16 August 2016 | By Iqbal Wahhab Community

Why I hire ex-offenders

When there’s such anxiety about filling vacancies in the hospitality sector, the founder of Roast Restaurant argues that more businesses should look to our prisons

In the hospitality sector, we’re very good as employers at complaining. We moan about the National Living Wage forcing inflation at a cost to us not to the consumer. We get angry when government tells us we need to sort our service charge policies. And we pull our hair out with despair when Brexit threatens to smash our already under staffed workforce.

But there are some things we can do to help ourselves.

Recently I took a group of restauranteurs to Brixton prison to have breakfast at the celebrated Clink restaurant and visit the Bad Boys Bakery that Gordon Ramsay set up there a few years ago when making his TV series teaching inmates how to cook.

I told them that there, inside Brixton, sat hundreds of people who desperately wanted a different life when released so as avoid drifting back into crime. On average over 50 per cent of the released offenders would be back inside within a year. For those who have a job to go to on release, that figure drops to single digits.

Raw talent

When Ramsey was making his series he invited a few of us into have lunch prepared by prisoners who had never previously cooked before and we were all amazed how within six weeks they were cooking so well.

There was one inmate cooking in front of my table and I said to him that he had clearly taken well to his task and was acquitting it well. I said if ever wanted a work placement at my restaurant Roast when he was released he should mention it to the governor to make arrangements.

A few months later I bumped into Andrew again – but this time in his new role as a chef. Unbeknown to me he had done work experience, applied for a job and been successful.

Another prisoner working in The Clink last year started doing day release with us and was so good that he was voted chef of the year by his colleagues.

Brixton is a great example of a prison which wants to see its inmates never return. They also house a social enterprise I chair called Bounce Back which trains inmates in painting and decorating. We hosted an event there a couple of years back to launch a dry lining centre and virtually every major construction company and property developer were there as there’s an even bigger skills shortage in construction than there is in hospitality.

Companies that run apprentice programmes for youngsters to come off benefits and into work tend to agree on two things – one, that they’re a great idea and two, the effort we put into the process is not always reflected by what comes out the other end.

But rehabilitation programmes on offer for ex-offenders tap into a different level of determination to succeed. Engaging with these programmes isn’t just a CSR exercise. If I open another restaurant I will have more anxiety about filling vacancies than filling seats. Go into a prison and you will find new pipelines for the talent that will grow your business.