Barriers to employment

All of the families in the study who were not in paid work had the aspiration to gain full-time employment. Jennifer, lone parent to three boys, summarises this desire well:

‘I want to move on. I want... I don’t want to be on benefits. I don’t want that stigma. I want to work, and I’m not looking for an all-singing, all-dancing job with a massive pay, I just want enough money to provide for myself and my sons without having to rely on anybody, or get handouts... and you’re just constantly penalised for that. There’s all the barriers, the stigma, everything that goes with that’.

The barriers to employment were most keenly felt by the lone parents in the study. The couple families were all in paid work, albeit on low wages supplemented by working tax credit. Childcare was a major barrier and was a greater issue for those who did not have wider support from family and friends. The cost and availability of transport was another major barrier, more important for those families living in a rural area.


Rebecca finds it difficult to get a job as a lone parent with young child because she feels she is judged as being ‘unreliable’, due to her young, lone-parent status, and because it is difficult to get someone to look after her daughter.

‘I don’t have much of a support network from (my family) because, like, my dad and I have only just gained a relationship, properly. I don’t really see much of him. And my mum works a lot, so, I generally see her the weekend or the off chance’.

When asked what she would like for herself for the future, Rebecca replied:

‘I’d like to have a career. Support ourselves by myself… I’d like to see myself the way I was before I had (the baby), having a job, being able to support myself’.

Rebecca says she would like to do something at one of the local colleges for next year. She would like to sit her Highers because she didn’t really do them at school. She feels that she has to get an education in order to progress and be able to support herself and her child. When asked what would support her return to college, she said it would be having someone that she could trust to look after her baby. She says that she knew someone who failed a college course because she didn’t have sufficient childcare and didn’t have time to study and she would not want this to happen to her. She says she would need childcare for her daughter in order to access education. She is hoping she can go to college that would have a crèche.

In contrast, Ashleigh, another lone parent, has recently started working 25 hours per week in the evenings. This has been facilitated entirely by family looking after her young son:

‘I stay with (my son) by myself. I depend on my family… My mum and her partner, my dad and his partner, and my sister, there is quite a lot (of support) because I work Monday to Friday’.

‘It’s good. I don’t put him to childcare, all my family take him, Monday to Friday, so I do depend on them a lot. Without them, I probably would struggle, because just money and that. They don’t obviously take money off me for looking after him’.

Ashleigh’s family work shifts or juggle their own finish times in order to enable Ashleigh to go to work. They’re very supportive and without them should not be able to work as a) she would not be able to do these evening hours and b) she would not be able to afford childcare on the salary she earns in the office.

‘I’ve got a sister and she’s got her own partner and they help out whenever they can as well. So, it is good, I would struggle without them’.

Jennifer says the barriers to employment are: transport, because she does not drive and lives in a semi-rural area; and getting a childminder that would suit the needs of her middle son who has autistic spectrum disorder. She fears that with her son’s issues if he went to a childminder's he may clash with the other children that she looks after, and it may prove to be ’too much hassle' to look after her son. She explains that sometimes she gets calls from the school to come when there are problems with her son and she says this would be so much more difficult in an employment situation.

Caring for someone with a disability

Mary, the carer of a teenage son with complex health issues, says she had been discussing the possibility of obtaining part time work with her lone parent advisor who explained that the rules had changed on the number of hours a carer is entitled to work. She explains that she is allowed to work up to 10 hours per week but would lose benefits (her carer’s allowance and income support top up) and would therefore be much worse off financially. Mary has been looking for a job as a domestic worker while she is doing her Open University degree but can’t due to these rules.

Mary is concerned for the future because of the people she feels she has to support. She says she tries not to think too far ahead and avoids thinking about the future. When asked about how she feels when she thinks about the future and how she sees it, she said:

‘(I see it as) a negative place... As much as I’m doing my studying and I know where I want to go, I’m thinking, will I get there? Is it going to be manageable? Because I cannae get passed this caring role for (her son)... Some days it gets overwhelming. I over think things I think.’

