‘Being on benefits soon gets very boring’ – how a Sheffield charity is helping the city’s long-term unemployed youths

Young Sheffielders who had lost hope of ever finding jobs are finally kickstarting their careers, with the aid of a fledgling charity.

By Robert Cumber
Friday, 8th March 2019, 11:49 am
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 11:53 am
Matthew Ansley and James McDermott with Grow UK coach Rachel Hall at Holly Hagg Community Farm (pic: Steve Ellis)
Matthew Ansley and James McDermott with Grow UK coach Rachel Hall at Holly Hagg Community Farm (pic: Steve Ellis)

Grow UK is sowing the seeds for down-on-their-luck youths, some of whom have been unemployed for years, to flourish in the workplace.

They spend two afternoons a week in town knocking their CVs into shape, perfecting their interview technique and searching for opportunities, and a third gaining work experience toiling among the alpacas up at Holly Hagg Community Farm near Crosspool.

Matthew Ansley and James McDermott with Grow UK coach Rachel Hall at Holly Hagg Community Farm (pic: Steve Ellis)

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As well as equipping them with the tools needed to succeed in the job market, the innovative eight-week programme gives them a much-needed shot of self-belief.

Since being launched last autumn by University of Sheffield graduate Steven Cotton, the charity’s work has quickly borne fruit.

Three of the four youths who completed the first course found employment, Grow UK is still working with the fourth and members of the second cohort are already enjoying success.

Matthew Ansley, who had been looking for work for two years (pic: Steve Ellis)

Five weeks ago, before teaming up with the charity, Matthew Ansley was at his lowest ebb.

The 18-year-old had not worked since being permanently excluded from school in 2016, despite applying for countless jobs, and had spent much of the last two years living in homeless shelters around Sheffield.

Today, happily pruning hedges at the farm while trying to avoid being mobbed by the over-friendly alpacas, he is buzzing about the interview he has just secured for an apprenticeship at a gardening supplies firm.

Grow UK founder Steven Cotton (right) with employment coach Rachel Hall and James McDermott, who is taking part in the eight-week programme (pic: Steve Ellis_

“I’d been turned down so often, and that knocked my confidence to the point where I thought I'm never going to get anywhere in life. I was practically a lowlife sitting on my backside all day, and I couldn’t see that changing,” he said.

“Grow UK’s given me the confidence to say actually I’m worth a lot more than a lot of people think. I realise I can do much more than I thought was possible just a few weeks ago.

“It’s been fun too. It feels more like a youth club than an employment club, but you learn some really useful things like how to make yourself come across better in interviews.

Brad Cawthorne, 17, is one of the young people being supported by Grow UK (pic: Steve Ellis)

“I never thought I’d get an interview for the apprenticeship but Steven helped with my CV and covering letter, and within four hours of sending my application I got a reply inviting me down.”

Grow UK works with 16 to 24-year-olds from a variety of backgrounds, including those who have been homeless, in care, recently released from prison and have experienced mental health problems.

Steven, who previously worked for youth employment charities in London, told how all those involved face some kind of barrier to gaining employment.

“There are a whole range of factors which mean they struggle to navigate the route into work on their own, and can find the process quite intimidating,” he said.

“The idea is to give them the skills they need and give them a taste of work, but to do so in a peaceful, therapeutic space where you can breathe in some clean air.”

Up at the farm, there is a strong mood of camaraderie, with these young people who are facing similar challenges all rooting for one another and forging friendships.

James McDermott at work on the farm (pic: Steve Ellis)

James McDermott learned about Grow UK at the Jobcentre, and, having been out of work for over a year, decided he had nothing to lose.

The 20-year-old from Hackenthorpe, whose past jobs range from bricklaying to games development, has just been taken on by McDonald’s – something he doubts would have happened without the charity’s support.

"They’ve helped me big time, improving my CV, which was rubbish, and getting me to slow down my speech, which used to be really fast because I feared that if I stopped I would forget what I was going to say,” he said.

“Some people think you want to be on benefits your whole life but, believe me, it soon gets very boring being out of work, and I’d highly recommend Grow UK to anyone who’s struggling to get a job.”

For more about the charity, visit www.growuk.org.uk.

Brad Cawthorne, Matthew Ansley and James McDermott with Grow UK coach Rachel Hall and the charity's founder Steven Cotton (pic: Steve Ellis)