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Turning the Tide: London's super sewer sets a new standard in responsible recruitment

It’s hard to get your head around the sheer size and scale of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, London’s solution to sewage overflow into the river Thames. Once constructed, it will be 7.2 m in diameter and will span the length of 250 football pitches, running from Acton in the West to Greenwich in the East.

It’s expected to take eight years to complete and will cost £4.2 billion, making it the biggest infrastructure project the UK water industry has ever undertaken.

But it’s not just the infrastructure that’s impressive. Inspired by other major projects, such as the 2012 Olympic Games and Crossrail, Tideway is aiming to leave behind a lasting skills and employment legacy that goes far beyond its primary purpose to create a cleaner, healthier river.

A creative way to tackling skill shortages

Skilled workers in the UK construction sector are in short supply and Brexit is only set to make matters worse. With an extra 200,000 new construction jobs expected to be created over the next five years, tackling the industry’s skills shortage is becoming an increasing priority for employers.

Roughly 1,700 people are already working on the Tideway project and this number is expected to increase to over 4,000 during peak construction phase. To attract the talent it needs, the Tideway project has taken steps to ensure all its jobs are accessible to local people facing barriers to work, including , ex-offenders.

We have a target for one out of every 100 employees working on the project to be an ex-offender, It’s part of our commitment to give back to the communities that are affected by the build of the tunnel.

- Elaine Lambert,
Resourcing and Reporting Manager at Tideway

Ex-offenders: part of a diverse workforce

11 million people in the UK have a criminal record. Most sentences handed down by courts are fines, so the majority of people with a criminal record haven’t even been to prison. It’s a vast pool of talent that is often overlooked by employers.

Tideway, the newly formed company set up to finance and build the Thames Tideway Tunnel, is responsible for making sure each of the main works contractors building the tunnel meet the target. According to Scott Young, Head of Skills and Employment at Tideway, it’s about building a diverse and productive workforce in a socially responsible way:

“We’re working in the middle of London – one of the most diverse cities in the world – the more able we are to reflect the demographics of the city, the more successful we will be as a business.”

Removing the barriers

To encourage ex-offenders to join the project, Tideway has signed up to Business in the Community’s Ban the Box campaign, making it the 8th construction company to do so, along with the likes of Carillion, JM Scully and Currie & Brown.

As a result, criminal convictions are no longer taken into account at any point during the recruitment process, meaning candidates are assessed purely on their skills and ability to do the job.

“For us it’s more about attitudes rather than a specific skill set. We have lots of roles that need filling across finance, admin, construction. Ban the Box gives ex-offenders the confidence to apply for those jobs without fear of being judged”, says Elaine Lambert.

Walking the talk

The ‘gold standard’ of employment support for ex-offenders involves employers working in prisons and offering work placements through Release on Temporary License, something Tideway has been doing for the past three years through the charity Changing Paths.

However, on the 1st March, the charity was unexpectedly plunged into insolvency leaving 22 employees without a job. Kathryn Nethersole was Commercial Manager for the charity at the time. She recalls how the events unfolded.

“I received a phone call on 1 March with the news that the charity was going into administration and the entire workforce was being made redundant, myself included. I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing, so I contacted Celia [General Counsel] and Simon [Facilities Manager] at Tideway to see if there was anything that could be done.  As a vulnerable workforce there were so many factors to try and manage for each individual.”

Between the three of them, they worked around the clock to secure the employment of staff on the project, as well as negotiating with Tideway’s subcontractors to do the same.

Kathryn said: “Staff were contacted on Thursday at 4pm to say they were being made redundant, but within 24 hours everyone was reassured their jobs would be safe.”

“I’ve never worked with an organisation that lives its values at every level. Tideway doesn’t just talk about it, they do it. This was an example of that.”

Making a difference

For one individual on the programme, Tideway’s last minute heroics meant the difference between a life of freedom and a potential return to jail. Celia Carlisle, General Counsel at Tideway explains:

“One individual had an upcoming parole hearing. She was a long-serving offender currently released on ROTL and working on one of our Sites. Parole hearings look at a basket of things prior to granting an application, of which having a job and secure accommodation are primary factors."

"She had worked so hard and come such a long way to be in a position to apply for parole.  If she’d lost her job the chances are she wouldn’t have been successful in her parole application and therefore might have had to serve a further year before being eligible to apply again  Goodness knows what that would have done to her morale.”

Second chances

Business leaders that champion the employment of ex-offenders, including Virgin’s Richard Branson and James Timpson, Managing Director of the Timpson shoe-repair chain, say that ex-offenders make reliable and dedicated employees because they have been given a second chance. Kathryn Nethersole agrees:

“With ex-offenders you are getting more committed individuals that go the extra mile, want to upskill, train, take on board more opportunity.”

This certainly seems to be the case for the employees whose jobs were saved by Tideway. According to Kathryn, who is now employed by Tideway herself, staff working in the café have shown tremendous dedication since they were taken on by Tideway directly.

“Before they were employed by Tideway the footfall in the café was around 30-40% of staff in the office. Now it’s more like 90% and that’s because those individuals have taken real ownership and are eager to give something back.”

Improving standards across the industry

By setting ambitious targets to recruit in a more inclusive way, it’s clear that large-scale infrastructure projects of this kind have the potential to improve standards across entire industries. Scott Young, explains:

“If you look at the way a project like ours is structured you tend to have joint venture organizations building the tunnel. We’ve been working with those companies to raise awareness of recruiting ex-offenders. When it comes to the next major project the client will look to raise the bar, so you start to see the face of the industry changing from one project to the next.”

Tideway is doing its bit to ensure its contractors meet the legacy requirements by working with organisations like Nacro to provide fair recruitment of ex-offenders training across all its alliance partners.

In its latest recruitment tender, Tideway asked recruitment agencies to demonstrate how they present diverse groups of candidates to their clients. Elaine Lambert acknowledges that this is a challenge for most agencies because mainstream attitudes towards employing ex-offenders are largely negative.

However, she remains resolute that this needs to change: “If they're committed to working with us they need to be on board with what we’re doing.”

Tideway became a Ban the Box employer in August 2016. Find out more and sign up to Ban the Box.