The impact of caring for a disabled child affects not just employment opportunities but health & wellbeing too:

‘It’s heart-breaking for me and I feel that I’m at a standstill because I can’t do anything for him. I can only give him emotional support and love and like I do and be there for him and support him, but, he’s a very difficult child sometimes... That makes me sad. Like I said to you, he’s not had a kid’s life. Everything’s been a struggle for him in life. And it’s a shame because he gets so excited, he’s like “mum I want to do this and I want to do that” but then all these mental health problems slip in and it’s a barrier for him and it’s a shame. I just get on with it. It does make me sad sometimes but I think I can only imagine how he’s feeling. He’s got all these disabilities and things going around in his head. How does he feel?’

Mary would really like to work in the prison service. She would especially like to use her psychology degree in the prison service and be a therapist/counsellor there. She thinks this sounds like a far off dream but would very much like to work in the caring/therapeutic area. When I ask if there are any barriers to this future, Mary replies: ‘day to day life (laughs). That’s why I say I just get up every day and hope for the best. I just take it on the chin, because some days I think to myself “I wonder what’s going to happen today then”.

Unreliable hours/Job insecurity

Barriers to employment, or to better employment, also existed for those families already in paid work. Having unreliable or uncertain hours affected families. Emma is married with a 3 year old son. She and her husband own their own property with a mortgage. Last year, Emma was a receptionist at the local community centre and her husband had recently become self-employed. Until 24 February 2014, she was on a ‘tertiary’ contract with the council where she received a contract for 12 week periods. Under this contract she did not get paid if she was not at work, e.g. for holidays or sickness, and she did not know how her hours would change each 12 week period. At Christmas time 2013, for example, the community centre where Emma works was closed for the two-week period. This meant she was not at work and was not paid. The impact of this is that she had a very low January wage and was still playing catch up financially by the end of March. At other times, Emma has been offered extra hours and this has resulted in a higher monthly wage. Emma showed me her monthly income from the council for the previous 12 month period and range from a normal income of approximately £1000 per month, to low income of approximately £600 per month, to a high income of approximately £1400 per month. The difficulty for Emma is the instability of her income which makes forward planning difficult, means that tax credits change frequently, usually resulting in her owing an overpayment to them, and means that she micro-manages her income on an almost daily basis.

‘I was getting three different lots of pay (from the same employer on different temporary contracts) but I had no holiday pay. I got a supplement onto my wages but if I was off sick, or if the centre was closed for holidays, I would get no pay. So what I've done, I was looking for a permanent post within the Council, just for a bit more stability really because, for instance at Christmas the centre was closed for two weeks... so December, January, and even February, I was playing catch up trying to get on top of finances again’.

Job insecurity is another aspect that affects families in work. Having been a public sector worker made redundant due to austerity cuts, Pauline found herself competing with more highly qualified people for lower and lower levels of jobs. Now she has found a job but on a series of temporary contracts:

‘I’m definitely feeling a lot more positive but that’s got more to do with the work environment that I’m in than the lifting of the debt. Because I’ve still not got any job security, I’m still on a short-term contract until December next year and I’m very very much aware that, you know, financial insecurity is lurking around every corner and that, effectively, I love my house but in a private rented situation my security isn’t very high so, come, you know, July when my, and again my landlord being a nice guy I got a 12 month contract, but I’m going to want to renew that contract come July rather than just let it slip back into our you know, “you need to be out of here in four weeks”. So yeah, things are better but there’s still insecurity. But I think Once you’ve experienced poverty it never really leaves you because this isn’t the first time, do you know what I mean, I was homeless on and off for a few years during my early 20s and the experience of it never really leaves you, it never really leaves you, that feeling at the back of your head that this could all be gone tomorrow… It doesn’t take very much anyway, because I had worked at the same place for 9 ½, nearly 10 years when I was made redundant, and so yeah, and before that I never had any problems getting a job. I’d never really experienced rejection from a job interview before…’