From the clink to construction: the contractors recruiting ex-offenders

28 September 2018 | By Will Mann

Some 70,000 offenders come out of prison every year, but just 17% get a job within a year of release. Now, several construction companies are trying to give them a fresh start in life. Will Mann reports.

HM Prison Service has questionable merit as a rehabilitation system. Each year it releases around 70,000 offenders, and some 268,000 are on probation. But their prospects are bleak. Just 17% find a job within a year of release, and 59% reoffend, which costs society £15bn a year, according to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures.

Meanwhile, skills shortages are responsible for 35% of vacancies in construction – higher than in any other sector – so should the industry consider tapping into this employment pool? That is what some companies are doing, including Lendlease, Barhale and North Midland Construction.

“If you give ex-offenders a chance, they will repay you,” says Jessica Mellor-Clark, managing director of Lendlease training subsidiary Be Onsite. “They are people who just want that opportunity to turn their lives around.”

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“There are three factors that are crucial for ex-offenders when they come into the outside world,” says North Midland HR director Karen Morris. “Work, home and relationships. So we can give them one of those three.”

“Demand for skills is getting greater, so if we can find those skills among ex-offenders, that benefits our business – and it also has a wider social benefit,” adds Tony Boyle, Barhale operations manager.

Recruitment of ex-offenders throws up heart-rending tales from the margins of society.

Joe was released from Feltham Young Offenders Institute the day after his 18th birthday and took a job with Lendlease. Six months later he moved to another London borough to escape a gang he had been involved with. On Christmas Eve, Lendlease received a call from him.

“He was in floods of tears,” says Mellor-Clark. “The gang had found out where he lived and were threatening him. We immediately got in touch, found him somewhere else to live, and moved him to a different borough. Seven years on, he has a steady job in dry lining and has started a family.”

Ian was offered a job by North Midland on his release from HMP Ranby, but there was one problem – he didn’t have anywhere to live and without that the prison wouldn’t release him.

“Demand for skills is getting greater, so if we can find those skills among ex-offenders that benefits our business – and it also has a wider social benefit.”

Tony Boyle, Barhale

“Our chairman Robert Moyle put in some calls,” recalls Morris. “He contacted Tony Walker, a director at Toyota in Derby, who he knew through the local Business in the Community board, and who was involved with the local YMCA, and was able to get Ian a place there. He has since started work with North Midland.”

But taking on ex-offenders is “not to be taken lightly”, says Mellor-Clark. “There are many hoops to jump through, and a lot of support has to be provided.”

A key issue is the Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) system, which allows day release for work and training. “There has been opposition to ROTL from some quarters, though David Gauke, current secretary of state for justice, is an advocate, which helps us,” says Mellor-Clark. “He sees work as helping to combat re-offending.”

Training provider RMF works with contractor Barhale but has to liaise frequently with the authorities, says social inclusion manager Dara McCarthy. “One ex-offender we employed was supposed to sign in at the local police station twice a day after early release,” he says.

“I spoke to their probation officer and said, ‘this is not practical as he has a full-time job, so how about I send across the timesheets to prove he has signed in every day and give the police the site address?’ That gave confidence to the police and probation service.”

Three-quarters of employers won’t hire a candidate with a previous conviction, according to the MoJ – though it is against the law to give that as the reason.

“Ex-offenders we work with say that once labour agencies hear about their criminal record, they don’t hear anything further,” says Morris. “But in reality, there are only a few projects where that might be an issue – schools or colleges where we would run DBS [Disclosure & Barring Service] checks for all workers in any case – and then it would depend on the crime.”

Despite the reoffending rate, there are no government incentives for taking on ex-offenders.

“RMF’s main partner is Milton Keynes College, so we do get paid for delivering the training, but we receive no grants,” says McCarthy. “I would speak to a contractor like Barhale about their resourcing requirements, then we invest in training the offenders, and they work for Barhale but are employed by RMF.”

All the contractors CM spoke to admit that working with ex-offenders isn’t always “plain sailing”, as Morris puts it. “There have been teething problems such as materials not being delivered on time – but we take that feedback and aim to improve,” she says.

McCarthy adds: “I find it easier to recruit good workers from ex-offenders than the general public; sometimes they have a better attitude than existing workers. It the ex-offender doesn’t have the ability for the job he’s been placed into, he might be reassigned as a gateman or a banksman.”

“The industry is rightly very driven by health and safety and quality KPIs, so people can be afraid of taking on ex-offenders because of the mentoring involved,” says Boyle. “But in reality, this mentoring is no different from when you bring other new people in.”

And how do their new colleagues take to working with ex-offenders? “Their supervisors have been absolutely fine; they understand people make mistakes,” Mellor-Clark says.

“The construction industry is more open minded than people might give it credit for – it’s about what you do rather than what you are.” 

The names of ex-offenders mentioned have been changed to protect their identity.

Case study: Lendlease and Be Onsite

The not-for-profit subsidiary provides training inside HMP Brixton

Lendlease established Be Onsite, a not-for-profit subsidiary which trains and employs people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in 2009. Since then, it has trained over 800 people and directly employed around 600, typically employing 30 at any one time. A quarter of those who it finds jobs for are ex-offenders.

