Noting that existing youth unemployment programs on average result in a job placement rate of lower than 20%, Sandra Schürmann's "Projektfabrik" (project factory) takes a different approach by drawing unemployed youth into a ten-month program that uses performing arts to teach vital job-seeking and professional skills. Sandra is therefore instilling self-confidence and self-worth in long-term unemployed youth and changing public perceptions of youth living on state welfare. Having achieved a job placement rate of 65%, Sandra is expanding Projektfabrik to other target groups such as long-term unemployed migrants, single parents and young delinquents. She is also expanding Projektfabrik to other European countries including Spain, Turkey and France.
The New Idea
Through its key project, JobAct, Projektfabrik takes a different approach to youth unemployment. Targeting groups of 30 long-term unemployed youngsters with no special interest or talent in acting, the ten-month program closely intertwines innovative theater and other artistic pedagogy with careful mentoring and job coaching. Youth create a theater performance in the first five months of the program and in the second phase they complete a five-month internship.
Sandra is using theater pedagogy as an empowerment strategy that enables young people and their job coaches to work on constructing individual life perspectives and realizing first steps to long-term employment. By participating in a play from design to execution, unemployed youth learn basic skills such as punctuality, reliability, teamwork, and communication. Complementary to this experience, youth are empowered to apply for jobs. They write applications—first for internships and then for vocational trainings and jobs—supported by group work, individual coaching, and mock interviews. Both experiences are closely linked to achieve the essential transfer of skills and motivation. In producing and organizing the play, everyone finds his or her unique and important position, from stage setting to PR, from costume design to ticket sales. Every participant also has to find his/her role in the play and perform on stage. The effect is striking: The participants not only gain personal self-esteem and an identity as a team, but they also understand that they have the potential to create something out of nothing. They see how much they can achieve when they take personal responsibility. In comparison to the low placement rate of other youth employment programs, the rate of job placement for youth graduating from a Projektfabrik JobAct program is 65 percent.
So far, JobAct has reached 1,650 participants in five states across Germany, with 55 theater premieres over the last four years, attended by 10,000 visitors and highly publicized through media and awards. Sandra is spreading the program regionally and to other target groups and influencing the landscape of public funding employment programs.
In Germany in May 2009, nearly 200,000 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24 were living on the lowest state welfare level. As second or third generation long-term welfare recipients, these unemployed youth become frustrated by long-term inactivity, idleness, and by the public perception of them as social “freeloaders.” Existing programs that deal with youth unemployment through limited skills development and classic application training are ineffective; on average these programs result in a job placement rate of less than 20 percent.
Long-term youth unemployment has hazardous enduring implications. Internalizing society’s perception of them as social freeloaders, unemployed youth lose confidence in their abilities, thereby becoming socially isolated and further deteriorate their chances of finding a job. This social problem is extremely cost-intensive in the long run; the German welfare state not only pays for living costs and ineffective employment measurements, but also indirectly pays for the long-term side effects of unemployment—depression, other illnesses, and old-age poverty. Furthermore, long-term unemployed individuals often pass on their frustrations to their children; further perpetuating the problem. Classic job coaching focuses on overcoming participants’ weaknesses. However, the lack of tools necessary to instill higher levels of self-esteem and hope in participants combined with a constant focus on skills deficits, means traditional job coaching programs fail to empower young people to develop a vision for their lives and to take responsibility for it. What is more, they do not succeed in teaching important life skills such as punctuality, reliability, teamwork, endurance, a strong work ethic, commitment, and respect for others. As a result, programs for long-term unemployed individuals have very low job placement rates. On the other hand, creative art programs have not gained momentum as successful and innovative tools for job coaching. The few creative art programs aimed at job coaching that do exist often make young people dream of becoming actors or pop stars—highly unrealistic career paths that only accelerate the vicious cycle of frustration and hopelessness.
In the end, continuously changing governmental financing structures and inflexible conditions impede citizen organizations from developing creative concepts and individual approaches. Instead, institutions design pilot projects that are limited to public criteria for job coaching programs.
