How one ex-offender is helping hundreds of Scots find work

The Herald, by Rohese Devereux Taylor

24.11.19

When Gerry Keogh finished the end of an 18-month sentence for credit card theft he was convinced he would never work again.

But 11 years after his conviction, Mr Keogh runs a community employment agency which has helped more than 60 people into work over the last year.

Unlock Employment is based in Govan, an area in Glasgow with high rates of unemployment, but when it comes to uptake of his services, Mr Keogh says they are inundated.

“It’s not true that people don’t want to work.The hardest thing for people who have been unemployed for years is to walk through the door.The reality is people want to work,” he explains.

“We empower people to move forward into employment. It’s community employability. We work with the community and we’re based in the community. It’s about getting local people into local training or job opportunities”

Started online, Unlock worked with Govan Housing Association before partnering with Glasgow City Council to deliver the Govan Job Match scheme to help tackle unemployment and deliver training in the area.

Within three months of opening in 2018, ten people had been helped into work that is tailored to their needs and aspirations.

People use the computers to job search, build CVs and brush up on skills. Mr Keogh and volunteer employment consultant Sam McDonald give interview coaching and signpost people to training courses or further education.

But Unlock Employment is about more than just helping people into jobs, they are building relationships with the people who walk through their doors, who often stay in touch after using their services. When the time is right for some of them to find a new job – often reaching higher than they’d every thought they could, Mr Keogh is there to help walk them through it.

He said: “We’ve got 265 clients on our books and we engage regularly with around 80 per cent of them. In the last six months we’ve got 65 jobs for 55 people.”

Mr Keogh’s service is “person-centric”, and he believes that is at the root of Unlock’s success.

He said: “People are treated like numbers and we treat them like they are a commodity but we understand that to get someone back into work it’s about confidence and it’s about raising their own expectations.

“It’s not about making the person fit the vacancy. It’s actually about, what does that person want to do?”

People are referred to Unlock through housing associations, local charities and community groups and word of mouth. No-one is ever turned away and many people walk in off the street keen to start job hunting. People living with disabilities who thought they would never be able to work have found jobs and volunteering posts through Unlock, which sees barriers to employment as problems to be solved.

Mr Keogh’s background was in senior management before his conviction but, after working his way up the ranks in a fast-food company, he secured a job in employability and worked in England and Northern Ireland before returning to his home city of Glasgow to set up Unlock Employment.

He knows first hand how daunting it can be to job search with a criminal record and is honest with his clients about his past. Now Unlock has partnered with Release Scotland, a network that works with businesses to get ex-offenders back into work, and Street and Arrow, a social enterprise catering business that hires people with convictions for a year or more.

John Smith, 60, starts a new job next week thanks in part to Unlock Employment. Formerly self-employed Mr Smith’s confidence was knocked after he was arrested for assault defending his sons during an altercation eight years ago.

Meeting Mr Keogh and making use of Unlock’s services has meant is back at college and has a new job working with ex-offenders – an avenue he would never have considered previously.

He said: “Gerry took me through it and told me that what I’d experienced could be a positive. I was quite worried because of my conviction but it’s not really impeded me.

“I thought it was a lot worse than it actually was. I thought because of my age and the assault charge that it was all over but Gerry helped me see there were so many opportunities.”

Gerry added: “I use my own personal experience to help people move forward. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been unemployed for five years or ten, if you’ve got no criminal conviction, it’s about how do you lift yourself back up. How do you get your confidence back? That’s what Unlock wants to help people with.”