Why the upskilling of prisoners and ex-offenders is vital for beating the skills crisis

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With Brexit likely to create a shortage of skilled workers in the UK, rehabilitating and upskilling ex-offenders could help save British businesses.

The UK is in the midst of a skills crisis, and it may be about to get worse. As we head towards the exit door of the European Union, the decisions that are made over the next few months will shape the future of the British workforce for decades to come.

Brexit casts many shadows of doubt over how we will continue to compete on the global stage, but perhaps none more so than what businesses will do once access to skilled talent is restricted.

With so many of the UK’s industries heavily reliant on migrant workers to fill vacancies, it’s easy to see why there are such worries.

Recent City & Guilds Group research People Power found that nine in ten UK employers are already struggling to recruit the skilled staff they need, and that two thirds think that skills gaps are likely to get worse or remain the same in the next three to five years.

Brexit is set to exacerbate this further, meaning that now, more so than ever before, we need to be doing all we can to shore up our industries for the years to come.

That means investing in skills development and training for all members of society, even those who have previously been marginalised.

A win-win situation

Currently there are over 80,000 prisoners in the UK – one of the highest prison populations across Europe.

A culture also exists in Britain whereby those who have committed a crime and been to prison to serve the time are often ostracised from the workforce upon release and deprived of the chance to properly re-enter society.

Education and skills training can be a real beacon of light for prisoners; it can transform prisons into a place of hope, rather than one of retribution.

According to government figures, only a quarter (26.5%) of prisoners enter employment after being released. With nowhere left to turn, many enter a cycle whereby reoffending becomes the only option visible to them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The UK is in desperate need of more skilled workers, while ex-offenders are in desperate need of employment opportunities.

With more investment in the upskilling of the prison population, employers would have access to a new pool of skilled people, and those leaving prison would be given the chance to have a fresh start in the outside world. It’s a win-win situation.  

A change in attitude towards ex-offenders is needed

To ensure that it is possible to better integrate ex-offenders back into the workplace, an effort must be made to change public attitudes.

A 2016 YouGov survey revealed 50% of employers would not consider hiring an ex-offender, while 45% felt ex-offenders would be unreliable employees.

Employers need to be made aware of the real benefits that investing in those with a criminal record can bring – from a business, economic and social perspective. Ex-offenders can make loyal and hardworking employees, grateful to be given a lifeline out of crime.

Education and skills training can be a real beacon of light for prisoners; it can transform prisons into a place of hope, rather than one of retribution.

Research conducted by the Ministry of Justice in 2014 found 19% of prisoners with access to study reoffended upon release, compared to 26% of those without.

Those who go to prison and serve their allotted time should be given the right to re-enter society and, in particular, re-enter the workforce.

The MoJ’s Data Lab conducted a similar study in February 2017, which found that offenders who had enrolled on a City & Guilds qualification and gained certification within the year being analysed were less likely to re-offend, had a lower frequency of re-offences, and took longer to re-offend than those who had not.

The St Giles Trust, a London-based charity helping people who face severe disadvantages to find jobs and homes, run an ‘Employability Skills for Peer Advisors’ programme, which gives ex-offenders an easier and more rewarding route into employment.

Independent research carried out on the impact of the programme revealed that over the last year it trained and qualified 63 peer advisors, who went on to work with 105 ex-offenders. As a result of the programme, ex-offenders were shown to be three times more likely to be employed and thus less likely to re-offend.

The estimated saving to the public purse as a result of these people having been reached through the programme is £6.5m over three years – demonstrating the real impact that employment and upskilling can have on preventing re-offending.

The cost of re-offending and an unskilled future

From 1 April 2019, prison governors across the UK will be given full autonomy over their allocated budgets and decision making for the training of prisoners.

This highlights a huge opportunity to educate prison governors on the importance of training and upskilling as a route to prevent re-offending and help facilitate the re-entry of the prison population into employment.

Currently, the overall cost to the British taxpayer of re-offending stands at around £15 billion per year. That is a staggeringly large amount of money that could be reinvested in other areas of the economy – not to mention the economic benefits of getting more people into work.

If we invested just a fraction of that £15 billion sum into the skills development of prisoners, not only would we have a reduced crime and re-offending rate, but we would also be doing everything in our power to prepare for what’s to come.

Yes, we need to have a justice system that is fair and allocates warranted punishments, but those who go to prison and serve their allotted time should be given the right to re-enter society and, in particular, re-enter the workforce.

With the country’s skills crisis seemingly growing unabated, capitalising on those excluded from the workforce because they are required to tick the previous criminal convictions box could be one of the answers we are looking for.

Interested in this topic? You may also want to read Post-Brexit recruitment crisis: could armed forces veterans save your business?

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