Page last updated at 17:10 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 18:10 UK

Breaking the spell of joblessness

Natalie Grice
BBC News website

Ebbw Vale Parkway
The train to Ebbw Vale is a link for job seekers to Cardiff - but is it used?

Two minutes late, the Blaenau Gwent express (also known as the 9.35 to Ebbw Vale) rolls out of Cardiff Central station.

The departure had a Harry Potter-esque quality, with the train parked on Platform 0, which is reached via its own separate small staircase, away from the main departure area.

Once on the platform, passengers are open to the elements, and are exposed to the gaze of commuters standing smugly on the other side of the tracks under a roof, sheltered from the extremes of rain and sun.

Wrong side of the tracks. Is that a good analogy for my destination, the much-maligned county of Blaenau Gwent?

The former mining and industrial area is constantly prefixed in reports and the media: highest this; lowest that; but inevitably what is meant is worst. This time it's unemployment.

Blaenau Gwent has the highest number of jobless people in the UK, a report by the Joseph Rowntree foundation has found, with a high proportion of those young people. Across Wales, nearly half of all unemployed people are under the age of 25.

Unlike Harry Potter and friends on their Hogwarts Express, this train is not carrying me or anyone else to a magical place of opportunity. There is beauty in the green hills coursing past me on this sunny summer's day, but you cannot eat scenery.

This very train service was partly set up to provide help for those wishing to find work outside the immediate area, but as I am to discover, that is not always desired by those categorised as NEETs (not in employment, education or training).

Gareth Brace, Craig Eglington and Rhys Watson
Three young men who have almost walked out of the unemployment report

I encounter three of these chatting on the street at midday. They fit the Joseph Rowntree report so perfectly they could have been conjured up by a bit of Harry Potter magic.

Craig Eglington, Gareth Brace, who are both 18, and 20-year-old Rhys Watson are all from Ebbw Vale, all left school (or, as two of them admit, were expelled) at or before 16, and all are seeking work.

This week, they are on a training course in the high street showing them how to search for work.

All three have an idea of what they would like to do. Craig has had a few jobs, working in bars, a factory and panel beating and spraying cars.

He would like to work in security but can't because he has an offence on his record.

Gareth said: "I've tried to get work but there's nothing around. I'm just looking locally or in Swansea because my father lives there."

He would consider going to college to get training "if I got bored enough looking for a job".

But he is making progress. He is going to do a construction skills certificate scheme in the next few weeks which will enable him to get work in the building trade as a labourer.

Shops in Ebby Vale
Closed shops in Ebbw Vale next to the Info Shop, a drop-in centre

And Rhys, already a father-of-two, was fairly confident he would be able to get security work, because unlike Craig he has a clean record and "is a good boy".

"There's lots of bouncing [work] around here," he said.

Further down the street, 25-year-old Ashley Rowlands has been mainly unemployed for the past two years, and is now helping care for his three children, aged six, four and six months.

He started work at 16 in nearby Abertillery making videotapes until he was 17-and-a-half, then spent a year training in computing and engineering, although without getting any recognised qualification.

He got work after that but was laid off after three months, then found another job with Tillery Valley Foods for 17 months.

This time, he chose to leave to live with a girlfriend in Surrey where he worked in Safeways, but the relationship broke down and three months later he was back in Ebbw Vale.

Ashley Rowlands
Ashley Rowlands hopes further redevelopment of Ebbw Vale will provide him with a job

An eight-month spell in Tesco in the town ended in another lay-off, and he got seasonal work at Christmas with a food company for three years.

His last job was with Morrisons supermarket but he had to leave when his third child was due for family reasons.

Ashley is not unemployed for lack of trying. Before Christmas, he applied for 57 jobs and only heard back from two.

He finds the lack of feedback or even response quite disheartening.

"It's really difficult when you go for interviews and they don't even phone you to tell you if you've been successful," he said.

"There is nothing down here. What I'm hoping is when they sort out the Festival Park, there'll be a job for me there.

"They are planning lots more shops down there."

He is getting assistance from the job centre. They are paying for his provisional driving licence and lessons, and assuming he passes he will be able to look for work further afield.

He believes as well as employment the area needs more leisure provision and opportunities for teenagers and children.

"The nearest cinema is in Brynmawr. They don't have anywhere to go and the youth clubs are closing down."

Carl Bainton
We took 10 young people who were NEETs and took them to the gym every week. Within three months, the crime figures for general nuisance and anti-social behaviour in their areas had dropped by 64%
Carl Bainton

It is a view echoed by Carl Bainton, youth co-ordinator for the Ebbw Vale Development Trust, who works out of the Info Shop, a drop-in advice centre in the town.

He said a certain percentage of his charges lack social skills and self-confidence, and many of their programmes are focused on trying to build these things up in young people.

He said this group of school leavers are not ready for the world of work. Many would not consider even getting a train because it is outside their experience.

He says after the closure of many youth services, young people are signposted to places like the Info Shop, which is funded by Communities First money.

His work demonstrates the difference intervention into young people's lives can make to their employment prospects.

"We ran a gym project three years ago. We took 10 young people who were NEETs and took them to the gym every week. Within three months, the crime figures for general nuisance and anti-social behaviour in their areas had dropped by 64%.

"Within five months, four of them had gone back to training, two on other training courses, another two had returned to college, and one joined the Royal Marines."

Maybe what the area needs most is a few more people like Carl who can help conjure up successful outcomes for young people in sore need of assistance. That really would be magic.

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