Article: Off the record . . .

Off the record
Published in The Sunday Business Post on November 21st, 2010, by Alex Meehan

At a time when it’s hard for qualified and experienced people to find a job, the challenge faced by those with criminal records, without a permanent address or with no educational qualifications, is even greater.

But while most people in these situations face an uphill struggle to get work, there are schemes specifically designed to help them back into the labour force.

One of them is Linkage, which is operated by the Dublin-based non-profit group Business in the Community.

It was Linkage that helped John [not his real name], an ex-criminal with a history of substance abuse, back into work and education.

‘‘I was locked up several times for periods of time between six and 12 months. It’s been seven years since I’ve been in prison, but I’ve been through a traumatic period. I found it very hard to reintegrate into society,” he says.

‘‘I had many issues to resolve, mostly caused by addiction. The truth of it is that I was a mess for around 19 years with alcohol and drugs.

All my prison terms were drink-related, every one of them, and looking back on it, all were the result of stupid, unnecessary incidents.”

As a result of his criminal record, John faced huge difficulties when it came to finding a job. ‘‘I’d basically never held down a proper job before, other than stretches on building sites in Britain and here,” he says.

‘‘I wanted to make a fresh start, and through Linkage I was encouraged to re-engage with education.

I didn’t know what I ultimately wanted to do, other than that I wanted to work in an office. I got lucky, I suppose. I have a good personality and I’m good with people.

I started doing volunteer work, with meals on wheels programmes and with homeless shelters, and now I’m studying for an honours degree in social studies.”

For John, it was an opportunity that many in his position never get. ‘‘I’m getting closer to that job in an office, and I will get it,” he says. ‘‘I may experience discrimination and I know it will be hard, but nothing is going to stop me.”

The Linkage programme has been running for ten years and has had over 5,000 ex-offenders referred to it by the Probation Service.

Around 70 per cent of participants have been placed in training, employment or education. According to Tina Roche, chief executive of Business in the Community (BITC), ex-offenders face a lifetime of discrimination.

‘‘In Ireland, you’re allowed to discriminate against people who have a criminal record,” she says.

‘‘If you get a criminal record when you’re 18, you carry that for the rest of your life – there’s no expunging that record, and there are no spent sentences here like there are in other countries.

That’s a huge barrier for reformed criminals who want to get their life back together, and get on the straight and narrow. It makes it very hard for them to carry on their life the way that the state wants them to.”

According to Roche, the Linkage programme’s clients are likely to have experienced unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as homelessness, family breakdown or stigmatisation because of public attitudes to offenders. ‘‘Most normal people look back and cringe at the mistakes they made when they were in their late teens or early 20s,but for some people those mistakes are with them for life,” she says.

‘‘The crimes committed at that age are often stupid rather than sinister – someone may have kicked a Garda car, or have drunk too much and got in a fight. Even the government now recognises that this is a silly barrier to reforming someone.

We believe that once someone is five years out of jail and has maintained a blemish-free record, their record should be expunged.

Some offences are more serious than others and probably should remain on the record, but there are lots that aren’t.” According to Roche, employers are sometimes initially reluctant to work with ex-offenders, but not always.

‘‘We are basically asking employers to give someone a second chance.

The issues they always want addressed are, ‘Does this person have the skills for the job and are they trustworthy’.

We tell them that, ironically, they’ll probably know more about this person before they give them a job than anyone else who works for them,” she says.

‘‘A lot of people with records may not have qualifications, but they’ve often got experience working as bricklayers or carpenters, or even working in shops.

They frequently have left school before their Junior Cert, but often have a base to build on to get them back to work. About 30 per cent have a Junior Cert and about 10 per cent have a Leaving Cert.”

The Linkage programme is one of a number of schemes operated by BITC designed to deepen the ties between the business community and the society around them. Others include the EPIC programme, aimed at creating employment for people from immigrant communities who don’t have sufficient English or whose qualifications aren’t recognised in Ireland, and the Ready for Work programme, which attempts to specifically address the challenges faced by the homeless in the workplace.

‘‘It’s extremely important that we put something back into the community which we serve,” says Jonathan Smith, head of Marks & Spencer Ireland, one of the companies which has participated in some of BITC’s schemes.

‘‘It’s about getting out into the community to help and inform people about the wider business context that we exist in, and to give them an opportunity to experience what retail is all about. It sounds corny but it is important, because the retail sector is one of the biggest employers in the country.”

Marks & Spencer has been involved with BITC since 2000, and has a particularly strong link with its Schools’ Business Partnership programme. ‘‘Through our association with BITC, four of our stores are actively partnered with local schools.

The teachers can bring their students in and show them how the operation works, and our teams also go out to spend time in the schools.

The project helps kids understand a bit more about how the retail world works,” says Smith.

Marks & Spencer has also facilitated work placements for people attempting to get established after becoming homeless.

‘‘We allow people to work with us for a period of time to get them used to the business world again,” says Smith.

‘‘Very often, we end up employing them on amore permanent basis. It’s a real win for them, and it also allows us to find really good members of staff.

Regardless of how people end up there, getting out of homelessness is extremely hard, but programmes like this can help people get a fresh start in life.”

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