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Future skills

Marzia Babakarkhail, a participant in the Future Skills programme in Manchester (Credit: Amy Hill)

At a glance

Offering support and skills development to meet the needs of women facing barriers to progress out of poverty.


The UK is one of the richest countries in the world, yet 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line. Unemployment, low pay, zero-hour contracts and rising living costs are all making life harder for millions of people.

Many women, in particular, are living with, or at risk of poverty because they cannot access decent jobs or fully take part in their local communities. The reasons for this can vary but there are common themes, including a lack of flexible job opportunities, caring responsibilities, and low levels of confidence, skills, and work experience. Some women may also have limited English language skills.

The Future Skills project offers support and skills development to meet the particular needs of women who face many barriers to progress out of poverty. Working in partnership with Oxfam's extensive shop network, we provide a six-month supported volunteer placement in an Oxfam shop alongside professional mentoring, workshops and group work.

Our approach

Participants are recruited in partnerships with women's organisations, refugee organisations, and other community groups. Staff at these organisations identify suitable candidates and support the women to apply to the programme.

The programme focuses on women living in, or at risk of poverty who are frequently in one or more of the following groups:

  • Asylum seekers and refugees
  • Black and ethnic minority backgrounds
  • Women who have been unemployed for a long time
  • Domestic abuse survivors
  • Women with few or no formal qualifications
  • Women with poor mental health

The women undertake a six month placement in an Oxfam shop, of at least two shifts a week. Alongside this, they receive in-shop training in skills including visual merchandising and stock management. Participants also work with a professional coach to gain confidence and plan their personal and professional development, and take part in skills workshops such as career development and communication and empowerment.

Over the course of the placement, the women develop their social skills and networks by engaging with shop staff, volunteers and customers. This is a vital part of the project since many of the participants, especially asylum seekers and refugees are often isolated. Stronger social networks help women to be more confident, improve their language skills as well as increasing their sense of belonging to their local community.


During the programme, a plan is developed with each participant to plan for their future. This might include going into work through partnerships with local and national employers, opportunities for further volunteering and wider involvement in Oxfam's work, including through events, policy or campaigning. Participants can also volunteer to support other women that join Future Skills at later dates.

The project was piloted in Greater Manchester in 2016-2017, and demonstrated that the approach is effective and produces strong outcomes for the women. Almost all women on the first pilot reported a marked increase in personal confidence, and three quarters of the women went from the project into either employment, education, enterprise or further volunteering.

Scaling up

The project has now been scaled up, and is continuing in Manchester, as well as starting up in London, Glasgow and Cardiff. From 2018 it will also begin in Oxford. The intention is to grow the supported in-shop volunteering aspect of the programme, and build on that by harnessing the learning and insights about the barriers that the women we work with face. With this knowledge we aim to work with the women to address the longstanding and structural challenges for women's progression both in the labour market and in terms of community engagement.

Poverty in the UK: 1 in 5 are living in poverty in the UK (2014/15)