From the TUC

What do single parents want from work?

20 Sep 2012, by Guest in Equality

There’s a steady stream of political and media debate on how more single parents should be in work, and increasing pressure on them to do so once their youngest child reaches the age of five. However, while 59% of single parents are now in work, many working single parents continue to face poverty, instability and a lack of opportunity when in employment.

Against this backdrop, very little is actually known about what single parents themselves aspire to from work and, moreover, what holds them back from being more engaged with the labour market. Gingerbread undertook detailed research, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, into single parents’ views of and ambitions for work, as well as in-depth interviews with employers and recruitment providers to explore how these aspirations could be met.

Once again, we found that single parents overwhelmingly want to work. But, very clearly, what they ‘aspire to’ is to find work that fits in with their caring responsibilities.

Practicalities come far ahead of personal ambition: hours of work, and childcare availability and affordability are most frequently cited as the key factors in deciding whether single parents are successful in moving into work and staying there. The attitude of managers and colleagues is also highly influential.

We found that many single parents were in fact ‘bumping down’ their careers – with higher qualified, skilled and experienced parents choosing to take jobs at a much lower level and salary than they should be able to command.  The reasons for this? Again, purely practical. Single parents told us that they felt higher level jobs required more time and energy investment, as well as greater responsibility, and so were less suited to those with demands at home. They also felt that these jobs were less open to shorter or flexible hours and so simply not an option for them.

“Once I became a single parent my initial thought was that all these aspirations for myself and my children – gone. The dreams have all gone, and it needn’t be like that.” – Mum of three

With an understanding ethos from the workplace a key consideration for single parents, we asked a range of employers across different sectors about the policies and practice they had in place to support the needs of a range of employees, including other parents and workers with external demands on their time.

The employers we spoke to focused on the simple fact that happy and supported staff are more productive. They spoke strongly about the business benefits of offering flexible working arrangements, such as the ability to trade for longer as a result of offering a variety of start times and hours patterns; a reduction in overhead costs; and greater productivity and customer satisfaction stemming from happier staff.

Our research highlighted the positive steps being made by forward-thinking employers to increase access to the workplace for all staff. However, all too often employers continue to employ flexible working policies largely as a retention rather than recruitment tool – offered to existing staff after a period of time served, but rarely designed into a new role from the beginning.  It’s time for this culture to change: as technology increases the possibilities for a mobile workforce, able to perform their role just as easily from home and outside of ‘core’ hours, more employers should look to how roles can be configured to offer in-built flexibility, rather than just stick to the tried and tested full or part-time, 9 to 5, office-based model. 

In order for single parents to be able to engage fully in the workforce – as they themselves want to do – it’s time for change. We have made a series of recommendations, based on examples of good practice collected from single parents and a range of employers, for organisations, welfare to work and employability providers and government. You can read them, and the summary of our key findings here.

“A flexible approach is paramount – being in 10 minutes later so school drop can be done, leaving to pick up from school etc., being able to make up for time during lunch, working from home – being productive does not mean sticking to past rules.” – single dad.

GUEST POST: Caroline Davey is Director of Policy, Advice & Communications at Gingerbread, the national charity which provides advice and practical support for single parents and campaigns to improve the lives of all single parent families. Prior to joining Gingerbread Caroline was Deputy Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns at Shelter.