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Opportunity for Change

Sophie O'Sullivan, about 3 years ago

Opportunity for Change (OFC) offers drug-free prisoners and ex-offenders paid work opportunities within the construction industry. The community interest company was established in 2018.

OFC will equip offenders with the necessary tools for work in the construction industry so that they become contributing members of our society.

-Harry Fletcher, Managing Director

OFC recognise that there is a 35% skills shortage in the construction industry. Depending on the outcome of Brexit, this figure could be even higher. Many construction companies face fines for not delivering building work on time. In order to close this gap (specifically skilled labourers and tradesmen), they have adopted a supportive, forward-thinking approach: recruiting prisoners and ex-offenders and providing essential training to make them job ready candidates with recognised qualifications. This is beneficial for business and also helps reduce reoffending rates.

The average literary and numeracy aptitude of a prisoner upon release is 11 years old and OFC aims to make progress here and to further their education to secondary school level. Prisoners and ex-offenders will take courses in Health and Safety Awareness, Risk Assessment, Site Supervisors Safety training scheme, COSHH Awareness and Work at Height. The prisoners will be taught in groups of 12-20 and will take ten short modules (e.g. in brick laying, machinery, lifting). This training is NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) and CITB (construction Industry Training Board) approved. These skills are transferable and will be advantageous to a wide variety of roles within the construction industry. It will equip this vibrant working population with vital tools and guidance to move forward with their lives.

The community interest company OFC have identified that there is a shortage of schemes that have credibility. Additionally, many work on a small scale and so will not make a reasonable dent in the prisoner population and facilitate the drive toward employment upon release. The current dropout rate form existing schemes is over 50%. Their business model is cost effective and will work with large numbers, with sites operating in numerous open jails across England and Wales, helping overcome chronic prison overcrowding by providing a practical solution to combat reoffending and the skills gap in the construction industry.

Employers often look at prisoners and ex-offenders as an untapped workforce brimming with potential, but also they acknowledge the risk of taking on a potentially challenging background. Housing is a key issue. OFC are looking at strategies to provide housing for ex-offenders upon release from jail by working in partnership with specialist criminal justice organisations. Long-term housing combined with a sustainable full-time position will sharply reduce the risk of dropout and further offending.

OFC plan to source employment with construction companies working on projects within their catchment area. Currently, there are 1,202 skilled labour vacancies in the construction industry, within 10 miles of the 14 open condition jails in England and Wales. They will also be providing transport for the offenders to and from the construction sites during the last year of the prisoners' sentences. The unit cost of full training and transportation to and from site for a year would be £1990 per prisoner.

The ultimate goal is for ex-offenders to work as full-time CSCS Skilled Labourers with the potential to earn up to £500 per week or £24,000 per annum. The structure of this program ensures that offenders have a realistic understanding of what will be required of them when they work for a future company.

Directors Errol Swaby (Construction Site Manager), Harry Fletcher (previous Assistant General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers) and Ian Banks (Director of the Multi-Award Winning Construction Recruitment UK) all have first-hand experience of training and rehabilitating inmates in closed conditions and within the community. This is combined with an expert knowledge of recruitment and placement within the construction industry.

Errol is an ex-offender who successfully turned his life around. He was previously sentenced for supplying Class A drugs and received a 20-year sentence. His positive attitude and strong work ethic meant that he was able to build up his career, working his way up to construction site manager earning £50,000 basic salary in addition to benefits and bonuses. He is a keen advocate of improving mental health and disability awareness within the criminal justice system, having worked alongside the governor of HMP Wandsworth and worked closely with the Samaritans at Kingston in Surrey as their prison coordinator. Errol also piloted the 'Toe by Toe' scheme which teaches prisoners how to read.

Offenders and Ex-Offenders can relate to Errol and look up to him as a role model. He shows what is possible beyond a life of crime, which inspires others to turn their lives around for the better.

OFC takes a progressive, open-minded and non-discriminatory approach to recruitment. Errol, alongside Harry and Ian, strongly believe that OFC will help many prisoners be employed far quicker than any existing scheme.

If you are interested in donating to the fund or getting involved, please contact OFC through our directory or via their website. You can follow their socials for updates on their work here: twitter and facebook.