“Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”
I am sitting in the small meeting room of an old town hall in East London that is rented by a charity providing employability programmes to young people from the neighbourhood.
“If you don’t find time, if you don’t do the work, you don’t get the results.”
“You can have results or excuses, not both”. Another quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger was pinned up by the whiteboard.
These motivational slogans covered the walls of the classroom, echoing the programme’s focus on participants’ resilience, motivation and self-esteem. I am trying to copy the slogans in my research diary when Natasha, the instructor, reminds us that hard work, discipline, and perseverance are the precondition for professional success. Personal guidance and development methods from business and management can help us in this process, she notes.
The goals that we define for ourselves need to be constantly monitored in order to progress in our development. SMART, Natasha adds, is one of these models. It helps us to make sure that our personal and professional goals do not end up amongst our new year’s resolutions. Natasha projects a slide on the board with a table and explains SMART is an acronym giving specific criteria to guide us in the setting of our goals: “S” stands for “Specific”, and she clarifies, “what exactly do I want to achieve and why? M”, Natasha adds, “means Measurable, how can I measure my progress and how can I know when I have achieved my goals? Further, A stands for Achievable, are my goals realistic? R”, she continued, “is Relevant, is this a worthwhile goal at the stage I am at? And finally, T means Time-bond, when am I going to work on this goal? And how long will I give myself to achieve it?”
John, one of the charity’s managers, appears and starts counting the group. “Where are the other participants?” Natasha nervously consults her phone in order to identify justified absences. Amir is sick today and Amna has a job interview. I don’t know where Sarah and Aisha are. Ercan, Kevin, and Ahmed have decided not to come anymore. They say that the programme is useless.
John is obsessed with the numbers. Every morning he comes in to class to check who is present and who is not. In one of our informal conversations Natasha explained to me that the number of attendees is important for the charity. The American investment bank who funds the employability programme wants to maximise the impact in terms of the number of participants, and has threatened to cut the programme (and with the programme Natasha’s job) should the numbers continue to drop. “You can have results or excuses, not both”, I thought back to the poster on the wall.
“New developments of this model have added two steps to the guide transforming SMART into SMARTER”. Natasha’s voice brings our attention back to SMART and the self-management activities. ‘E’ stands for Evaluation and stresses the need that the achievement of objectives needs to be constantly evaluated and revaluated. And, ‘R’ is Review, standing for the need to reflect on the goals achieved and eventual adjustments of the goals that one has set. Natasha explains that this model was developed in the 1980s by an American consultant, George Doran, who realised that failures in organisational practices would often be caused by unrealistic objectives and insufficient monitoring of decisions and work processes. Success, both organisational and personal, Natasha notes, depends on peoples’ capacity to be rational about their choices and decisions; to subdivide larger aims and objectives into smaller, more achievable ones, and to constantly monitor their progress.
I feel some irritation. My face must have revealed it, as Debby, the black homeless girl sitting next to me, laughs at me. Natasha’s presentation makes me think of the ‘change management’ classes that I attended during my time as a doctoral student at a Swiss business school. I remember having questioned the usefulness of these models for the management of organisational change. And I am even less convinced that such techniques can help racially and economically stigmatised individuals, such as these course participants, get a job. How can a woman such as Natasha, who has experienced the disruptive effects of structural racism and classism, think that characterising participants as businesses can help them challenge centuries of racism and class division? Especially in a city like London where socioeconomic disparities are dramatically increasing. I am boiling.
“Let’s reach out to the community centres in the neighbourhood this afternoon and see whether there are more young people willing to participate.” John stands again in the door. His voice disturbs me. “What about the group of Somali girls who registered for the employability programme? Shouldn’t they be here today?” Natasha hunches her shoulders and promises to call them to make sure they attend future sessions. In the meantime, Natasha had lost the attention of the class. Some are reapplying their make-up. Others have taken their phones out of their pockets and have started playing games. Yet others are rolling cigarettes. John left the room again. It’s almost lunch time so rather than carry on with the class Natasha prepares the pocket money for everyone’s lunch. Each participant is entitled to £3.50; enough for a sandwich and a drink. She looks tired. I see a tear flowing down her cheek.
As usual after every training session, Natasha and I debrief. For me it is a way to think and better understand her choices and motivation, to reflect about her practices. For her, I guess (or I hope, I actually don’t know, I should ask her), it is a way to unwind. I ask her about the tears and about John. Natasha explains that working with these young people is gratifying, but complicated at the same time. She wants to provide them with the life skills they need to find employment, but she has no training in employability. She spends hours going through text books, trying to find activities which are appropriate for this specific group of unemployed young people. She never even wanted to work with unemployed people, she insists. After years of volunteering and being exploited as a cheap labour force in the charity, she was offered a paid position. She felt no choice but to accept the job. Working with kids, this is what she likes.
Initially, this programme was meant to be managed by three instructors. This would have enabled more individualised support; face-to-face coaching sessions, training units tailored to their needs and objectives, and closer mentoring and guidance. This is how the programme had been sold to her when she accepted to be in charge of it. However, recent cuts to funding had forced the charity’s management to reduce the number of instructors, which Natasha explains, inevitably leads to modes of coaching that do not meet the demands and difficult life situations of participants. John’s nervous attempts to meet the requirements of the funding institution adds pressure to an already difficult situation. “I don’t care about how many of them come, I have never been interested in these numbers, I just want them to be happy with the programme. I want them to progress in their individual development. I think, I will resign,” she concludes. “I am already trying to find something that is closer to where I live.”
In my previous work I have criticised employability programmes because of their perpetuation of the (neo)liberal illusion that social mobility is possible for everybody; even for individuals from East London, if only one would work hard enough on oneself. My critique was largely directed towards the coaches and instructors themselves who, through activities and techniques such as the SMART│ER method, urge participants to constantly exert control over their selves and behaviour. Indeed, professional success and inclusion, so these coaches claim, is dependent on ones’ choices, resilience and motivation to invest in self-management and self-control, and of course not on a capitalist system positioning them in situations of marginality.
But here I want to acknowledge that these employability programmes are also damaging for the coaches being asked to deliver them. Revisiting my exchange with Natasha has helped me understand how these activities are not only inappropriate for challenging youth unemployment, but indeed banalize the structural inequality that causes the professional vulnerability of ethnic and racial minorities; for participants and coaches alike. Employability programmes have become objects of economic rationalisation and exchange; commodities that are produced and sold by a growing “Social corporate responsibility economy”, that in spite of its emancipatory and humanitarian mission follows the logic of profitability and return of investment. The American investment bank’s own marketing and PR goals therefore leads to a lack of training and support, which reduces coaches’ potential to foster change. As a result, these precarious workers are made to think and feel as though they have failed, whilst working under exploitative working regimes which in the long run will weaken the role of charities as key actors in the Government’s attempt to challenge poverty and socioeconomic marginality.