When you hear the term ‘young offender’ your first thought might be a hoodlum in a hoodie. But a Midlands policewoman is on a mission to banish that perception from potential employers, believing that many of these young people are not bad but simply lacking direction, and that with a bit of encouragement they can become productive workers.
PC Sonya Hill has bigger ambitions than that, however - she reckons that with a concerted effort from the construction industry, these 16–25 year olds could be mobilised up and down the country into a workforce that can help bridge the current skills gap.
Sonya Hill has worked for West Midlands Police for 30 years but since 2006 has been police coordinator for youth charity the Prince’s Trust on its innovative Team programme, which seeks to improve the life skills of 16–25 year olds. Hill was awarded an MBE in 2014 in recognition of her work.
In her time working with the young offenders she has picked up a particular appreciation for the needs and aspirations of the 16–25 age group.
“I think in the police force we have realised that we simply have to engage with that age group, because they are the ones who potentially could cause the most angst in the future, if they are not offered a fresh start,” she says.
The Team scheme has been run successfully in many walks of business life, but it was hearing about the skills shortages in construction on the radio that brought her into the world of dirt and diggers. She was convinced that the types of schemes she was working on could actually provide a mutual benefit:
“Hearing how much had been lost in the way of skills after the recession made me think ‘I have got the young people who could help bridge the gap. Let’s not think about how difficult it might be, but instead let’s think about the opportunity’.”
Any sceptics who might be thinking that such schemes as Team are merely short-term measures for taking the young offender out of trouble, or off the books, should look at the statistics. An evaluation by the West Midlands force last year showed that from a sample of 71 offenders who took part in the 12-week programme, only 12 went on to reoffend.
Hill believes that the starting point for anyone working with young offenders must be a willingness to give them a fair chance. She explains: “It is a hard job market for our kids, whether they have got on the wrong side of the law or not. The question we need to ask is ‘how do we get them past the first hurdle?’.
“Unfortunately parts of the media have demonised young offenders and as a result potential employers can be scared to take them on. But they are often just kids who have had difficult backgrounds – and no-one around, such as family, to help them,” she continues.
“My approach is that it is better to try and work with them than to give them a prison sentence. It is what the police service is about really – we are not just here to catch criminals.”
Often, Hill notes, the young offenders simply need to be given their big break: “When a client is genuinely ready for change and someone offers them an olive branch, they are so grateful that they work hard at it. Obviously they need to have continued support - from mentors or work coaches - it doesn’t happen overnight.”
This is where the construction industry comes in, she believes, since the typical young offender will have a number of transferable skills that they can offer to the industry. Several major contractors, including Amey, Interserve and BAM Nuttall, have already taken on ex-offenders as apprentices via the Team initiative.
Amey account manager Will Tyas agrees that the scheme has mutual benefits for company and participant alike: “By working together, we are helping some of the most disaffected young people build their careers and achieve their ambitions. Those that complete placements often go on to become candidates for apprenticeships and other roles within Amey, and the confidence they gain from the experience really stands out.”
Hill says the effect on the contractor has often been significant: “We know from the feedback from Amey Highways [one of the first in the industry to sign up to take on trainees] that although the apprentices we sent them have not had the specific skills to begin with, they have come out top in all of their assessments. We find that the young offenders often have a different approach to solving problems. Often, it’s what they have had to do to survive.”
Hill says that there is plenty for the construction employer to gain by taking on young offenders: “CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] is a big concept, but engaging in the process is helping to upskill the local community and give pride in it. There is definitely a feel-good factor involved seeing the change that can occur.
“We just appeal to the construction industry, as we do to other employers, to look beyond what the young people have done on paper and get to know the people themselves.”
Since introducing the concept to the wider industry at the Construction Plant-hire Association Conference in September, Hill says that the reception from construction and hire firms has been very encouraging.
The fact that those present were able to hear from Anthony, a former young offender who is now working successfully with Amey Highways, was helpful in making the concept a reality for the audience, believes Hill. “It was actually quite an emotional connection I think, hearing how it had changed his life.”
Also appearing at the CPA conference was the first plant hirer to be involved with Hill’s project – Wolverhampton based Hawk Group. Its director Paul Allman said at the time: “The plant hire sector is facing a huge shortage of plant operators at present and fulfilling the requirements of planned infrastructure projects will be a challenge.
“We feel this is a great opportunity to train young people to enter the plant hire sector and help to meet current demand. It also provides a very positive message for the industry.”
The Team trials have been so successful that Hill is now busy working on a dual front to expand their influence beyond the West Midlands – liaising with construction companies which have national reach and at the same time sharing information with other police forces around the country.
But she is also thinking about increasing the number of opportunities for offenders outside of the comprehensive Team programme – both shorter projects focusing on work, and projects for those outside the age group:
“With all of the work focused around the 16–25 year olds I realised that there is actually very little in the way of targeted schemes for those who are over 25. And yet they want the opportunities to progress too.”
Other developments on the go include discussions with CITB over the prospect of funding CSCS and CPCS courses for the young offenders and, hopefully, in the future a national training structure for young offenders, to save having to organise region by region.
Hill is also actively trying to recruit smaller companies, aware that the prospect of taking on an untried former offender as an apprentice might be a bigger undertaking than for the bigger guys. “We don’t want to turn young people away for want of places, so we are keen to talk to everyone.”
And she doesn’t want to stop at young offenders either – Hawk has been involved on a pilot programme working with serving prisoners. Needless to say, Hill has been thinking how to make the most of the opportunity here too:
“Our nearest resettlement prison is HMP Oakwood and they have a large area of ground behind the prison. I was thinking that Hawk could actually take some of their plant to the prison, which could enable prisoners to train on site before they started their work placements.”
She believes the Oakwood inmates have a lot of potential too. “They have often got to where they are because of the lack of employment, so they don’t have the stability. These people often have poor literacy and numeracy because they didn’t learn well at school, but when they get into a work environment, they are often much better learners.”
Hill points out that those construction companies that do take the plunge and sign up for working with the young offenders actually benefit in other ways. “If a company is giving us a break, we wouldn’t want to spoil it for them, so it is in our interests to make the relationship work.
“We only send young people on work experience who are ready to make that change. You could say that the apprentices we send are better vetted than you would ever get the conventional way. And while you couldn’t say their skills are ready-made for the construction sector, they are certainly on the way.”
The Team programme is a 12-week personal development programme that teaches young offenders (and other unemployed young people) a range of life and career skills and includes mentoring, community projects and two weeks’ work experience, with the aim of helping them into full-time work or college. They also embark on a residential week which encourages team work.
All of this is supported by helping the young people with CV-writing, mock interviews and job applications. According to the Prince’s Trust, more than 70% of the unemployed participants go on to jobs, training or education within three months of completing the programme.
The Trust works in partnership with four colleges within the West Midlands Police geographical area, with the police force responsible for the day-to-day delivery of the Team programme, with both police and police community support officers working alongside the youths. PC Hill is proud of the fact that the West Midlands Police is the only police service in the country currently open up the doors of all its police stations to the project.
Although the Trust oversees the programme, the partnership with companies for work placement is between the police and the businesses themselves, she says: “Ultimately when we have worked with an individual for 12 weeks, eight hours a day, it’s the police staff who are in a better position to identify their readiness for work and progression.”
The programme focuses on offenders and ex-offenders, in addition to those considered on the cusp of offending, she says. “A team made up entirely of offenders would not be appropriate, so we also engage with vulnerable young people, those in or leaving care, education underachievers and the long-term unemployed.”