Construction employers have teamed up with a young offenders institute to train and recruit apprentices. So far, it's proved a learning experience for all.
Welcome to Onley Young Offenders Institution near Rugby, home to 640 law-breaking teenagers. Pass the notice warning that 18 visitors were arrested last year for bringing in drugs. Cross the exercise yard to the workshops where prisoners are taught basic job skills. And follow the same route that a growing number of industry employers are taking in their search for skilled and motivated apprentices.

They are looking for youngsters like Mark Douglas, nearing the end of a two-and-a-half-year sentence for TDA –taking a car and driving away. He is working towards a National Vocational Qualification in bricklaying and handles his trowel and mortar like a true professional. Or like former burglar Wayne Childs, who is hoping his City and Guilds carpentry qualification will lead to building-site work. "It's right for me. I just enjoy the work," he says.

Employers can also talent-spot youngsters on the new general construction operatives course next door, in the painting and decorating workshop, or on Onley's production line manufacturing blocks and slabs. "It's good here. You get to work as a team," says one as keenly as if he'd been reading a Construction Industry Training Board recruitment brochure.

But even with experience and enthusiasm, the odds of ex-inmates Douglas and Childs slotting into a construction job are not high. The re-offending rate for the UK's 11 800 young offenders is 53%, and even those ex-offenders determined to get jobs may lack the necessary commitment and social skills. "A lot of them have been in one institution or another since they were 12 or 13 years old," says establishment services manager Justin Caie.

Construction firms such as Wilcon Homes are waking up to the fact that this wasted potential is a missed opportunity for them as much as it is an affront to taxpayers. They are now building links with young offenders institutions to identify would-be recruits while they are serving their sentences so they can build up mutual trust before it is tested by the pressures of the working world. "There's a trained workforce here, and shortages in the building industry," says Wilcon human resources and training manager Jane Richardson, who is finding it difficult to recruit Wilcon's annual intake of 15-20 apprentices. She is on her third visit to Onley, this time to meet Douglas and another prospect recommended by bricklaying instructor Bob Sampson.

Onley has always had links with colleges, but head of inmate activities Steve Turner says this is the first time it has been in touch with employers. Now Onley and Wilcon hope to extend the scheme so that anyone with aptitude can be offered a job.

On Wilcon's visits, the youths learn about the company, and Richardson gets to know more about their personal circumstances. By the time they are released – this summer for Douglas and next year for his colleague – the transformation from ex-offender to construction apprentice should be half complete. Douglas certainly seems convinced: "I'm going to try and get on the Wilcon scheme. They've already said there's an office near where I live." The careful getting-to-know-you programme was devised by Wilcon and Onley following a disappointing start to their joint venture. Before Christmas, Wilcon offered jobs to three ex-offenders, none of whom stayed with the company. Two dropped out following crises in their home lives and one took against the bureaucracy surrounding his new job. "It's a learning curve for all of us. We've got to make sure people will stay the course," confirms instructor Sampson.

As Richardson explains, Wilcon may have underestimated how far taking on an ex-offender means taking on their turbulent personal lives. "One lad was doing very well, and we all had high hopes," she recalls. "But he had family problems. He fell out with his grandmother and moved out. He couldn't travel to work and decided not to continue." Richardson still feels the project is "definitely worth persevering with", but now sees her role as pastoral as much as professional – someone that the young apprentices can turn to. A few hours at Onley makes it clear why she thinks closer contact may be needed.

The title "young offenders institution" makes Onley sound little more threatening than a particularly strict scout camp. But the industry's new recruiting ground is a prison, where the metal doors clang shut, the cells have no views of the outside world and the inmates, aged 16 to 21, are addressed by their surnames.

The single-storey workshops may look like any other training centre, but here tools are locked in cabinets and there are panic buttons for instructors. About a dozen inmates are "employed" on each course at any one time, earning token wages for five hours' work a day. The lads are happy to talk about themselves and their work, but seem to find it difficult to find the right words.

The radio that plays chart music as they work is a privilege for good behaviour. But carpentry instructor David Cooke says the radio is more often on than off: "In the workshops, they're different to when they're on the cell wing. There, they put on an act, try to be the big cheese; here, they try to be a bit more adult." In fact, Onley inmates seem no more delinquent than the posse of youths on any suburban street corner. The instructors evidently feel the same: one, Kevin Spillane, tells how one trainee was sacked because of his "attitude problem", but "he wrote us such a nice letter asking for one more chance that we had to let him back".

Onley inmates will be able to show off that kind of enthusiasm in the annual inter-prison bricklaying competition, to be held in March. For the first time, construction employers, including Wilcon, are expected to be in the audience. Onley trainees defeated other young offenders institutions and even local colleges last year, but this year, they will be hoping to win more than a silver cup.