Social Enterprise Blue Sky offers rehabilitation through work and a regular pay packet for one group not feeling UK jobs recovery.
After serving four years for armed robbery, Steve Finn was determined to find work and go straight. But six months on, he found himself fighting the temptation to return to crime.
“I was looking for work and couldn’t get it. The door was slamming in my face. You bare your soul and then don’t hear back from anyone,” he said.
“I was almost about to think, ‘Although I have paid my dues, society seems intent on me being a criminal.’”
It was a chance meeting with an old friend at a Christening that got him his first work, painting railings for Royal Parks. That led to a permanent job, training, and years later a post teaching horticulture to long-term unemployed people. Many of them had criminal records and Finn recognised their struggle to find work all too well.
Official figures on Wednesday showed unemployment falling to a six-year low of 5.8% in the three months to the end of November. But based on long‑standing trends, one group that will not be feeling the jobs recovery is ex-offenders. Three-quarters of prisoners have no job to go to on their release, despite stable employment being seen as the most important factor in cutting re-offending rates.
Unsurprisingly, employers will usually pick applicants without previous convictions. For now, many sectors of the economy have an ample supply of workers to choose from, with Britain still some way off David Cameron’s newly professed aspiration for full employment and some 3 million people working fewer hours than they would like.
But where Finn now works is different. He co-founded and helps run a social enterprise dedicated to employing ex-offenders and helping them into long-term work. As the prime minister once quipped, Blue Sky is “the only company in the country where you need a criminal record to work there”.
Now in its 10th year, Blue Sky is the baby of a former banker and a former bank robber. It started when Finn met former City trader Mick May, who had been fired from his job as a derivatives broker and moved into the voluntary sector in his own bid for a fresh start.
While running a regeneration charity in the Thames Valley, May was struck by the struggles ex-offenders went through to get work and asked his then-colleague Finn to shed some light on the challenge.
“I pulled Steve Finn’s [criminal record] and it was a bit like War and Peace and a rattling good read,” May said. “So I asked Steve to come and have a cup of coffee with me and tell me what it was like to come out of prison.”
The result of that meeting was Blue Sky, which launched in 2005 with Finn as its first recruit.
A decade on, it has employed and supported more than 1,000 ex-offenders – roughly the population of a large prison – and only 15% have re-offended. That compares with 45% of adults in England and Wales being reconvicted within a year of being released.
The company, run from offices in a Buckinghamshire nature park, competes with other agencies for contracts from local authorities and private businesses in grounds maintenance, recycling, catering and laundry. It takes on ex-offenders for full-time, fully paid work for around six months and then helps them move on to other jobs. It also helps with housing problems and with basic training such as forklift and driving licenses and recently merged with the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust to tackle drug and drink problems.
For Finn, who manages Blue Sky employees, the model works on the simple principle of keeping ex-offenders busy.
“When you have got a job for eight hours, that is eight hours when you are not up to something,” he said.
It also helps ex-convicts to avoid slipping back into crime through their old contacts and new ones made in prison.
“You are meeting people, workers, not people who will bring you down,” Finn said, on the way to check on employees working in a wood.
He conceded the temptation to re-offend would loom large for most as they faced life after prison. “I still struggle with bills and the mortgage but I’d rather do that than wander up and down B‑wing wondering when my next visitor is coming.”
Blue Sky has survived the recession and is growing, thanks in part to the social value act introduced in 2013, which requires those buying public services to consider how they can provide wider social, economic and environmental benefits.
Tony Leenders, working with another ex-offender shovelling silt out of a woodland pond, proudly related how some customers picked Blue Sky over other agencies for quality. “We make a point of not making any mistakes because of who we are. Other people might like to cut corners. People say we do a better job.”
Blue Sky says more than 40% of the people it employs out of prison go on to full-time employment. That meant a big boost for taxpayers, May noted, even before counting the benefits of reducing re-offending rates, which are estimated to cost the UK as much as £13bn each year.
In 2013, the income tax and national insurance contributions of Blue Sky employees was equivalent to one and a half times the money it had received from the government to help cut re-offending. “In other words, the government is making a profit out of us,” May said.
Despite concern about rising insecurity in Britain’s jobs market, Blue Sky has no qualms about being in the low-skilled, agency sector. “This is an escalator to wherever you want to go. This isn’t your final destination,” said May.
“A job is not just a pay packet to an ex-offender,” he added, citing contrasting examples from his old and new careers to emphasise the point.
“I once gave someone a million dollar bonus and he told me to fuck off because that was the protocol in the City … I had a guy here with lumbago, who asked to come and see me and had tears in his eyes because he thought I was going to sack him because he had lumbago … that’s what a job means to people.”
The above article by Katie Allen first published on theguardian.com in Jan, 2015.