More employers looking to hire ex-offenders as worker shortage persists

61% of business owners plan on hiring ex-offenders this year, as recruitment challenges lead small employers to seek out alternative sources of talent.

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Talent shortages in the UK, exacerbated by the Great Resignation, are causing more hiring managers to hire ex-cons to fill hiring slots, according to new research.

In a survey of over 1,000 business owners by facilities management company Sodexo, almost two thirds of UK employers say they will hire ex-offenders in the year ahead.

Sodexo’s results show that 43% of UK businesses are currently struggling to fill in excess of ten vacancies. Worryingly, 16% of hospitality businesses said they were struggling to fill as many as 31-40 positions.

The skills gap seems to be a major driving factor behind the trend. When more reluctant respondents were asked what might bring them round to the idea, 20% replied that the need to fill more technical roles would force them to look at candidates with criminal records.

For more open-minded employers, we explore the reasons for recruiting people with a criminal record, and the support available.

Talent shortages necessitate alternative hiring routes for SMEs

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) demonstrate that there were 142,000 vacancies in hospitality in the three months leading to February 2023. That’s compared to an industry average of 51,000.

In last week’s March budget, chancellor Jeremy Hunt set out a string of incentives designed to improve UK workforce participation, following calls from small business owners for more support to manage labour shortages.

Their demands went largely unanswered, however. Many founders were left disappointed by the lack of funding for contributing factors like the childcare crisis, which will not be fully rolled out until 2025.

Resultantly, senior leaders are exploring alternative avenues to attract, recruit, and retain talent. Particularly as the digital skills gap makes it increasingly hard to hire for specialist tech roles.

Startups recently revealed that Google searches for Skilled Worker visas – the type of visa required for employers to recruit non-UK resident workers for highly-skilled roles – reached a record high in January.

Ex-offenders – a largely untapped labour source – could be the key for organisations. Industry leaders told Sodexo they believe ex-offenders could help to plug employment gaps in specific areas.

For example, food pickers and delivery drivers in farming (62%), and talent shortages in hospitality (57%).

Big name employers hire more prisoners as apprentices

The Sodexo research also found that, when respondents were asked what might encourage them to hire ex-offenders, 22% called for a government initiative which incentivises businesses to do so.

One fifth suggested an initiative giving businesses a target for hiring ex-offenders. The same percentage said a need to fill crucial skills gaps would force them to look at individuals with criminal records.

There has already been some positive movement in terms of policy making. In October 2022, the Ministry of Justice and Department for Education lifted a ban on prisoners undertaking apprenticeships.

Since then major brands such as Greene King, Kier and Timpson have opened their apprenticeship programmes to ex-offenders.

James Tweed, CEO of Cambridge-based Coracle. Coracle is one of the very few companies in the UK authorised by the Ministry of Justice to provide prison inmates with internet-free computers, on which they can complete modules for their apprenticeships.

“Taking on prisoners as apprentices is a golden opportunity to transform lives, help society and increase skills in the workplace,” says Tweed. “This gives them something practical to work towards, which is a huge part of ensuring they can realise better life outcomes.”

Prejudice against ex-offenders heightens hiring woes

While the findings indicate that more HR managers are seeking ways to upskill former convicts, 21% of businesses still said they would exclude ex-offenders from their hiring processes.

This suggests that stigma against people with criminal records is still holding back businesses from employing ex-offenders.

When asked about their greatest concerns, 25% agreed they were worried employees would re-offend. More than one fifth admitted that they wouldn’t trust an ex-con to behave appropriately at work.

Tweed admits there are attitude hurdles to be overcome when taking on apprentices from inside a prison. However, he says it is a practical step towards closing the UK’s skills gap and reducing unemployment.

“Day release prisoners can go to work placements but those inside can also undertake training,” says Tweed. “Having worked in over 50 prisons and met hundreds of prisoners, I think employers might be surprised at just how enthusiastic some prisoners can be when offered the opportunity of a better life.”

Sodexo offers support to help small employers recruit ex-offenders

To help businesses with the employment of ex-offenders, Sodexo has launched Starting Fresh. The programme offers resources for employers seeking to employ people with criminal backgrounds and support them in the workplace.

While not all ex-offenders are prison-leavers, employers are also invited to visit prisons if they are interested in offering opportunities on an individual’s release. Organisations with multiple job opportunities can even run employer days in the prisons.

Commenting on the opportunity to fix hospitality labour shortages, Kate Nicholls OBE, CEO UK Hospitality, said: “Hospitality employers cannot afford to turn their back on any talent pipeline that could provide vital resources.

“The issue is that employers don’t know how to access at scale the volume of recruits – prison leavers and other ex-offenders – potentially available to them. It’s great to see Sodexo launch Starting Fresh which will really help demystify the process.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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