Why John Laing Training has looked to prisons in an effort to help solve the skills shortage

“Construction is an ideal industry in so many ways,” says Joy Bradley. “An awful lot can be learned from scratch, late starters are easily accepted and workers have a chance to prove themselves. Most importantly, a criminal record does not stop you getting a job on site.”

For most people in construction, turning a blind eye to the occasional dodgy past is not necessarily one of the industry’s strongest selling points. But as Bradley is head of learning and skills at category C prison HMP The Mount in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, it is precisely this aspect of the industry that makes it of interest to her.

Second chance

HMP The Mount is the first prison to take part in a new six-month foundation construction award that will train prisoners in bricklaying or plastering. The scheme is in partnership with John Laing Training, the Learning Skills Council and Oaklands College and, if all goes well, trainees will be allocated an immediate place on release at one of John Laing Training’s centres in London and will be helped into work by the company’s seven-strong employment team. Jobcentre Plus has also joined the partnership to provide further support.

The scheme’s first 12 students started in the prison workshop (pictured) in December and, according to Mark Lunn, managing director of John Laing Training, initial signs are promising. “Reports back have been very positive,” he says. “We’re already talking to a number of other prisons and will shortly be expanding the programme to HMP Wandsworth.”

The scheme was initially mooted for the youth crime reduction strategy at the Government Office for London, who made the first contact with John Laing Training. However, sentences at young offenders’ institutions tend to be shorter, denying the opportunity for longer term vocational training. So instead, attention turned to adult prisons with pre-release programmes that commit prisoners to remain in the same institution for a set period prior to release.

The fact that the project has changed its focus to adult education means that its success relies far more heavily on the trainees being able to find work on release. Lunn explains: “Given that theses are adults, they can’t afford to earn an apprentice’s wage when they are released. We had to focus on having people a little bit longer and dropping them into a support system when they get out.”

From inside to on site

Lunn says that one or two larger firms have already made it clear that they have no problem with taking on workers with criminal records and emphasises that the trainees are carefully selected for their level of commitment and desire to reform. He says: “There is a selection procedure. We don’t take all comers – only those who have proved themselves inside.”

Indeed, Lunn suggests that a criminal past could even work as an advantage with recruiters. “Perversely, employers don’t normally know what someone’s background is when they turn up on site. They just say: ‘Never been in trouble, honest, mate’ and it’s accepted. At least we’re being open about it – there’s no point fudging the issue.”

Some firms, particularly those working in the domestic and refurbishment sectors, have been hesitant to embrace the scheme, expressing concerns about the insurance ramifications of employing ex-offenders. However, Lunn clearly shares Joy Bradley’s belief that the Prison Service, with its need to provide future opportunities for its inmates, and the construction industry, with its perennial labour shortage, are natural cellmates.