The key pedagogic concept of JobAct is to tackle unemployment by using creative tools to foster the personal development of its young participants. It removes unemployed youth from passivity and places them into an active and creative social role, instilling self-confidence and self-worth. Sandra does this by first using theater as an entrance incentive. The first part of the project consists of a five-month theater production, which is completely realized by the young jobseekers. With a local theater pedagogue and job coach providing support, they experience every type of work related to a theater production, including playwriting stage design, acting, performing, publicity, and event planning. Participants receive hands-on experience with skills used in professional fields, such as management and marketing. What is more, through clearly assigned responsibilities these young people learn to work as a team, to rely on others, and to be responsible once again, after a long period of social isolation. This first part of the project functions as an intensive training for personality development, focused on the very individual competences of every participant. The adolescents get to know their personal abilities and passions as well as experience what it feels like to be creative on a team, and then achieve public success.
In addition to the play production, the youth find a five-month internship, which is the second part of JobAct. A professional job coach is brought into the program, and by working closely with the theater pedagogue, he is able to closely evaluate and assist each participant. By getting to know his client’s individual strengths and potential he can better support their individual applications. The participants also train for job interviews in the group and coach each other to improve their interviewing skills. The program does not explicitly aim to bring people into creative jobs; so far, no participant has expressed the wish to become an actor. Instead, the focus is using theater as a tool, not as a goal in itself.
Every regional JobAct project is run by local staff supervised by Projektfabrik e.V. and is operated like a decentralized umbrella organization. Since the pedagogue and job coach come from the region where the program is being run, they are able to tap into existing networks of organizations. Moreover, they know potential employers and other key stakeholders to invite to the theater premier. When officials from the employment agency attend the plays, they frequently change their attitudes toward unemployed young people. They begin to see their abilities instead of their weaknesses, to question existing structures, and to believe in programs that challenge unemployed youth and build on their potential. Sandra expands Projektfabrik in two ways. First, she applies the JobAct methodology to other target groups such as long-term unemployed migrants, single parents, and young delinquents. Second, Projektfabrik spreads regionally to other German cities and states using a social franchise system. Expansion to other European countries such as Spain, Turkey, and France are already planned. Sandra wants to open an academy that teaches theater pedagogues how to work together with job coaches, in order to guarantee a certain standard of quality within her organization and to influence external job coaches. At the moment, Projektfabrik receives 80 percent of its funding government resources and 20 percent from the European Social Fund. Fundraising on a project basis for its local programs, one-third of funding is used to finance the umbrella organization. While state funding was not available for such an innovative program in the beginning, Sandra has managed to integrate state resources and get sponsorship from the business community. As Sandra has long lobbied for public support and found loop holes in the finance policy of the Federal Agency of Employment and other public qualification programs, she has transformed the existing landscape of how creative projects are financed in this sector.
Sandra has always dreamt of a more flexible and empowering school system. During her studies she was involved in mentoring and coaching orientations that advised adolescents, helping them increase their self-esteem and independence. After graduating, Sandra worked at an educational institution, Jugend in Arbeit e.V., (German for Youth in Work), for unemployed adolescents. After only one year, she founded her own department and directed 16 staff in 10 locations. Her task was to offer consultancy to unemployed young people in every major city in her region. As the organization was paid for every adolescent successfully hired, she adapted a British best-practice model to introduce an internal success-based structure, creating positive competition between the single regional branches. Through this, Sandra made the work of the local branches cost-effective for the first time and even generated income streams for her non-profit employer. Seeing that the dropout rates at placing agencies working with adolescents were notably high, Sandra wanted to find out what really motivated young people to take their lives into their own hands. During her time at Jugend in Arbeit e.V. she implemented creative elements into her professional coaching work to empower her clientele. However, Sandra met high resistance, which resulted in routine rejection of her project proposals.
In 2005, on maternity leave, Sandra recognized that she did not want to go back to her job without introducing significant changes toward a more creative and holistic approach. During that time she visited a school theater play where she had the enlightening idea of using creative activities to help young people discover and develop their personal skills to succeed in the workplace. She would combine theatre pedagogy with professional recruiting support. Within a few days she developed her concept, which eventually turned into JobAct. Finding little support from her formal employer, she started the project on her own. After securing funding from one municipality, she was able to fundraise 100,000 euros within three months to realize the first JobAct pilot project. Due to a lack of organizational structures, Sandra convinced her former boss to allow her to use his legal structure. However, when she was unable to apply for a prestigious national competition looking for projects targeting unemployed youth, she decided to create her own legal entity, Projektfabrik e.V. just two days before the national competition deadline. JobAct was then named the best of 1,800 projects by the Federal Ministry for Employment. Since then, Sandra has worked tirelessly on all aspects of her work to expand her concept.