This week, ITV Regional News is looking at the state of the economy, education and health in northern England, the Midlands and Wales, in its Levelling Up series.
Kellie Wilson has applied for over three thousand jobs in two and a half years - from cleaning, to washing pots, collecting bins, anything that doesn’t involve talking on the phone.
That’s because Kellie is deaf, and says she can’t use a phone. She has previously done temporary work in the probation service and at the Student Loans Company, where she says her disability wasn’t a problem after colleagues made a few adaptations. But since the summer of 2017, Kellie has been unsuccessful in every application for work she has made.
Now Kellie fears her search for employment will be even more difficult, as competition for every job increases amid rising unemployment and a fall in the number of vacancies.
Data given to ITV News by the Institute for Employment Studies shows that across the north of England there is more competition for work than average across the country.
Source: IES / ITV News analysis of ONS data on benefit claimants and vacancies advertised.
The gap between former ‘red wall’ areas (where the Conservatives won a seat from Labour at the last election) and the rest of the country has increased since March - the number of people in the East, South East and South West seeking each job available is now only slightly higher than it was in the north of England before the pandemic began.
But jobs in London have been hard hit by the pandemic as well. The capital has the highest numbers of people looking for work for every vacancy that is advertised, a figure that has increased more than anywhere else in the country.
The statistics show the scale of the challenge facing the Government to deliver on its promise to ‘level up’ the regions in the context of the pandemic, with fears unemployment will rise further as the furlough scheme comes to an end.
A Government spokesperson told ITV News: "The entire force of government continues in its commitment to building back better, levelling up our regions and all four corners of the United Kingdom. This includes through schemes such Kickstart which will create hundreds of thousands of new fully subsidised jobs for young people all over the country."
For Kellie, the pandemic has made her search for work more difficult in practical ways too, with companies relying more and more on telephone interviews.
When her local Job Centre closed for face-to-face appointments, Kellie says she was offered a phone consultation despite the centre being aware of her disability. She describes her Job Centre work coach as ‘not entirely helpful’, saying she’s been offered roles that she can’t do and has been told to stop using her disability as an excuse. The Department for Work and Pensions say specialist employment support is available for people with health conditions, disabilities or significant disadvantages, describing the support offered by work coaches as 'hugely effective' and noting that 'it is the model behind the record high employment levels seen at the beginning of this year.'
Kellie also says she would struggle to work in a situation where face masks are required, because they prevent her from being able to lip read. She doesn’t think much of the Government’s plans to ‘level up’, doubting the impact they will have on her.
While she continues to search for employment, Kellie is taking part in a distance learning course that leads to a cyber security qualification. She hopes that will give her more chance of successfully finding a job, but Kellie’s experience so far leads her to think that passing the exams will be far from the only hurdle she has to overcome.
Analysis by ITV Granada Political Correspondent Hannah Miller
Kellie faces challenges beyond those faced by many job seekers, but her situation illustrates the frustration that thousands will face as they try to get back into work at a time when there simply aren’t enough jobs to go round.
Living in the North East, every time a job is advertised Kellie is up against more people than she would be if she lived elsewhere. The constant knock-backs have an impact on both her mental health and her freedom - the Universal Credit she receives goes on rent, bills and food, she has no disposable income to spend as she would like.
And while it would benefit Kellie to be successful in one of her thousands of job applications, it also benefits the country to have fewer people out of work. That’s why the Chancellor has named his recovery programme a ‘Plan For Jobs’, trying to increase the amount of vacancies available. The Government has already spent billions on an unprecedented furlough scheme, which has supported millions of jobs and without which unemployment would no doubt have risen faster.
Our data shows the gap between North and South has increased since March, but that disguises the enormous impact that has been seen in London - the city has been hit so badly that competition among unemployed people there is now greater than anywhere else in the country. What we see here is arguably ‘levelling down’ between London and the regions, not the ‘levelling up’ the Government has set out to achieve.
So London needs help, but many northern towns and cities need it too. Politicians in Westminster are acutely aware of the economic challenge that they see not just in constituency, but in the capital too. But it is far from clear that the solutions will be the same across the country. The Government is demonstrably trying to create jobs through schemes such as Kickstart to support young people in work, aiming to ensure that 'no-one is left without hope or opportunity.' But will those jobs be in the areas most affected by the pandemic, where proportionately more people are seeking work, or will nationwide schemes only serve to reinforce longstanding inequalities?
As Kellie’s situation makes clear, those inequalities are not just regional, they are even more acutely experienced by people with disabilities. She’s tired of hearing governments talk about improving opportunities for people like her, will this Government be the one to deliver?
Watch Hannah Miller's video report here:
Watch our Levelling Up coverage on your local ITV News programme in northern England, the Midlands and Wales at 6pm on the 7th, 8th and 9th September.