When you’re going for a job interview, first impressions count and there’s no denying the way we physically present ourselves can change people’s perceptions of us.
But this can present a problem for the 1.6 million people who are unemployed in the UK, particularly those who have been out of work longterm and don’t have the funds to pay for a suitable interview outfit such as a new suit or a blouse and skirt.
Step in Suited For Success, a Birmingham-based charity hoping to break cycles of unemployment by offering free interview clothing and interview coaching to anyone who is unemployed over the age of 16 with an interview on the horizon.
“When clients see themselves in the mirror in their new outfit, they’re just absolutely blown away,” the charity’s managing director Patricia White told HuffPost UK. “You physically see their body language change, their facial expression change and their boost in confidence and self-esteem. It’s incredible to watch.”
Suited For Success is based in the heart of the city and to the unknown eye, appears like a regular clothing shop. Clients are referred for appointments through partner charities or job centres and will then be seen for around 90 minutes, the first half of which is interview coaching, while the second is a clothes fitting much like one you may receive in a department store.
“It’s great that they look the part but once they open their mouths, clients need to be able to demonstrate that they’ve prepared for the job interview and put themselves across in the best way that they can,” Patricia, 45, explained.
Since its launch in January 2016, the charity has helped hundreds of unemployed people from ex-offenders and people who have previously been homeless to mums who have taken a career break and ex-military.
Lee Matthews, who is married with children, recently attended a special ex-Armed Forces day hosted by the charity. Lee was discharged from the military seven years ago on medical grounds due to suffering from PTSD after seeing his colleague killed in Iraq. He has spent most of that time out of work.
“I feel absolutely amazing,” he said after putting on his suit. “I feel like a different man and ready to move forward with the next chapter of my life.”
As well as essential clothing, the scheme provides accessories to make an outfit feel special, such as jewellery and a handbag or a smart tie and a briefcase, and Patricia says it’s not unusual for clients to feel emotional when they see themselves.
“We’ve had tears from both men and women,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of requests to wear the suit when people leave the shop, just so they can go into town and be like everybody else in employment – they can sit in a cafe, have a cup of tea and feel proud.”
The scheme initially started life as ‘Project 14’, a temporary CSR project launched by young professionals at law firm Gowling WLG. The group approached Patricia to ask if they could provide suits to Birmingham Central Food Bank, which Patricia managed at the time. She was so impressed by the idea, she established Suited For Success as an independent registered charity less than a year later.
Both aspects of the service – the coaching and the clothing – are free to clients and made possible thanks to the continued support of professionals in the city. In addition to Gowling WLG, the charity now works with a number of other big businesses including Lloyds Banking, Deutsche Bank and HSBC, who all host clothing drives in their offices. Suitable outfits are then collected by Suited For Success and dry cleaned for free thanks to a local business.
The charity works with a number of professional interview coaches, but also welcomes managers and recruitment officers from outside businesses as volunteers to offer their own interview tips.
For Patricia, every day spent building the charity is rewarding.
“When I worked at the food bank, I saw the desperation in people’s eyes about wanting to be getting to work, so to be enable to help them to be financially independent and no longer be in a cycle of poverty has been a real drive for me,” she says.
“It’s not just about putting someone in a new outfit. It really does change people’s lives.”