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Real work starts here

For a young formerly homeless Scot, who has never been further afield from Glasgow than Fort William, finding himself on an employment scheme in the Netherlands must seem like a bit of a shock.

But the response from John Grant, as he takes a break from his temporary job in Tuinwereld Garden Centre, in the port city of Dordrecht, is pretty unexpected.

"If you are on benefits here you have to work. I'd like that to be the same back in Scotland, instead of just signing on," he says. "It makes a real difference when you are expected to be somewhere." It's been a great experience, he says. "I'm just scared there will be nothing when I get back."

The 25-year-old came to the Dutch town, 20 miles south-east of Rotterdam, with the charity Quarriers, which has worked with him since he became homeless at the age of 16.

He's one of a group of eight Scots invited to take part in an exchange with the Werkcenter programme, which attempts to reintegrate long-term unemployed people in the Netherlands into the job market. Crucially, this is done by demanding that participants sink or swim in a real job, with the demand that they turn up, work hard, and do a proper job for proper pay.

Founder and chief executive Pieter van Schie, a straight-talking, pony-tailed entrepreneur set Werkcenter up seven years ago, having reached the decision that what he wanted to achieve could not be done in his government job.

Working for the municipality of Papandrecht, just across the river from TuinWereld, he was head of social affairs and employment. But he thought employability was not best achieved in government. "It is hard for the state to think like a business. I'm not a capitalist, but you have to have the same basic drives as a business. Then you can make someone job-ready."

Mr van Schie's company provides an intermediate job market, he says, employing the difficult-to-place, and giving unemployed clients a chance to prove themselves, but without making special allowances.

Mr van Schie recalls Mr Grant's first encounter with work at the firm's Papandrecht base. All the young Scots had to work on a production line, filling bags of pot pourri for the garden centre, before graduating to frontline work.

"John said 'this is not the job I want. This is a crap job'," the Dutchman explains. "I said 'that's right – I want to know if you can show up for a crap job'."

Mr van Schie expands on his philosophy. The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of unemployment and youth unemployment in Europle, he points out, and there is an attitude here that any job is better than no job.

"Getting from work to work is easier than from benefit to work. It's logic. To start off, you will get jobs that don't pay so much. As Bruce Hornsby says, 'that's the way it is'.

"But Dutch people will talk about a 'start-up' job. It is not realistic to think you can get your dream job just like that. I need to be able to go to an employer and say 'I've got a guy here and he can work'."

Mr van Schie would rather see unemployed people repairing holes in the road than doing artificial work schemes such as those he used to see, he says, which saw people manning phones that barely rung.

"If it's not a real job, they know," he says. "Only a real job will not stimulate them to show what they can do."

He has no time for those who argue that such a scheme might take work away from construction companies. "I say let them mend the holes in the road. You should pay them something. If people say that is false competition, I would say to the company – fine. You get all this work, but you take these young people on."

The exchange element, funded under the European Leonardo scheme, has so far seen three Scottish groups visit the Netherlands, with Dutch groups in turn working for Quarriers in the west of Scotland.

But the Werkcenter model is also attracting attention from the Scottish Government and Quarriers is looking to set up a project to test the concept here. Jim Rafferty, chief executive of Edinburgh's Capital City Partnership – responsible for the city's employment strategy – is interested in providing a location.

Helen Hunter, head of change and innovation at Quarriers, said the programme had helped take young people away from the multiple issues they face in Scotland and allowed them to develop alongside others. She added: "The partnership programme has helped broaden the young people's experience of work and life in general. The work experience is invaluable for their CVs, which often show long periods away from the labour market."

"Establishing a partnership in Scotland between Werkcenter and Quarriers would complete the circle, giving young people over here the opportunity to gain valuable job skills which would help them to secure sustainable employment."

Minister for Youth Employment Angela Constance told The Herald Scotland could learn from other countries: "In 2011 we facilitated the development of an exchange programme between Werkcenter, a private company focused on welfare to work, and the Scottish third sector organisation Quarriers," she said. "Through this innovative collaboration, the employability skills of young people in both countries are being developed and I am very pleased to note the progress of current discussions around bringing a form of the Werkcenter model to Scotland."

It remains to be seen whether it can work in the same way here. The set-up in the Netherlands is different – notably, local government is responsible for dispensing unemployment benefits and employability work. A novel reimbursement system encourages further efforts to get people into jobs: if municipalities don't spend all the funds they have for work schemes they must hand it back to central government, but any savings they make from the benefits bill, they can keep.

Tanja Williemsen, head of the department of Social Affairs and Employment in Breda, uses Werkcenter to handle the toughest cases her staff deal with, she says. "This company is very good at helping clients who are aggressive or the ones we just can't get in motion towards the labour market – the biggest pain in the asses," she says. "But often it is because they are unsure or don't think they can do it. They need to get a real job, so they can show themselves."

Can it be done in Scotland? Mr van Schie believes so, and says he could start up early next year, with backing. Start-up funds are needed to create a factory and infrastructure, but he pledges to make his plants financially sustainable within two years. "I think you can do it," he says. "I think you have to take a risk. The only way you can prove it is by doing it."

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