From education to employment

Tackling the skills gap and prison overcrowding in one go

Sally Alexander, Principal, Milton Keynes College

There is a potential workforce of 85,000 people sitting in our prisons.  With the right organisation and incentives for business, we could be filling many of those vacancies in hospitality, catering, construction, and a host of other sectors currently suffering a dearth of people.  What’s more, with a little bit of seed funding, the Treasury would make substantial savings.

Expanding Opportunities for Prisoners

Prisoners nearing the end of their sentences are already able to receive training and the offer of employment in a very limited way.  This could be expanded substantially.  Even releasing significant numbers of prisoners a few weeks earlier than scheduled would ease prison overcrowding and the problems faced by those employment sectors facing real labour shortages.  What’s more, less money would be spent on their incarceration, and more tax would be collected from the pay packets of these individuals.  With a job to go to, they would not need to claim benefits on release, something more than half of emerging prisoners currently have to do.  There would also be a positive impact on crime. 

Research by the Ministry of Justice shows that the shorter an individual’s time spent in prison, the less likely they are to re-offend.  If they have employment on release, they are also almost 10% less likely to commit further crimes within a year. 

Strategies for Implementation

On average, prisoners are currently being released eighteen days early as a means of reducing the size of the prison population.  How much better to shorten their time served by perhaps even more, if they have paid work to look forward to?

Utilising Existing Skills and Partnerships

The question is, how do we make it happen? Firstly, many people in prison already have a usable skill, including those like plumbers and electricians, constantly in high demand in the construction industry.  Then some unskilled people are desperate for training specifically so they can become employable.  Smart businesses like Timpson, Greggs and RMF Group (one of the largest road and infrastructure builders in the country), already run partnerships with prison education providers, training hundreds of individuals for work, waiting for them on release.

Dara McCarthy from RMF Group is in no doubt of the benefits and says,

“We have been using custodial establishments as a recruitment channel for our organisation for more than ten years after recognising the wealth of talent that often goes unused due to a reoffending past.  By giving ex-offenders a second chance and investing resources into prison learners we can prepare for the extra 25,350 construction jobs required in the West Midlands by 2027, as identified by the Construction Industry Training Board-led Construction Skills Network report (2023).  More importantly, by providing a routeway into employment to those with previous offences, we often experience higher commitment levels and a greater work ethic on site; therefore, employing ex-offenders is not a box-ticking task but a strength for our workforce on the ground.”

Incentivising Businesses for Greater Participation

These powerful profitable, large-scale businesses like RMF Group have all seen the benefits of engaging with offenders.  The question is, how to broaden the appeal to more companies to speed up the flow of a suitably skilled workforce leaving our prisons?

Incentive Framework and Support Systems

There needs to be some form of incentive, and one way to approach this would be using a similar framework as the apprenticeship levy.  Those large businesses that pay it, can fund training from it.  Smaller companies receive 95% of the cost of an apprenticeship from the government.  Similar levels of funding for prisoners, coming out of jail early and into a job, could be very appealing to many.  But spending money is not the only option.

Role of Employment Support Coaches

The use of employment support coaches is highly beneficial. These individuals can smooth the way for former offenders into what may well be the unfamiliar world of work.  They act as a link between potential employer and employee, answering questions the worker might find too difficult or embarrassing to put to their boss.  Government funding for coaches for employers offering job roles to prisoners would come at a fraction of the cost of longer time served in prison or of the reduction in productivity this expansion of the workforce aims to address. The government has already shown itself open to ideas when it comes to the training and employment of prisoners, so political will isn’t the problem. 

Government Intervention and Promotion

More difficult is persuading sufficient businesses to take part in such a programme, and that is somewhere where the government can help.  Publicising the benefits of such a scheme, offering financial incentives and supporting the employment of the right coaches, could all go a long way to widening the appeal for more companies.  And, unlike so many good and positive ideas, this one would more than pay for itself.  Surely that’s something for any politician to savour?

By Sally Alexander, CEO and Principal, and Maxine Bennett, Lead Director for Prison Services, Milton Keynes College Group,

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