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Employment

This pioneering project defied national reoffending rates – by giving young people a job

The Skill Mill has employed 225 young ex-offenders to work on environmental projects – and just 17 have reoffended. The national average for reoffending is 72 per cent. Here’s how it happened.

When government statisticians talk about young people who are “NEET” (not in education, employment or training) or how they are “furthest from the labour market,” it can be hard to imagine what they mean. 

But the young people who social enterprise The Skill Mill are helping back into employment are about the furthest away from employment you can get. And yet, the organisation is proving that its innovative approach works.

Just 17 of the 225 young people helped by The Skill Mill have been re-convicted, compared to a national average of 72 per cent for young offenders with 11 or more convictions. 

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“These are kids with lots of baggage, lots of issues,” says The Skill Mill founder David Parks, they might be “living in households where there is domestic violence, they haven’t attended school, they might be involved with gangs.”

The 16- and 17-year-olds that The Skill Mill takes on board for six months of employment have been convicted of at least 11 offences, and many “have not been anywhere near a school for years,” Parks explains.

The idea for The Skill Mill began when the Environment Agency approached Newcastle Youth Offending Team, asking if they would be able to clean-up local waterways. 

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It soon became evident that the impact on those who took part in the project was life changing, with reoffending rates far lower than the national average. 

The Skill Mill’s approach isn’t complex or avante garde, it’s simply to give young people a paid job on the national minimum wage

And not just one day to prove themselves, but to stick with them for six months as they learn how to exist as an employee – something that many take for granted but for young people who have experienced little else than the criminal justice system, can be a foreign concept. 

The government’s £500m plan for jobs claimed to target those furthest from employment, offering a plethora of training opportunities such as the kickstart scheme, incentives for businesses who hire apprentices, and 2,000 elite artificial intelligence scholarships. 

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While these may be good for other groups of young people, it’s not further training or qualifications that those furthest from the jobs market need, says Parks. It’s a job that pays. 

“They really only want to be working, being out there working, they get a lot of kudos for that, and they need to be earning,” he says.

And Parks believes the type of work that The Skill Mill offers is integral to its success. The social enterprise secures contracts with local authorities or private companies who need outdoor work done, whether that’s digging ditches, maintaining waterways, landscaping or clearing away polluting rubbish from beauty spots. 

“It’s very manual and very labour intensive work. It’s good for mental health because it’s outdoors, and that’s what they tell us they enjoy more than anything else – apart from getting paid! – is that it’s outdoor and physical, because that kind of work makes them feel less stressed,” says Parks. 

Three quarters of the young people who were employed at The Skill Mill have progressed to further employment, education, or training.

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By keeping these young people busy working to maintain the environment, The Skill Mill estimates that it has saved the taxpayer over £90 million. 

This is because, according to government calculations, £112,000 per year – taking into account police, prison, court, and the Youth Offending Service – is spent on each young offender. 

The Skill Mill came close to closing its doors when the pandemic hit. The young people were put on furlough and contracts for environmental maintenance were cancelled. For Parks, it looked like it was all over.

“We’re sunk. We need to wrap it all up. I need to find a job,” Parks remembers thinking.

“We wrote begging letters to everyone saying, ‘if you want to help us, please do,’ and so many people stepped up.”

The Skill Mill secured vital funding from Big Issue Invest and gained contracts for work with eight local authorities.

Right now, The Skill Mill has 40 young people employed, and is launching five new teams – each made of four young people and a supervisor – in January. 

With teams across the country, from Newcastle to Norfolk, Birmingham to Bury, The Skill Mill is giving young people with convictions meaningful work at the time they need it most. 

The Skill Mill has recently received two prizes at the Queen’s Awards hosted by Prince Charles, as well as investment from Big Issue Invest. Download Big Issue Invest’s latest Impact Report here.

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