the service offers specifically and who is eligible to take part when advertising the service.


Email: EmployabilityResearch@gov.scot

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