Building Blackpool up

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Outside the Jobcentre Plus at South Shore, one of the areas of Blackpool most blighted by visible deprivation, a lad with a hangdog look, shoulders slouched, is smoking a cigarette. He looks like a condemned man having his last smoke break.

There are days, he says, when he feels like that too.

“There’s just no work, no work I can do,” he tells me. He is 20 and left school at 16 and worked at his auntie’s market stall until it closed. “That was pocket money, £30 for two days, to keep me out of trouble. She couldn’t afford to even pay that at the end. She’s not got a job since. She was self employed.”

He’s chosen this job centre because it’s handy for where he lives, is on a bus route, and doesn’t have the queues of the main job centre Job Centre Plus opposite the new look Central Library in the town centre. “I don’t like the atmosphere there,” he admits. “People here, I think they genuinely want to help. But some days you wonder why you bother getting up. I sometimes stay in bed all day, telly on, or listening to my music.”

There’s just 100 yards but a vast gulf in terms of aspirations between this lad and Joe Davies, also 20, of Bispham, who’s been referred to the Blackpool Build Up training centre by the job centre.

Joe’s at the start of learning what life is like in a hard hat. He reckons he’s one of “the lucky ones” having just landed a training place on referral from the job centre.

He now knows what it feels like to “have a reason to get out of bed.” The sensation is still novel a few days on.

He’s joined a clan of would-be construction workers who include men in their 50s, retraining after redundancy, and others who say they are sick of having no skills to offer.

“For a long while it didn’t look like I had much of a future,” Joe admits.

“And that doesn’t help how you feel. I’ve been out of school four years now and haven’t got a job. I haven’t really had one, not a proper one, not for long.

“It makes you feel really down. I want to work. I’ve only just started and it felt really weird to wake up and think I’ve got to get up and come here. It’s two days a week and for me it means getting up at 6.30am to be here for 8am because they are really strict on attendance and turning up on time just as they would be at building site.

“I thought it would be rubbish when I got here but it’s great. I’ve been doing block paving and drainage and all sorts.”

With luck, and a little leaning on local contractors, Joe could be in with a fighting chance of joining the 1,700 trainees who have found work as a result of Blackpool Built Up in the last two years. It’s no mean feat in an ailing economy.

It’s also seen the launch of a recent county wide initiative to share young apprentices (who attract more grant funding) and enable employers who would not normally be able to take an apprentice on for one, two or three years, to contract one for three months a time from a local pool.

Big name builders such as Barratt, Bamber, Parkinson, Conlon and others attended the launch and left impressed by what Constructing the Future Lancashire leader Stuart Graham had to say. “If it could give young workers a chance it could really pay off,” says Fiona Riley, office manager for Conlon. Harriet Whiteside, human resources manager for F Parkinson, was equally optimistic. “We need to look into it further but what we saw and heard was promising.”

You only have to look around this part of South Shore to see signs of the times. Shops, hotels, cafes, newsagents closed and shuttered. Casualties include a former hotel styling itself College Britainnica although the jury’s out on what that used to be.

Long before the highest jobless statistics in 17 years were announced Blackpool was well below regional and average figures. It also has one of the highest (20 per cent) of 16 to 24 year olds not in education, training or employment. “It’s a whole generation getting chucked away,” says John Wilcock, who heads training at Blackpool Build Up, supported by Blackpool and the Fylde College, at Princess Street.

One parent, close to tears, updates staff on her son’s progress. “These people gave him a second chance,” she tells me. “He was doing well here but an old charge saw him back in court and sent down. When he got out they let him pick up where he left off. Now he’s in work and I’ve got my son back.”

Blackpool Council’s new chief executive Neil Jack plans to focus on a “drive for quality tourism and more aspirational work”. He concedes: “There’s not a lot of incentive to drag yourself out of bed to flip burgers on the Prom for minimum wages.” He’s also looking to encourage contractors to employ local labour so all our building sites bring jobs too. That’s music to the ears of staff at Blackpool Build Up. “You’d think it would be a given but it isn’t,” says employment mentor Louise Richardson. “And it should be.”