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Desperate Young Briton Looks For Work In Hull
Originally published on Mon November 28, 2011 11:48 am
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been hearing a lot about the economic meltdown affecting a string of European countries, and the sort of tough austerity measures that they're now facing. Britain was among the first to embrace a tough austerity program. And now, the economy is stalled. Unemployment is going up. Young people are hit hardest of all - one in five is now out of work. NPR's Philip Reeves spent a day with one of those jobless Britons, a young man named Dean Smith.
DEAN SMITH: I'll do anything to get a job. I'll scratch, claw, you know, dig if I have to.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Dean Smith used to make potato sacks in a factory. A month ago, he was laid off. He joined the army of more than 1 million British 16- to 24-year-olds who are without work. Smith's on a mission to change that.
SMITH: I'd even clean toilets if it was a job. It's not one of my things I want to do but if it's a job, it's a job.
REEVES: Smith's a tall man of 24. His warm smile disguises a troubled past - a broken home, a disrupted education. A couple of years ago, his mother died from cancer. His father is too disabled by obesity to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
REEVES: This morning, Smith's doing what he does pretty much every day. He pulls on a woolly hat and strides out into the cold to seek work in his hometown, Hull, in northeast England. Any job will do, so long as it pays at least the minimum wage - the equivalent of nine and a half dollars an hour.
SMITH: If it's anything lower, I just can't live off it. Obviously, with food going up, price going up on gas, the electric, you just can't live on your own. It's just absolutely terrible.
REEVES: Some people call Hull the gateway to Europe. It has a big port and a ferry service, shipping goods and people to and from mainland Europe. Hitler bombed the city to smithereens. These days, though, citizens of the European Union, especially Poles, come to Hull to work. Smith says that makes it harder for young Britons, like himself, to find jobs. He thinks perhaps today his luck will change, and he'll land something.
SMITH: A factory worker or maybe somewhere in a kitchen.
REEVES: His first task is to call on his careers adviser. Smith had to sell his computer to pay the rent. His adviser, Sheikh Taufique, logs on. Together, they hunt for vacancies. Finally, Taufique finds a chef's job in a cafe. Smith's worked in a kitchen before, though he's not qualified to be a chef. Taufique advises Smith to telephone the cafe owner immediately, and suggests he tells an innocent, little lie by saying that he's already in work.
SHEIKH TAUFIQUE: It's always easier to get a job if you've already got a job. So you say, look, I'm currently working and this would be great on top of the hours that I'm doing.
SMITH: Hi. My name is Dean. I'm just currently looking on the job center website...
REEVES: Smith plays along with the lie.
SMITH: Basically, I'm just currently in part-time work but I'm looking to like, top me hours up, basically.
REEVES: The conversation goes well.
SMITH: All right. Thank you very much, sir. I've got an interview.
TAUFIQUE: This morning? Already? Well, well done.
REEVES: Smith's delighted that he's secured an interview, and so is Taufique.
TAUFIQUE: I get kicks from helping people like Dean. I used to work for a bank. I was given bonuses here and there, but it never fed my soul, you know. And this work feeds my soul.
REEVES: In Hull, helping people can be difficult. The city sits on a giant estuary, the Humber, but it's also split in two by the River Hull. There's fierce rivalry between West Hull and East Hull. Some people take this ridiculously seriously.
TAUFIQUE: A lot of my clients, I'll say to them, look, there's a job here and it's in West Hull. Oh, no, no, no, I'm not going there.
TAUFIQUE: I think it's down to the rugby. There's two rugby teams in Hull, and where there's deprivation, people cling on to what they have and, you know, they're loyal to their rugby team. It's just the way people are. It's very tribal.
REEVES: Taufique's mission is to find other people jobs, yet he has his own to worry about. His post is part of a publicly financed project. The funding's coming to an end - it's being channeled elsewhere.
TAUFIQUE: I'm being made redundant in the middle of December myself. It's kind of heartbreaking when as a careers adviser, you're telling people you're unemployed. I've got responsibilities; I've got bills to pay; I've got kids to buy presents for this Christmas. But, you know, I'm quite a positive person. And I'm a firm believer that in, you know, if you build it, it will come. And so I'm just being very positive about it.
REEVES: Losing his own living doesn't seem to have dented Taufique's enthusiasm for helping Smith find one. He urges Smith to get out there and nail the chef's job.
TAUFIQUE: Think good thoughts, and smile. And make comments about oh, how are you today? Don't talk about the job; talk about the person.
REEVES: Smith heads out to his interview by bus, to Hull City Center.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
REEVES: Are you a little bit worried about the fact that you did slightly bend the truth in order to get the interview?
SMITH: I am a little bit but at the end of the day, if it gets me a job, it'll get me a job. Of course, I've got a lot of competition out there.
REEVES: Hull contains some of Britain's most deprived urban areas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
REEVES: They include this place, a sprawl of down-at-heel, red-brick homes called the Great Field Estate. In a local pub, men while away the working day playing dominos. Smith comes from here.
VICKY HOLBECK: Unemployment on the Estate is at least 50 percent.
REEVES: Fifty percent?
HOLBECK: Yeah. The kids who are not in education, employment and training is exceptionally high as well.
REEVES: Vicky Holbeck's from Probe, a nonprofit community development organization. She runs a center that's helping prepare disadvantaged 16- to 18-year-olds for work. Holbeck says that means breaking a dependency on welfare that can sometimes straddle generations.
HOLBECK: It's so, so difficult to break that. You know, if Mom and Dad haven't been out to work, why do I need to go out to work? And that's what we're up against here, is trying to break that disadvantage cycle.
REEVES: Smith is back from his interview. As darkness sets in, we meet in a cold and almost empty tavern. He did not get the job as a chef. The cafe owner told him he didn't know how to cook.
SMITH: It was kind of upsetting at first to hear that, but after a while I thought, all right then, I probably can't cook. But I can learn. I can be that blank slate. If you teach me, I will learn.
REEVES: But the owner said he might give Smith a trial as a kitchen assistant. Smith says by his standards, the day's been a big success.
SMITH: Most of the time, I don't even get to speak to like, either employers or managers.
REEVES: A lot of people listening to this would say, well, that shows how desperate you are.
SMITH: Well, to be fair, I am desperate. It's that time of year, where I need to be able to look after myself. It's going to get colder, you know. I can't exactly just leave my heating off - and Christmas, you know.
REEVES: What does he think about his mentor, Sheikh Taufique, losing his job? Absurd, says Smith.
SMITH: He's out there to help people like myself. At the end of the day, we do need help; we need quite a lot of help. And with him going, it's going to be difficult, in fact. It's going to be heartbreaking.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.