A criminal record is not normally at the top of most employers' wish lists, but for Blue Sky Development and Regeneration it is actually a requirement.
The social enterprise was founded almost nine years ago and provides work for former offenders in areas such as parks maintenance, recycling, catering and distribution. The organisation does have charitable status but it describes itself as a social enterprise because most of its income comes from commercial activities.
John Chesters, commercial and development director at Blue Sky, says it began after a conversation between Mick May, then executive director of Groundwork Thames Valley, and Steve Finn, an ex-offender who provided horticultural training for Groundwork at the time. Chesters says: "When Steve was released from prison, he got some work painting railings in Hyde Park in London; from there, he increased his skills in horticulture and went to do some training. Steve and Mick talked about how difficult it was for ex-offenders to get work and how people would often return to crime. Mick felt he wanted to do something about it, so he established Blue Sky."
It takes on more than 100 ex-offenders a year, usually on contracts lasting about six months, and helps them to move on to jobs in a variety of areas. Its annual target is to get 40 per cent of its ex-offenders into further employment; last year, it achieved 45 per cent. Of its income, which totalled £1.7m last year, about 60 per cent comes from contracts with local authorities or the private sector; most of the remainder comes from trusts and foundations. "Generally we're replacing agency or seasonal staff and, with local authority budgets being squeezed, we have to be cost-competitive," says Chesters. "Local authorities won't pay more for something just because it will bring them some value."
Instead of bidding to run contracts outright, it generally approaches organisations in the public and private sectors to see if they have any roles in their supply chains for a small team of ex-offenders. It then recruits the people needed to fill the roles. Chesters says: "We always try to look for people locally, so they are providing value in their own neighbourhoods. We get them into contracts lasting about six months, because it gives them a good period of time to get a good level of experience."
After about three months, the ex-offenders get help in finding further employment from a resettlement worker for when their contracts end. The worker helps to prepare their CVs and ensures they have the right documentation needed to get jobs. Blue Sky also provides a small budget, funded by trusts and foundations, to help pay for training that could help its beneficiaries gain further work.
Chesters is keen to point out that his organisation is not taking away full-time jobs from anyone. "Many big contractors, such as the environment services firm Veolia, need a large number of people," he says. "Some of the agencies see us as a bit of threat. But we never take away full-time jobs; we only ever want to put a small team into a contract."
Jim, an ex-offender who doesn't want to give his real name, is among those to benefit from the programme. He was sentenced to seven and half years for armed robbery and was released in 2008. He says: "I could get housing and support, but I couldn't get any employment. No one would give me a chance. I'd get through to the interview stage, but as soon as I was CRB-checked they'd say 'we're not happy with you'. I was frustrated to the point that I was considering going back to criminal activity."
Jim started working for Blue Sky late last year and now works as parks maintenance supervisor in Hillingdon, north-west London. He says: "The fact I've got work has helped with other aspects of my life. I've got engaged to my girlfriend and I now feel that I have a purpose."