Hiring ex-offenders could help to ease staffing crisis

Back in 2002 when shoe-repairing and key-cutting retailer Timpson employed its first ex-offender, it was deemed a somewhat risky move and certainly deeply unfashionable, which is precisely why the rest of the industry was reluctant to follow suit.

It transpired that such hires were incredibly grateful for being given a second chance and therefore proved to be extremely loyal, productive and hardworking. Such loyalty has engendered a retention rate of around 75% for Timpson employees who have been recruited from prison or who have a criminal conviction. They typically now account for around 10% of the company’s total workforce.

Innovators: Timpsons

In the intervening years other companies, including Marks & Spencer, Greggs, Compass Group and Pret A Manger, have cottoned on to the benefits of employing such a policy and now actively recruit prison leavers. Social justice charity Nacro found that the worries of many companies considering employing ex-offenders were the issues of reliability, motivation, attendance and performance, but its research found that 80% of employers of people who have been in prison have positively rated these factors.

Despite such feedback, which contradicts widely held perceptions, the fact remains that more than half of employers in the UK would not employ someone who has been in prison, and only a paltry 1% have initiatives in place to recruit such individuals, according to Nacro.

Maybe things will change. The number of job vacancies in the UK hospitality industry was 50,000 before covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics, whereas between July and September this year, it had dramatically shot up to 134,000 empty roles.

More organisations surely need to at least investigate what sounds like an incredible resource. Just consider that around ten million people in the UK have a criminal conviction. That’s a potentially very rich pool of people to consider for the stack of vacancies that are now causing serious problems in the industry.

This is particularly the case when considering hospitality, which sits very well within a prison re-skilling context. The government recently announced the expansion of a kitchen training scheme across England and Wales to provide inmates with the necessary skills within prison kitchens, while also enabling them to gain professional qualifications. Some such initiatives are being undertaken by external parties, including one involving Fred Sirieix, who founded charity programme The Right Course in order to transform restaurants in prisons to replicate high street businesses.

Its second venue involved the recent transformation of the staff canteen at Wormwood Scrubs into a high street-style training restaurant, imaginatively called Escape, with funding from the Mayor’s Skills for Londoners Capital Fund. The objective of these venues is to equip prisoners with relevant skills that will help to reduce reoffending levels, while also addressing the chronic staff shortages in the hospitality industry.

Another successful initiative involves Redemption Roasters – which operates a coffee roastery inside HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire, where inmates learn about the production process of coffee – along with a network of barista academies in various institutions around the country. The training of roastery and barista skills provides offenders with the necessary skills to successfully work within the growing number of Redemption Roasters coffee shops (currently numbering eight within London), or within the outlets of the company’s wholesale clients when they are released.

Redemption Roasters: Running successful in-prison Barista Academies

Companies like Redemption are not only operating with successful economic models but are also mission-driven businesses that are contributing to wider society, which is an attribute increasingly in demand by consumers. When there is so much competition in the marketplace, the choice being made by a growing number of people is the one that does the most good.

It’s clear that companies need to wise up and stop regarding offering free beer and pizzas alongside cocktail masterclasses, or simply poaching staff, as supposedly intelligent routes to recruiting in the present tough environment. Instead, they need to think outside the box by helping a group of people escape from the box in which they have been rigidly placed.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.