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Out of prison and back on the straight and narrow

No matter what your background is, when you come out of prison or you have to reveal your criminal record on a job application form, often the door is shut,” explains John Chesters, commercial and development director at social enterprise Blue Sky.

“Quite often the application is screened by a computer and, if that box is ticked, it is just discarded.”

Charity Blue Sky aims to get people into a job, stop them re-offending and give them the chance to rebuild their lives.

“The idea is that if you take an ex-offender and you give him or her a job, you are immediately reducing the chance of them re-offending by about 50%,” says Chesters. “The other important part of the structure they need is housing and some sort of stability in their lives, so it means they don’t go back into prison.

“When someone comes out of prison, there is a 60% chance of them going back inside within two years and, according to the latest figures, that is costing £12bn-13bn a year.”

The average re-offending figure for those who have found work through Blue Sky is below 15%, and Chesters says the rate is even lower – around 10-12% – for those on some of its waste management contracts.

This financial year, Blue Sky has put around 50 people into six-month roles in the waste and recycling sector – around 25% of its total workforce. The sector is a good fit because it offers entry-level work so that a person’s background is irrelevant. Two of its biggest clients are Amey and Veolia, while plastic recycler Closed Loop Recycling recently offered its first full-time contract to an ex-offender after he impressed them with his hard work and commitment.

Chesters explains: “You can go [into a company] and have the chance to prove yourself. There may be people who have had a great job in the past, but a lot of the people we take on have never worked before. We want to make sure that whoever we take on, whatever job we put them into, we can then help them to achieve their potential.”

The charity generally employs people on a six-month contract, who refer themselves, many via Blue Sky’s website. But it also works with job centres and the probation services, which find that working with Blue Sky can help meet their own targets. It looks to replace only agency and seasonal staff.

“We replace an element of the agency staff, and from my time in the [waste] industry, I know that there is almost always a requirement for a certain number of them on every contract,” Chesters says. He adds that the agencies alone would quite often struggle to fill the number of available roles.

Blue Sky is competitive on price with agencies but, unlike them, it does not charge a handover fee if a company wants to take on an employee at the end of a contract. The income Blue Sky gets from the contracts covers the direct costs of employment, with other costs, such as overheads and training, being covered by other funds.

Historically, there have not been any problems between Blue Sky employees and existing workers. But Chesters recalls an early contract where the local union did not want anyone with a violent conviction working alongside its members, so Blue Sky screened accordingly.

It generally meets clients at senior level to understand what the work involves and then recruits from the local area. Sometimes the idea of working with Blue Sky gels at senior level but, when cascaded down to contract manager level, is met with reservation. If this happens, Blue Sky will meet the managers concerned.

“Frequently, we will meet the contract managers and supervisors and they will [end up being] not just accommodating but very welcoming, and will want to see us working alongside them,” he says.

After receiving a referral, Blue Sky conducts a phone interview with the prospective worker, then a face-to-face interview, preferably on-site, so that both the potential recruit and the client can see if it will work.

Some of Blue Sky’s senior team and all its supervisors have a criminal record, so the interview process will involve a “more full and frank discussion than people would normally have about their history”. This helps Blue Sky to understand what its employees need, whether it is training, advice on housing or even a housing loan to help with a deposit.

If someone is not right for a contract, there will be a review and the person is either given a chance or replaced with someone else. Equally, if a client finds that Blue Sky is not the right fit for them, they can say so and part ways. The six-month contract is designed to give ex-offenders time to get structure in their lives and training under their belt, ready for a fulltime job. After this, a team helps with CVs and job hunting.

Recently Blue Sky met the waste sector’s training organisation Wamitab, which also does a lot of work in prisons. The two want to work together to get people trained while still in prison, such as a health and safety qualification or an NVQ level one or two, so that on release they are ready to go straight into work. Blue Sky is looking at how it could then support such people, possibly for a 12-month period, such as getting them HGV trained, so that they have a proper career path in the industry.

“We are having increasing conversations with various sectors – not just waste but also utilities and rail – because they are also facing quite a significant skills gap,” says Chesters. “We are looking at ways, similar to the Wamitab idea, of getting people trained while on the inside, and prepared and ready to go into proper jobs and careers on release. That helps us, it helps our clients, and it helps to reduce re-offending across the country.”  

Jake McDonald

“I was in a bad way before I started this job, so this opportunity has really changed my life. aving a stable and structured job has meant that I’ve been able to move out of the area I was living in and get far away from the bad crowd that was bringing me down. Blue Sky also gave me a housing loan so I could afford the deposit on somewhere. A few months ago I wasn’t going anywhere, and now I have some meaning to my life.”

– Jake McDonald, green waste loader, Veolia, Croydon

Christopher Nelson

“I got along with my cell-mate and just kept my head down really, but it really wasn’t nice being locked up for 22½ hours a day. I’m now focusing on my job and providing for my family.”

- Christopher Nelson, who now works at Closed Loop Recycling


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