Our Work

Staircase to Staircase: An Innovative Employment and Family project helping vulnerable families

Finding your way back into the workforce can be challenging as a parent who have been out of employment for a long time. Especially if you even face poor physical and mental health, financial challenges, or children struggling and being absent from school.

All of these factors only make the situation more difficult.

But what if the ‘system’ decided to think differently and listen more to what families in vulnerable residential areas need help with to move forward according to themselves? And what if the municipality assembled a team of skilled professionals with diverse experiences and competencies to support the families’ wishes, suggestions and plans?

Such an experiment has been conducted in recent years in Aarhus municipality’s employment and family initiative called “Opgang til Opgang” in Gellerup.

An experimental and novel approach

“Opgang til Opgang” project is an innovative family and employment initiative that addresses the prolonged unemployment and dissatisfaction of many families in vulnerable residential areas.

“Opgang til Opgang” is a 4-year development project in Aarhus Municipality. The project aims to develop an innovative, holistic, and relational employment initiative for 62 families in vulnerable positions (a total of 288 children, young people, and adults) in Gellerup. The initiative focuses on providing unemployed parents with a stable and lasting connection to the labor market, getting more young people into education and part-time jobs, and improving the overall well-being, health, and future opportunities of the families.

The method fundamentally involves employees spending time building a trusting relationship with families so that they gradually open up, share their desires and hopes for the future, and begin to address the fundamental challenges they face. It is not the norm to consider a family’s overall situation when a long-term unemployed parent seeks employment. However, through a holistic and interdisciplinary focus on the entire family, both social and family problems that often hinder a successful employment initiative can be addressed.

This transformation requires a significant collective effort from employees and leaders across departments in Aarhus Municipality. “Opgang til Opgang” is likely one of the most radical interdisciplinary initiatives launched in recent times. Ten full-time employees from employment, social and family services, health, children & youth, as well as leisure services, work together in a locally based office in Gellerup, under the leadership of a full-time team leader – with guidance and advice from SUS. Together, the team has authority in all administrative areas and can assist the family with virtually everything they need.

Outstanding Results

It has now been five years since SUS collaborated with Aarhus Municipality to design the project, with the A.P. Moller Foundation as a financial partner. Now that the project period has concluded, the results are very positive.

We have closely monitored the initiative and contributed to both method development and qualitative experience gathering along the way. Now we can assess the experiences and results in collaboration with Aarhus University, which conducted an independent quantitative evaluation of the project, examining the statistical and budgetary effects of the initiative.

The evaluation shows that the initiative has been a great success. The positive results include parents’ attachment to the labor market, reduced school absenteeism among children, increased part-time employment for young people, and improved overall well-being and health of families.

Some of the results are:

  • 52 percent of parents in the project are currently in education or employment, with two out of three in flexible jobs, while 21 percent of parents have been clarified for early retirement after many years in the social assistance system.
  • School absenteeism among children has decreased by 25 percent.
  • Part-time employment for young people has increased by 66 percent.
  • Families report that their surplus, quality of life, and trust in the system have improved.

The experiment demonstrates how significant social changes can be achieved for people in vulnerable positions if one dares to think and organize in new ways, says Mathias Bruhn Lohmann, development manager at SUS:

“The entire initiative is based on the approach of relational welfare, where influence and relationships are at the core. Furthermore, it is also groundbreaking in terms of organizing interdisciplinary work, which hopefully can inspire other municipalities.”

Award-Winning Initiative

The ‘Golden Social Worker’ award for 2023 went to leader Pernille Randrup-Thomsen and the social workers from ‘Opgang til Opgang’ in Gellerup in Aarhus. They were honored for their work in rethinking and developing the employment initiative with a strong focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and relational welfare as a path to job and quality of life for vulnerable families.

The social workers received the award for being pioneers and ambassadors of a holistic employment initiative with a family focus, where silo thinking and expert roles are replaced with professional curiosity, trust, and a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration.

Unique, visionary, and innovative are the words used by the Danish Association of Social Workers, which awards the prize.

During the award ceremony at the social workers’ professional festival on November 15-16 2023, the deputy chairwoman of the Danish Association of Social Workers, Ditte Brøndum, said:

“Even though the goal is to get parents closer to a job or education, it is the families themselves who decide what help they want. Whether it’s about support for a grandmother, a part-time job for a teenager, or renovating an apartment to prevent homelessness and hopeless debt. You have created less ‘system and more human’ by focusing on what creates value for each individual.”

“In the traditional employment initiative, it is not the norm to consider a family’s overall situation when a citizen is seeking employment. But in ‘Opgang til Opgang,’ employees are drawn from five different departments, consolidated into one unit and under one leader – Pernille Randrup-Thomsen, who is also a qualified social worker. This means that families, who normally interact with many departments, have one contact and one entry point to the municipality, regardless of what they want to collaborate on.”

Role Model in EU Project

The positive results have led to ‘Opgang til Opgang’ no longer being a time-limited project but continuing – both in Gellerup and, according to plan, in other vulnerable residential areas in Aarhus.

Moreover, ‘Opgang til Opgang’ has been selected as a ‘role model’ in the EU CITICESS project, where knowledge and experiences from ‘Opgang til Opgang’ will inspire in seven European cities.

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Told by Aarhus municipality