Work placements - a two way street?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 - 10:17am

A work placement can be life-transforming for individuals who are trying to leave homelessness behind. Increasingly private sector organisations are helping to make this happen.

Photograph: Michael Walter/Troika (Royal Mail Group)

Work placements provide valuable work experience, a boost to the CV, self-esteem and, sometimes, a direct route into employment. There are many excellent ‘in-house’ work placement schemes; but not every service user wants to work within our sector. It’s important that the back-to-work opportunities available are as diverse as service users’ aspirations.

There are a growing number of work placement schemes that partner private companies with homelessness organisations, and, as I was to discover, they benefit all parties.

Business in the Community, a socially-focused, business-led charity with an extensive network of private companies, launched their Ready for Work programme in 2001. The scheme aimed to provide participants with work placements, mentoring and a route into full time employment.

Fast forward thirteen years, and over 3,000 people have been employed following placements in companies such as Barclays, Freshfields, Marks & Spencer and Carillion. Over half of the 3,000 candidates were rough sleepers or still classed as homeless at the time of their placement.
I spoke to Dianne Crookes, Group Resourcing Supplier Manager with the Royal Mail Group. Here’s what she told me:

"We’ve been participating in the Ready for Work programme since 2005. We have provided 451 work placements, 217 of which have resulted in jobs. Additionally, we have employed 89 Ready for Work candidates that did placements with other companies. We’ve just appointed our 306th candidate!

“The Ready for Work programme is a good source of employees, they’re local people who just need to be given a chance and as a business, we fundamentally feel that’s the right thing to do. Our biggest challenge initially was ensuring consistency of process and prioritising where to start with the roll out, as there was so much enthusiasm.

“We employ over 127,000 people on the front-line, and we have some really great employees who love being involved with the Ready for Work placements. It’s a good development opportunity for them to learn buddying and mentoring. We’ve found that employee engagement has increased right across the business. Some 74% of staff participating in buddying/mentoring report increased job satisfaction; and 80% say that the process has improved their relationship building skills. Some 94% say they feel more understanding and empathy towards others.

“For any business considering offering Ready for Work placements I’d say this: Our contact at Business in the Community is very professional and supportive, and they provide good resources when you need information for stakeholders. Just make sure you take the time to engage people at all levels across your company. It’s the employees on the front line who will make it work. The benefits to your company far outweigh any time and resources required to set the placements up.”

As well as national schemes like Ready for Work, there are smaller partnerships between homelessness organisations and businesses. Providence Row has developed its collaboration with the Andaz hotel on Liverpool Street over several years. Initially the hotel donated surplus stock, such as towels, but in 2011 the two organisations came together to create a series of workshops on catering, healthy eating and hospitality for Providence Row clients.

They designed a seven week Catering Trainee scheme in the charity’s day centre kitchen, followed by a placement in the busy hotel kitchen. Last year, three people gained employment after completing the programme, and the scheme won a Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award which celebrates excellence in corporate community involvement programmes . One person who used to sleep outside the hotel is now employed there.

It’s not only employees who have a more positive view of companies that take their responsibility to local communities seriously. Consumers are increasingly interested in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In Nielsen’s 2013 global survey ‘Consumers who Care’, 50% of respondents stated that they would be prepared to pay more for goods and services from companies that give back to society; this is a 5% increase from 2011. Businesses have a considerable amount to gain, economically and socially, from prioritising the CSR agenda and a work placement programme is a solid foundation.

Taking social responsibility a step further are social businesses created purely to make profit for charities and employ ex-homeless people. Connection Crew is a unique social business in crewing and logistics. Customers hire a crew to set up stages, build sets and deal with lighting and sound equipment. Around 25% of Connection Crew’s workforce are work ready ex-homeless people who have completed an employment support programme and an initial work placement. Any profit made by the company is donated to The Connection at St-Martins-in-the-Fields.

In 2011, Josh Littlejohn and his partner Alice Thompson set up Social Bite, a café in Edinburgh. The café uses locally-sourced ingredients and ploughs all profits back into charities set up to solve social problems at home and abroad. A quarter of the workforce of Social Bite are ex-homeless, some of whom had rough slept outside the café and were local Big Issue sellers who the café’s staff and customers were familiar with. The Social Bite team help them find accommodation, provide an income and train them up on site.

Josh has a vision about the future of business. As he told The Herald newspaper in a recent interview, “we can't leave it up to governments or charities to solve our problems” he says, “we need another economic model.” With two cafés now open in Edinburgh and one set to open in Glasgow at the beginning of March, business is booming. Josh says their success is due to the fact that “we’re doing the right thing.”

With so many inspiring and successful work placement programmes operating in businesses across the UK, the future looks bright for service users who are eager to get back to work. Let’s hope more businesses follow the lead of those featured here, and offer work placements. As Dianne Crookes from Royal Mail Group says, “stop considering it and just do it!”.

Get involved

If you run a business, why not get involved in Ready to Work.  Born out of the Business Action on Homelessness campaign, the Ready for Work programme now works with a network of 149 companies across the UK to enable people to overcome disadvantage and move into employment. The companies provide training, placements, volunteers and support. 

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Lindsay Stronge

Lindsay has worked as a manager in homeless hostels across London. 

Twitter: @lastronge