Wigan Jobcentre staff revel in helping others

Nicky Freaney at Wigan Jobcentre
Nicky Freaney at Wigan Jobcentre

There are few issues in politics and public life more guaranteed to arouse controversy and strong opinions than benefits and employment.

And in the eye of the storm, in an oasis of calm amid the furious rhetoric about Universal Credit, getting people back into the workplace and much more, are the staff at the Jobcentre Plus in Wigan.

Here residents go through the business of learning about what they are entitled to and what they have to do to claim it, while attending meetings with the work coaches to see if there is anything out there in the jobs market for them.

The staff in Brocol House, a rather unprepossessing mid-20th century block at the bottom of King Street, have enjoyed some success in recent times getting Wiganers working again.

And far from the forbidding images of Jobcentre staff that may sometimes come to mind, it is a role where employees see themselves very much as public servants there to help the community.

Employee engagement manager and social media manager Linda Bailey said: “What we try to do is sit down and deal with people coming in who need support.

“They can feel quite vulnerable coming in here. Some of them are at a difficult time in their lives.

Kathryn Johnston, customer service lead, said: “We get thank-yous and people coming back to tell us they have got a job or moved forward that little bit.

That’s what we’re about.

“The majority of our staff are Wigan residents. We live in the borough, we want to support the borough and we treat everybody as if they were our own brother, mother or sister coming into the office.”

The roll-out of full service Universal Credit (UC), though, has brought a number of challenges to the Wigan team.

With half a dozen previous benefits being combined into one single payment, a wider range of clients are now coming through the door of the Jobcentre needing assistance.

As expected there has also been a rise in the claimant count, with 6,480 people on out-of-work benefits in September. That is a 20 per cent rise on the same time last year.

The number of young claimants in the 18-to-24 bracket is creeping up too, with last month’s figure of 1,245 a two per cent rise on 12 months ago.

UC’s roll-out has created near-apocalyptic headlines nationally, with MPs using strong terms to describe the problems they are seeing in their constituencies and the Church of England only this week warning reforms need to be halted due to an alarming spike in foodbank use.

This, though, is not a picture the team in Wigan recognises at all, with countless hours of hard graft behind the scenes to get the borough ready for full UC seemingly paying off.

Nicky Freaney, partnership manager, said: “UC is bringing a different customer base into the Jobcentre, people who wouldn’t normally come through our doors.

“We have a wealth of provision out there and it’s all about working together and using Wigan’s place-based approach.

“We support people with personal budgeting with an offer delivered through Citizens’ Advice and we’ve got assistance for people struggling with the digital side of it.

“If customers are struggling we encourage them to have those conversations with us.

“We can then signpost people to the right offer. People don’t always tell us their circumstances and we try to build that relationship so they can talk to their work coach about problems.”

Ms Bailey added: “We see people in different circumstances and it’s very much about what that person needs at that point in time. For some of them employment might seem far more distant for them but there are steps we can take with them.

“It has gone pretty smoothly actually. Things are steady and that’s the way we would want it to be.”

The Jobcentre Plus is an interesting mixture of old and new. On the ground floor Wiganers are being quietly helped by staff to get to grips with new technology, improving their digital skills at rows of computers.

But there are also the time-honoured boards of jobs available in the borough for people to browse, including one filled with positions for the upcoming festive season.

Upstairs work coaches wait to help Wiganers find work but there are also lots of desks and spaces ready to receive Universal Credit queries and problems.

One of the changes in recent years has been the growth in partnership working. Jobcentre Plus staff spent months in talks with Wigan Council ready for the UC roll-out and the local authority is a key presence in the building.

But, in line with the growth of the community and third sector, other organisations are also helping get people on the right track, and one in particular has impressed the staff.

Ms Bailey said: “We have really good connections with Fir Tree Fisheries. They do excellent work, particularly with some of our most disaffected young people.

“They weren’t engaged through school and college isn’t remotely on their radar, but they really connect with them and get them relaxed enough to open up.

“They find them work experience and opportunities and have some real success stories there. We’ve developed a lot of partnerships with other organisations and we’re bringing them into the Jobcentre.”

Ms Bailey says the work is paying off, with the Jobcentre Plus working with local employers including the Royal Mail which is bringing a pop-up parcel sorting facility for Christmas to Skelmersdale.

Other sectors looking for workers at the moment include food production, warehousing and logistics and care and retail.

In addition a rolling selection of roles is placed on social media through the JCP Twitter accounts, ranging from the sort of jobs you would expect to off-beam posts such as one conservation organisation looking for a bats in churches project manager.

The Jobcentre is also looking to the next generation of workers, helping youngsters at Wigan Youth Zone get the right training and relevant work experience for their future careers. A jobs fair is also being held at the Wigan Life Centre North on November 1 from 10am to 1pm.