Why UK Tech Firms Should Hire, Train And Support Prison Leavers

Dee Norval, founder at Breakthrough explores…
Tech companies are uniquely positioned to deconstruct systems of oppression and create innovative solutions to tackle ingrained societal injustices.

As an industry, tech not only has the infrastructure and budgets to make real impact – the UK’s tech sector alone is valued at $1 trillion – it is also looked to within the business community as the disruptors of the status quo.

One company leading this push is US-based tech firm Slack.

How? By not only training, hiring and supporting formerly incarcerated individuals into coding roles at the firm, but by calling for other tech firms to do the same.

Slack’s compelling prison leavers playbook

In September 2022, Slack published a detailed playbook outlining everything a company might need to know about hiring a prison leaver. The 40-page document, based on research collated from over 40+ interviews at 6 major US companies and 13 non-profit organisations, provides a detailed account of the societal benefits as well as the potential challenges tech firms might face on their hiring journey.

“Tech companies have the opportunity to lead and have substantial impact” the report said “the business community already looks to technology companies as innovators. The higher salaries and quality of jobs the industry provides can create transformative change for employees as well as their families and communities, setting a new standard in business.”

Alongside access to funds, a demand for talent and significant societal influence, the report also highlighted tech companies “less formal office culture” and the fact that they are “more likely to focus on skills and output, rather than an individuals education or background”, as reasons why tech make impactful vehicles for change.

The report doesn’t shy away from the racial and class issues embedded within the US prison system. In the US although 64% of the population is white, 30% of the US prison population is White – according to data collected in 2017. Meanwhile, although Black people make up 12% of the US’s total population, 33% of the US prison population is Black.

“The justice system is not applied equally to all citizens”, the report said.


The UK’s tech sector needs to step up

At Breakthrough, we believe more British tech companies need to take a leaf out of Slack’s leadership book and prioritise hiring and nurturing prison leaver talent.

Like the US, the UK’s justice system has its own racial and class biases.

In 2021 although people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up 13% of the UK’s population, they made up 27% of the people in prison. Black people were noticeably over-represented, making up 12% of adult prisoners between 2015-2016 despite accounting for just 3% of the UK population.

Prior to entering the prison system, many individuals have faced significant hardship. They are more likely to face financial instability, have gone through the care system and have lower academic attainments.

Yet, despite these hardships research has shown that prison leavers are dedicated, loyal and highly entrepreneurial. This combination makes them great candidates for vacant tech roles, if given the opportunity, training and support they need.

Alongside a productive workforce, hiring prison leavers can also help generate new business in the form of UK government contracts. All suppliers that want to bid for government contracts — worth a total of £284 billion each year — have at least 10% of their assessment based on “social value”. One way of increasing a firm’s “social value” is to hire prison leavers, who are referenced as a priority group by the government across two of the five social value themes.

Creating these opportunities doesn’t have to come at a huge cost. Tech firms can use the UK Government’s apprenticeship levy to pay for training. You can work with prison leaver training and recruitment organisations, like Breakthrough, that screen candidates, provide specific technical training as well as soft skills training. Breakthrough’s 8-week pre-apprenticeship training programme trains candidates in digital skills, such as: product management, software development and data analysis and assesses their ability to learn, engage with others and develop.

Other sectors like hospitality, retail and construction, have been leaders in this space. Bakery chain Greggs’ Fresh Start Programme, Pret’s Rising Star Programme and Timpsons’ Prison Training Academy – have all set up impressive hiring initiatives.

But these industries lack the innovative and trailblazing approach embedded within the tech sector that could drastically transform society for the better. Not to mention the salaries that could make a profound difference to an individual’s standard of living. For example, the average salary in tech starts at £50k and on average UK tech roles tech roles pay 64% more than the median salary.

In Slack’s report Stewart Butterfield CEO and co-founder of summaries this opportunity:

“For those of us who have grown a company or built a career in tech, one of the things we tend to value is that it rewards those who dare to reimagine how the world should work. This appetite to challenge the status quo and solve tough problems has helped produce innovations that have transformed whole industries, and improved how we all work and live”, Butterfield said.

Breakthrough echoes this sentiment. Real change can only be achieved with new innovation and a belief that the world can be changed for the better. Slack is one of those companies. Will your firm be next?