The first chapter of the Ucan story began in 2010 when metal trader Rob Seal founded the company from a ‘hot desk’ in a business incubation centre in Leeds. It was set up as a community interest company and has always had a deep-rooted social stance.
Initially focusing on the brokering of aluminium can recycling deals, Seal quickly capitalised on strong market conditions and diversified into IT equipment reuse. To ensure a continuous feed of stock, a free IT collection and recycling service was offered to companies, schools, universities and local authorities in the area.
The convenience of this service – coupled with businesses’ obligations to dispose of their redundant equipment responsibly – attracted interest across Yorkshire and beyond. And, as demand grew, so too did the need for employees. This is when the story got really interesting.
Ucan existed for reasons beyond purely commercial gain and, when the search for staff began, it did not recruit in the conventional way. The business was located in a deprived area of Leeds, with a high proportion of long-term unemployed residents and young people not in education, employment, or training, and jobs were offered specifically to these groups.
Seal explains: “However clichéd it sounds, we wanted to make a difference and give people a chance. We therefore worked with a number of agencies including Interserve, Jobcentre and social enterprise Pluss to offer back-to-work schemes, short-term voluntary placements and internships of up to six months.
“Of course this approach has brought its challenges – but that’s business. People come to us with differing skill-sets and attitudes to work. Some people don’t want to help themselves and there is only so much we can do. But we can, and do, change individuals’ viewpoints through our programme.”
Training programmes have been established so that recruits can gradually be upskilled to carry out their role proficiently. And, as Ucan has grown, it has become possible to offer progression opportunities throughout the business so that employees can thrive in a position best suited to their expertise.
For example, the first element of Ucan’s service is the collection of hard drives, servers, laptops and other devices that fall under category 3 of the WEEE Directive, plus items such as cathode ray tube screens and thin-film transistor monitors associated with category 11. Collection enquiries have to be logged and scheduled according to the availability of the most suitable vehicle and/or other jobs in the area. Collections are confirmed on the morning before the pick-up takes place.
Equipment suppliers receive a waste transfer notice before Ucan departs, detailing the number of items collected. Clients also have the option to utilise some of the company’s additional services, such as data destruction and asset management.
When the equipment reaches Ucan’s approved authorised treatment facility, it is booked in and assessed for its reuse potential. Some simple checks confirm that the devices still operate so, once serial numbers and hard drives are wiped and/or degaussed, they can be made available for sale or reuse through a range of outlets.
Sometimes repairs are required. In these instances, a technician will check the component parts to detect the fault such as a hard drive defect or processor failure. Once refurbished, the equipment can be sold on. If it is not worth fixing a depreciated or extensively damaged device, the technician carefully breaks the equipment down, so that the valuable elements can be retained as spares, sold or segregated and traded for recycling.
These various processes require differing skill sets but, with mentoring, most volunteers soon progress. The team’s data destruction manager had been unemployed for 19 years before he came to Ucan; having started out as a trainee technician he quickly progressed through the ranks, allowing his natural aptitude for IT to shine through.
Community interest companies
CICs were introduced under the Companies Act 2006, and their assets must be used “for the good use of community”. They are allowed to make profits but with limitations. Registered businesses are regulated by the Community Interest Company Regulator via an annual report, known as the CIC34. According to the CIC Association, around one in every 200 new companies launched last year was a CIC. There are more than 12,000 CICs on the register.
In the past six years, Ucan has supported more than 80 volunteers, nine of whom have been appointed on a temporary or permanent contract. Many others have gone on to secure employment elsewhere due to the confidence, self-esteem and new-found skills they have amassed. All of this is carried out at the same time as processing 900 tonnes a year of ‘redundant’ IT equipment.
Seal adds: “By concentrating our efforts in striving for 100% reuse of valuable IT equipment, avoiding landfill and creating skilledjobs, our organisation is benefitting clients, the environment and the community – plus we’re growing too. The more IT we can salvage and process, the greater the positive impact for all concerned.”
So why do more businesses not follow suit and adopt this model?
“A report from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service says that negative attitudes to tattoos and piercings are influencing the recruitment decisions that some employers make,” says Seal. “This doesn’t surprise me, but I don’t think the stereotypes end there. Some bosses in the waste industry also over-look talent if an individual has sig-nificant gaps on their CV or if they’ve got a criminal conviction.
“But this attitude is risky – companies could be missing out on important skill-sets and potential that could add significant value to their businesses at a time when recruitment in this industry is tough. It is also highly un-ethical.
“Of course candidates need to fit the job description. But sometimes it is through no fault of their own that they have struggled to find work and it can quickly spiral into a terribly negative situation. But the majority of these people just need a chance.
“Rather than dismissing them as someone else’s problem, we have worked hard to break the cycle, get people back into the routine of employment and provide the opportunity to build a better life.”
Case Study: Helped By Ucan
ucan case study wasim
Wasim was 23 when he came to Ucan as a young volunteer who had never been employed. In his preliminary interview, he appeared unmotivated and lacked confidence; at the time it seemed unlikely he would willingly complete an eight-week placement. However, this could not have been further from the truth. As Wasim settled into his role, he demonstrated that, alongside the IT course he was pursuing and the training Ucan was providing, he was quickly becoming a trusted and reliable pair of hands. Seal says: “While we may not be able to take Wasim on as a full-time employee, we are looking into whether we can support him as an apprentice in the near future. Watch this space.”
ucan case study neil
Having spent time in prison and with no paid job for over 21 years, Neil clearly had a chequered past. As a result, by the age of 45, he felt that he was on the jobs scrap heap and was far from enthusiastic about a six-month placement with Ucan. Back in November 2015, he initially saw the scheme as an exploitation of ‘free labour’ and turned up only to get his benefits. However, when he met other volunteers and saw evidence of how they had progressed, his mind-set changed. Neil shone in this safe, inclusive and collaborative environment, and quickly adopted the role of the ‘go-to-guy’ when colleagues sought on-the-job technical advice and mentoring. Four months in, Ucan received an inquiry from a local company asking if it could recommend any reliable warehouse staff. The directors instantly put Neil forward for the position – he went for the interview and was offered the job that very day. In his exit interview from Ucan, Neil admitted that, after a sceptical start, he had loved every minute of it: “When I received my first pay packet from the warehouse, I felt like a lottery winner. I would have never reached this point in my life without the opportunity to get back into work.” Seal adds: “As much as we would love to hold on to every volunteer we employ, we have to make decisions based on what is best for them and their career.”
Katie Mallinson is founder of Scriba PR