As Renaisi draws the Refugees into Sustainable Employment (RISE) programme to a close, Programme Manager Gerrar Ahmed reflects on five years of learning and adapting to the needs of participants.

The RISE programme was commissioned by the National Lottery Community Fund between April 2017 – June 2023 to support refugees and asylum seekers to establish themselves in the UK labour market. In that time, we supported 1,689 people to settle in their new communities, build connections, develop skills, and find work.

Gerrar Ahmed

In this blog, I’ll share some reflections on how we built and adapted a large-scale employability programme to suit the unique needs of refugees in London.

I’ll share the challenges we faced along the way, the partners who enabled us to deliver a more holistic service, and the many ways our participants demonstrated resilience in the face of multiple and complex barriers.

Recruiting the right people to help refugees get a job

First, we had to build a team that could deliver Renaisi’s largest ever programme. During the programme design and interview phases we identified three skills that a successful refugee employment advisor needs.

3 skills for a successful refugee employment advisor:

  1. Understanding of refugee barriers to employment
  2. Multi-lingual (among 10 team members we spoke 17 languages)
  3. Empathy with a refugee’s circumstances – I always say that you can teach someone to be an employment advisor but you can’t teach care and empathy.

Designing a refugee employment support programme

While we had 10 years’ experience of delivering employment support, we didn’t have the depth of knowledge we now have about what it takes to support refugees and asylum seekers facing cultural and systemic barriers to settling in this country.

Originally, we designed two case worker roles:

  • Career caseworkers for people who were ready to find a job.
  • Growth caseworkers for people facing more complex issues who were much further from the jobs market as a result.

Very quickly the growth caseworkers had much bigger caseloads than the career caseworkers, so we decided to upskill all our caseworkers to support people who were further from the jobs market and split the case load evenly across the team. Now everyone had access to supporting information and advice – and our performance spiked.

  • Before the change, 2017-18 we reported 68 people had secured work
  • After the change, 2019 – 20 we got 200 people into work (in a pandemic)

Providing that extra care had a transformative impact on the team’s performance and RISE participant’s capacity to sustain employment.

Adapting and co-designing the contract to reach people and offer them the support they needed meant we could help them create positive changes for themselves; changes that would be considered ‘soft’ outcomes in other rigid employment support contracts and schemes.

While we saw success for refugees who were accessing services, securing interviews and getting some UK work experience, it wasn’t the ‘right’ type success. We valued that progress because the people we supported did, and because we know that there are many factors that contribute to a person’s ability to sustain a job. Getting someone into a job for a short amount of time is not, in our view, a success metric. We were focussed on the long-term and understood the value of supporting people holistically, which we knew from experience would ultimately help them find the right job, at the right time.

There’s nothing soft about soft outcomes

Our contract defined 5 targets: referrals, job search, training, job start, and 26 weeks’ sustained employment.

The job start target meant we couldn’t help everyone, so we connected with other refugee organisations across North and East London. That list of partners covered housing advice and mental health support, pro bono legal advice, The British Red Cross helped family members join them safely, and a charity called Little Village provided clothing and toys for children who’d arrived with almost nothing. There’s a list of partners I’m grateful to at the bottom of this blog.

That 26 week target was tough. There are many reasons why a person may not stick with a job, such as a change of personal circumstances or a poor fit with the company. Imagine how many other reasons why a job wouldn’t work out if it was your first job in a new country?

For example, participants often reported that housing was the biggest barrier they faced to employment. In 2019 22% of RISE participants were homeless or in insecure housing (compared with 1% of general UK population at the same time). We adapted our support to help participants with housing issues and recruited people with expertise in the housing sector.

While job starts and sustainment were challenging, we over-performed on almost every one of the supporting targets we were set. This includes:

  • 113% over performance of participants reporting increased skills and knowledge in relation to employment
  • 115% over performance of participants reporting feel more confident about using work related vocabulary
  • 112% over performance of participants reporting increased aspirations in relation to career opportunities & progression
  • 114% over performance of participants reporting improved wellbeing & resilience since joining the programme
  • 115% over performance of participants reporting increased confidence
  • 120% over performance of participants reporting increased support networks since joining the programme

We often get feedback from RISE participants telling us that we’ve made them feel less stressed, less isolated and more hopeful about their future. I’m proud that we continuously adapted our service to put individual’s personal needs first.

“Renaisi has made me strong emotionally, financially and given me a lot of clarity in terms of employment.”

Participant feedback from 2022 customer survey.

Delivery during a pandemic

When Covid-19 swept the world, businesses shut down and job opportunities dried up, staff and many of our participants were left feeling scared and lost. Our funder gave us some freedom to shift to a more universal style of support:

  • Our ESOL classes moved online and numbers attending rose by 30% on the previous quarter.
  • Engagement with our advisors increased – at least in part because they became an important point of contact for individuals during lockdown.

We got grant funding from London Funders to get mobile phones, laptops and internet access to those who needed it – something that had been an issue for a long time but was now critical.

Faisal delivering food to a Mum and son.

Every member of the team went well above what I expected of them.  On the initiative of one of our case workers, Faisal Ahmed, we bought food and created links with community kitchens and Islamic Relief volunteers who helped us deliver weekly food parcels to the most vulnerable. Within a few weeks 250 food parcels were sent out weekly.

“Renaisi phone calls n discussion really have a positive impact on me n my child because my caseworker always asked about our health n wellbeing n also advise me to observe the safety measures to avoid being sick or getting d virus which I really appreciate.”

Participant feedback 2020

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, RISE participants continued to find employment and establish themselves in their new communities. From cleaners to healthcare specialists, software engineers to data analytics, our participants were succeeding in a wide range of industries.

What we achieved together

As we say farewell to RISE, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve helped hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers find employment, and we created a community that will thrive after the programme has ended.

We over performed on many of those supporting targets that we know are a marker not only of a participant’s job readiness but of their personal and professional wellbeing. In 2020 and 2021 the top 3 areas respondents were either Very Satisfied or Satisfied with our support were:

  • Managing expectations (76%)
  • Confidence building and motivation (69%)
  • Accessing training and educational courses (61%).

Our work didn’t go unnoticed. Faisal was nominated for the Advisor of the Year with ERSA, we were mentioned by the BBC and The Guardian, and we were approached by the CEO of Transitions, a refugee organisation helping highly skilled refugees into work who wanted to transfer her business model into Renaisi to take it to the next level of impact.

But the thing I’m most proud of about RISE is the sense of community that we built. We’ve seen participants form friendships, support each other through difficult times, and celebrate each other’s successes.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the impact that RISE has had on the lives of so many people. The success of RISE comes from every partner and team member, past and present. See below for just some of the people I’m grateful to have collaborated with.

What next?

Everything we learned over five years of delivering RISE will be poured into developing new services for refugees, and other marginalised groups of people.

Our aspiration is to offer person-centred support, that is flexible and informed by each person’s unique needs and aspirations; acknowledges the many interconnected barriers marginalised people face; and values every step on the journey towards thriving.

Thanks to partners and colleagues

It’s been an honour and a privilege to be a part of this incredible journey, working with the various teams, all the partners but most of all our participants.

Gerrar Ahmed