Be Onsite works directly with prisons and other referral partners including the National Probation Service and job centres. Managing director Jessica Mellor-Clark says the ex‑offenders come from “all walks of life”.

“The vast majority start as general operatives, though some are taken on by the contractors they have worked for and even progressed to management. That has happened at Lendlease.”

Be Onsite uses the ROTL system to provide training and employment, but when not possible, it goes inside prisons and has worked with charity Bounce Back, Land Securities, and manufacturers Knauf and Encon to deliver dry-lining training in HMP Brixton. It also created the Mind the Gap consortium, funded by the CITB, which provides prison leavers with skills training, support and employment in the construction industry. Additionally, the initiative provides guidance for employers on reducing skills gaps and ultimately cutting reoffending rates.

The ex-offenders work for Lendlease and its subcontractors. “On any major Lendlease project, we will meet with subcontractors and explain what we do and how our pastoral care team will support ex-offenders they employ,” says Mellor-Clark.

Be Onsite uses PAYE to pay its recruits on a weekly basis – which is important for people who can find it difficult to manage on a monthly basis, says Mellor-Clark. “Also, ex-offenders have enough barriers to overcome on release, so doing agency work, with no job security, and having to do their own tax and national insurance, is another hurdle. We take away that worry.”

Case study: Barhale and RMF Construction

RMF’s link with Barhale has led to 69 ex-offenders being employed

Civils contractor Barhale works with the training arm of RMF Construction, which has found employment for 231 ex-offenders over the past three years.

RMF has used the ROTL system to deliver its training, working with Milton Keynes College, and at the open prison HMP Ewell it has trained over 100 offenders with a 100% record of finding them employment.

The organisation will also go into closed prisons and has installed rail tracks inside six, which allows it to deliver an NVQ Level 2 in rail engineering. RMF also offers ‘Step into Construction’ training, an introduction to site protocols and skills, from which  learners can attain a CSCS card. The courses typically run for three to 12 weeks.

“If we recruit ex-offenders, our plan is take them on as employees. Initially, there is a six-month period where we would pay them through RMF. After that we would give them a full-time contract, depending on the work available.”

Tony Boyle, Barhale

RMF began working with Barhale 18 months ago, which has since taken on 69 ex-offenders, 27 through ROTL.

“Getting contractors on board was a big hurdle for us,” says RMF social inclusion manager Dara McCarthy. “Barhale, to their credit, now regard ex-offenders as a contingent labour force. Typically, when a contractor has a large job on, it will go to a labour agency. Instead, Barhale works with us and employs ex-offenders.”

Barhale generally is a direct employer, but has peaks and troughs like any contractor, says operations manager Tony Boyle. “If we recruit ex-offenders, our plan is take them on as employees,” he says. “Initially, there is a six-month period where we would pay them through RMF. After that we would give them a full-time contract, depending on the work available.

“It’s the same as a typical labour agency agreement,” adds McCarthy.

“Ex-offenders we’ve recruited include professionals such as accountants and teachers who have gone into site management roles – not just people to clean the toilets,” says Boyle. “Four in five have a non-construction background.”

RMF has 900 ex-offenders booked in for training over the next 12 months. It sits on the HS2 diversity steering committee and is working with the LM joint venture (Laing O’Rourke and J Murphy). “We are introduced to any contractor appointed to the project,” says McCarthy. “We can deliver HS2 inductions inside prisons.”

The company is also planning to work with female ex-offenders and plans to visit women’s prisons with the National Association of Women in Construction.

Case study: North Midland Construction

The contractor is taking on ex-offenders in permanent roles.

North Midland began working with ex-offenders in January. The contractor has trained 30 since then, in batches of 10, with 20 completing the programme in total.

“So far four have been taken on in permanent roles, with offers pending for another two,” says HR director Karen Morris. “The remainder of the 20 have not been released from prison yet, otherwise we would have made offers to 16 of them in all.”

Candidates are selected for the 12-week NVQ Civil Engineering Level 1 training programme following a team-building day and interviews with North Midland.

“The prisoners get to experience all the ‘onboarding’ of the site experience... so they can be 'site ready' on release.”

Karen Morris, North Midland Construction

Morris says that only around half the ex-offenders have a construction background. “Typically they are placed in general operative roles, earning the national living wage, but with the opportunity to develop,” she says.

As ROTL is not always an option, North Midland has created a compound in HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire to deliver training.

“It is essentially a mini-site and we provide materials for laying kerbs, concreting, public realm and other civils works,” explains Morris.

“The prisoners get to experience all the ‘onboarding’ of the site experience, including toolbox talks, risk assessments and method statements, so they can be ‘site ready’ on release. Behaviour and attitude are harder to train and one of our health and safety managers goes in three times during the programme to hold workshops.”

At the end of the programme, Morris and North Midland chairman Robert Moyle meet with the offenders to discuss the training and their career aims.

North Midland is now talking to open prison HMP Sudbury about taking on ex‑offenders in white collar roles.

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