When I ring Shaun he is checking the fire alarms at the Tyneside Cyrenians building. He’s their maintenance man. Not so long ago, if I’d rung him he’d probably have been drunk. He drank to pass the time. He was never an alcoholic, just a chaotic drinker. “I could take it or leave it. But most of the time I’d take it”, he says ruefully now. His is a classic story. For no particular reason he “fell by the wayside’ after school and for seven years drank and got into trouble. His parents threw him out. He slept rough, lived in hostels and generally failed to get it together. Eventually he went back to live with his dad and one night, after drinking, crashed his dad’s car. His dad threw him out again. It was the wake-up all. He’s not sure why, but since then, with the exception of the odd pint on a Friday night, he’s been teetotal. Now with a partner, Lisa and two kids, Ben, 2, and little Shaun, 6 months, he says he hasn’t got time to drink. It’ll be three years in September that he’s been the maintenance man.
Everybody speaks very highly of Shaun. But his story is about more than just personal will. It goes back to when the Cyrenians decided to improve their hostel. They could have just got in a contractor. Instead they decided to recruit from the people who used their services. The risks, according to Stephen Bell, the Cyrenians chief-exec, were huge. But the potential rewards were enormous. The challenge was not so much that in order to satisfy the funding and give the guys a real chance of working in the building trade afterwards they would all have to achieve an NVQ level 2, but that it wasn’t really the building skills that they needed. It wasn’t about getting them a qualification but supporting them so that they could sustain themselves in work, after in some of their cases having been out of employment for 10 – 15 years. You can learn bricklaying or timber frame assembly once you’re on site. But it’s getting on site in the first place, sober, regularly. And then being able to apply for other jobs. Even as one person put it, learning to shake hands again.
With University education, we take this for granted. Just because someone studies history they’re not necessarily learning to be a history teacher. They’re learning to marshall an argument, write coherently, analyse facts. They are learning to deploy themselves in the outside world of work. But when it comes to basic training, the Learning and Skills Councils and the other agencies tend to be obsessed with qualifications and for projects to squeeze the other, and ultimately more important support out of the money available is almost impossible. June Barnes of Thames East, in the midst of the East London regeneration spree that is the Olympics, says they can only do it because they are big enough and financially robust enough. They have mentoring services in their organisation already. Funding needs to be more imaginative in the first place, she says. Start with the broad human objectives with people who have been out of the swim for so long and work back to the NVQ.
The Cyrenians had to find a partner who understood this. With so much building going on there are considerable opportunities to get the long term unemployed into work. But the industry finds this very difficult. Mostly the big companies contract the work out to small businesses who just don’t have the capacity to mentor people like Shaun. In the Esh Group however, Cyrenians found a company with local roots in the northeast that, unusually, employs 1200 people directly. Including one Peter Darkings, who according to his boss Bill McCafferty “has an exceptional ability to communicate and grow people. He rose to the occasion becoming father and brother to the guys with inspiration and patience. Although when it was needed he can certainly tell them, as we say in Scotland, ‘which way is up’”. Darkings, and a man called George Evans who was too modest to talk to me, ran the project.
Shaun’s story is not just a personal triumph, but the project’s victory over the narrowness of the funding system. Of the thirteen people who worked on the hostel rebuild, none of them are living in hostels anymore and seven have jobs in construction. The NVQs are really the least important piece in the jigsaw of their rebirth. It was the investment in them as individuals. The project title was a play on words. Cyrenians Self-Builders. It wasn’t a hostel Shaun built. But with his foreman and his mentor, it was himself and the rest of his life.