Giving women with convictions a working chance

20 Feb 2013

To help our networks understand more about how to help ex-prisoners with employment, PET spoke with Jocelyn Hillman, founder and Chief Executive of Working Chance, a specialist recruitment consultancy for women with convictions. It is a charity with a fresh approach to helping women offenders find rewarding, quality jobs. Here's the interview:

PET: How did Working Chance come about and what was the thinking behind it?

Jocelyn: I started running some workshops in HMP Holloway and one of the women said to me ‘the real punishment starts when you leave prison and no one will give you a job.’ After that I did some focus groups, went to several prisons and interviewed about 70 female prisoners and realised that we were setting women prisoners up to fail.

Whilst they are in prison we are telling them ‘get a job and go straight’ and then as soon as people come out of prison society puts all the barriers up to stop them from achieving this. The reason Working Chance only works with women offenders is because most of our candidates are single mothers with children who are often already involved in the criminal justice system.

We are not only helping to transform a woman’s life but we are also helping to transform her children’s lives - stopping the cycle of re-offending that is passed from a mother to a child.

PET: Does Working Chance operate like a commercial recruitment agency?

Jocelyn: Of course the service is free to the women but we do try to operate in as commercial a way as possible, so we don’t charge employers the same as a commercial recruitment consultancy would. We have enough problems getting businesses to hire ex-offenders, so if you said to them ‘we are going to you charge five or ten per cent of the clients’ first year salary’ you wouldn’t see them for dust. We have a business rate for every package, obviously we don’t charge charities and not-for-profit organisations, but if we’re working with a big commercial organisation we do have agreements with them that pay us a small amount when one of our candidates stays in place for six months. We receive no statutory funding whatsoever, unfortunately we are not part of the Work Programme or any government programme; we are funded by donations and trust funds.

Our recruitment consultants are specialists in their field. They have specialist knowledge of the criminal justice system understand employers’ needs. We never send anyone for interview who is not right for the job. We are a charity but we are not asking employers for charity. We want them to hire our candidates because they are the best for the job. All we are asking is that they are not prejudiced against our candidates. And that’s what we have now with some employers, they’ve recruited our candidates, realised how good they are and then they come back to us for more.

PET: What sort of jobs are on offer through Working Chance?

Jocelyn: We treat each woman as an individual, ask her what she wants to do, and then try and find her a job in that field. We are trying to find people quality jobs that lead to a career, we are not trying to force people into jobs that they don’t want to do. We do find that the majority of our candidates want to work in admin, as PAs, receptionists or in customer service. Some want to help people who have been in the same situation as them, working with gangs or drug users, but the majority of our women want administrative work, customer service, retail or outreach.

18% of our candidates are graduates, you can’t stereotype women offenders just as you can’t stereotype the general public. We have had doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, teachers and people who have never worked. We don’t exclude anybody, our only criteria are that you have to be female and have spent some time in the criminal justice system in the past three years. We work with serving offenders, women on license or women serving community sentences.

PET: What are employers looking for when they come to Working Chance?

Jocelyn: We run a lot of practice interview days where employers come in to prison with us. This has been a really good experience for both our candidates, who get to be interviewed by real employers, and a good experience for employers, who get to meet our candidates. They are always surprised by the calibre of our candidates.

It does break down the barriers for employers to come and meet our candidates. They’re women, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives, just like everybody else.

What employers want is the right attitude, they want people who have got good personalities, come into work smiling, who want to work hard and persevere.

PET: Can you tell me about people who have really gone on to succeed?

Jocelyn: We do have a phenomenal success rate, our re-offending rate is always under 3% and I think it’s about 1% at the moment - and that wasn’t an offence in the workplace. We have quite a few coming out on ROTL and we get them voluntary work and paid work. We’ve had an ex-offender who did three months voluntary work and then found a job for £23,000 a year.

PET: What challenges do Working Chance face with the work that you’re doing?

Jocelyn: Prejudice and preconceptions. We are leading a revolution in restorative recruitment; our area of work goes far beyond just placing female offenders in quality employment. We are trying to re-frame the recruitment of offenders by changing the attitudes of employers, the media and society.

You can’t keep excluding people, the more you exclude them the more you are pushing them to crime. If you include people, let people work and let them become role models for their children and their community then you are going to reduce crime and make communities nicer, safer places in which to live.

If employers are not part of the solution then we’ll go round and round in circles. You have got to allow people to work so that they can contribute to society. If we keep saying no to people then the situation is only going to get worse.

PET: Do you offer women any advice on this?

Jocelyn: We run employability workshops in HMP Holloway, HMP Send and our offices. They are to help women get up to speed with applying online, interview assessments etc. If you have been in prison things move on, so it’s teaching people about how to get a job in the twenty first century. We also teach things like disclosure of criminal convictions, CV writing, application forms, all the things you need to brush up on to get a job in today’s world.

PET: Does Working Chance's connection with Richard Branson help to break down barriers?

Jocelyn: We now work with Virgin Management and he makes videos and supports us whenever he can. Having someone like Richard Branson back you and talk about it is fantastic. At our last business breakfast at HMP Holloway, he sent us a video which was really exciting for the women in Holloway as he started the video by saying ‘Good morning HMP Holloway!’ One of the candidates who  was there was a serving offender actually working at Virgin, so he said hello to her personally and though she was very embarrassed it was great to have Richard Branson greeting you. She has now gone on to paid work at Virgin and has done very well.

Find out more about Working Chance or read Sarah's story, who was supported by Working Chance and Women in Prison to get her job after she gained qualifications with PET's help.