This article was first published in The Construction Index magazine.

Construction has a recruitment problem. From boardroom to building site, the industry is desperately short of staff at all levels. Even in these testing times of pandemic, demand for skilled trades and labour on projects up and down the country has remained as strong as ever.

There is a host of reasons behind this dearth of skills but principally the construction industry has found it increasingly difficult to find new talent capable of filling the gaps left by those choosing to leave the sector – which is why construction companies cannot afford to dismiss any source available to them to bolster the workforce.

With programmes aimed at convincing school and college leavers that construction is an exciting and viable career choice working alongside moves to attract and train ex-service personnel for roles on building projects, the sector is increasing its efforts in attracting newcomers to the industry.

But there is a potential recruitment resource that one South Yorkshire based contractor thinks construction is in danger of missing out on, to the detriment of both the industry and individuals.

Ex-offenders have a difficult time acclimatising themselves to the outside world and ridding themselves of the social stigma of having spent time in prison. The likelihood that they will get sucked back into a life of crime is statistically high.

But give those ex-inmates an opportunity to develop a skillset, earn a decent wage and feel positive about their place in society, and the outlook starts to improve.

Steve Simpson, operations director at Cidon Construction, is more than happy to help prisoners through their rehabilitation process. He is a proud advocate of the recruitment of ex-offenders and has put Cidon’s money where his mouth is by taking on more than a dozen full-time staff members direct from prison.

These are people who have made mistakes, there’s no getting away from that, but that doesn’t mean they should be written off. They have done their time. Often all they want is an opportunity to prove themselves. They have all been vetted for their suitability. We have absolutely no regrets about taking any of them on.”

One of the reasons behind Simpson’s glowing recommendation of ex-offender recruits is the improved retention or ‘churn’ rate between those that have served their time and others that are recruited by other more conventional means.

We have looked at different areas for recruitment but the ex-offender route has comfortably outstripped others. We don’t want cheap labour; we want skilled trades and we are prepared to train and support those we take on in other areas of their lives to do that. More often than not they respond to that loyalty by staying with us.”

This outperformance is witnessed across other contractors. Willmott Dixon has been working on helping ex-offenders find full-time post-custodial employment since it first dipped its toes into working with ‘at risk’ young people a decade ago. It too has witnessed a substantial reduction in drop-out rates across its catalogue of placements and training regimes for prisoners compared to other areas of recruitment.

Figures on reoffending do not make pretty reading. According to the Prison Reform Trust almost half of adults – 48% – are convicted of another offence within one year of their release. Government data suggest that adults released from shorter custodial sentences have a reoffending rate of around 60% over the 12 months following their release.

But offer prisoners the opportunity to develop useful skills while in custody – and provide them with a true career pathway – and those numbers improve dramatically. Figures from the Ministry of Justice indicate that ex-offenders in employment are 9% less likely to commit further crimes. The downside for everyone is that just 17% of released offenders are in employment a year after completing their sentences.

Daniel Cooper is governor at HMP Thorn Cross, a men’s open prison and Young Offender Institution in Cheshire which has developed a close working relationship with Cidon Construction. The collaboration has seen a dozen or so inmates reach the end of their sentence and move straight into full-time employment. Daniel explains

By the time prisoners reach Thorn Cross they are nearing the end of their sentences and have been thoroughly risk assessed. This is their last stop before release and there is more of a ‘college’ approach built around encouraging the men to use their initiative and make full use of our facilities. In the minds of prisoners getting to an open prison is an achievement. This is their first step back into the real world and it is an important one.”

Steve Simpson from Cidon says:

We need to sing about the positive these schemes bring rather than worry about the negatives. Hopefully, businesses will see just how well it has worked out for us and ex-offender recruitment will spiral on the back of it. But if we manage to persuade just one more company down this route I will consider that a success. It’s about doing what is right for people.”

A comment from Unlock

In 2015 Unlock began challenging the discrimination faced by people with convictions seeking employment. Whenever possible we work positively and proactively to support employers who wish to recruit people with a criminal record.

As Steve Simpson has stated, the benefits of employing somebody with a criminal record are two-fold. The advantages to the individual are clear but employers with these types of positive recruitment policies regularly highlight the high rates of employer retention leading to a reduction in recruitment costs.

You can find details of construction companies who have a particularly positive attitude towards people with a criminal record on Unlock’s list of friendly employers or ban the box employers.

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