Kotuku provides first step on the waste ladder

The environmental labourer project equips young unemployed Londoners with basic health & safety and environmental skills and qualifications for the construction and waste management industry. Nick Warburton reports

A quiet studio flat tucked away behind an Edwardian terrace in one of Shepherd Bush’s quieter neighbourhoods is perhaps not where you’d expect to find the brains behind an initiative that offers a refreshing approach to getting the young unemployed back to work.

Andrew Pears is founder of the Kotuku environmental labourer project or KELP for short, a social enterprise that takes suitable candidates proposed by Jobcentre Plus and skills them up for work in the construction and waste management sectors, one of the few growth areas in the economy.

The concept originated in the dying days of the Labour government when Pears was running the Kotuku Café Van, a pioneering construction project that involved driving round building sites to deliver short presentations on waste minimisation and recycling materials to site workers and managers.

Pears gained invaluable knowledge and skills around communicating the green agenda on buildings sites, which together with a credible output in the shape of a certificate for environmental awareness paved the way for KELP.

“I realised that we had, from our experience, a construction industry needing people with more environmental knowledge, a whole lot of young unemployed people and a blockage for them getting into the construction industry which used to be the entry level job,” he explains.

Having run his own construction company for 20 years, Pears recognised the constraints that health and safety legislation had placed on unskilled workers who wanted to get a foot on the construction and waste management ladder.

Using the Future Jobs Fund’s criteria, he created a new position – the environmental labourer and came up with a training and work experience package that targeted London’s young unemployed.

The idea was to arm individuals with basic health and safety and environmental qualifications so that they could then use this skills-set to crack open the jobs’ market in the construction and waste sector. KELP was born.

As Pears recalls, the original plan was to approach 12 young unemployed candidates but he quickly recognising that it might prove difficult to find the placements, so he opted instead to road test the idea with two pilots.

Initial funding had fallen through after the coalition government closed the Future Jobs Fund and after a year of pondering his next move, he approached the lottery’s Awards for All programme to fund two pilots. “It gives you £10,000 grants with really quite easy criteria to fulfil,” he says.

With the thumbs up to proceed, six candidates took part in the first pilot June 2012. Like the successive cohorts in October and February 2013, each pilot involves a two-week “environmental boot camp”, held mostly at the Shepherd’s Bush offices, followed by a fixed-term 26-week contract with a selected employer.

“They like this small, slightly wacky environment,” confides Pears. “A lot of it is fun because that’s the only way to learn but there are a couple of rules here – one is no mobile phones and the other is time keeping because an employer won’t employ them if they can’t manage those.”

Over the course of the two weeks, the candidates, many of whom have had troubled pasts, learn about sustainability and waste management. During this time, they also receive health and safety training and carry out practical tasks before sitting a Construction Skills operative level test, which if successful, gives them a CSCS green card.

“For the certificate of environmental awareness, they do a written test that we have devised because we need to see what they can do,” he explains. “It’s hard – they do practical tests and we’re looking at how they carry things and how they respond to instructions.”

The candidates also spend three days on-site, one of which is at Powerday’s materials recycling facility, to help them acclimatise to a work environment.

Having completed the boot camp, successful candidates are placed in full-time employment for 26 weeks. During this time, they must be paid at least the national minimum wage and are visited regularly to see how they are progressing.

For some, the experience has been truly life changing. One candidate landed a position with Powerday after failing his test first time round.

“He didn’t turn up for it; he had a complete wobbly and just panicked. But we are a community interest company so we put him through his test,” explains Pears.

“Powerday were still interested in taking on somebody and he’s been down there for a month. He’s got a walkie-talkie and he’s getting a wage packet. It’s about getting them through those moments – you realise that they are always looking for an excuse to fail.”

Not everyone has been as successful. From the first pilot only two of the original six are still working and have had their contracts extended while only one from the second pilot is still in employment. Of the eight that started in the third cohort, six passed the final interview to take up the 26-week work experience.

“We are quite wary now of making sure that we give them the best possible start. What the employers say is, ‘what we want is someone that will be there on time and be wanting to learn’, so we’ve adopted a zero-time tolerance,” he explains.

“The credibility of getting lottery funding is that I am now engaging with Crossrail, Terminal 2 and Mace, it’s a real opening. People realise that if you get that, you must have a really credible project.”

Looking ahead, the future is bright. KELP has funding for two and half years and Pears’s aim is to recruit, interview, train and place in work 30 people per year who will be supported for up to six months.

“We are beginning to realise that the recruitment, interviewing and training is a huge achievement in itself,” he concludes.

“I have seen getting into sustainable work as being the output. But there’s no doubt at all that the feedback is just because someone hasn’t got a job, it doesn’t mean that this hasn’t been worthwhile.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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