Working Links helps former offenders, drug users, and long-term unemployed into self employment

Twelve years ago, Garfield Holder lost his partner and unborn child in a car accident. Holder ended up turning to crack cocaine to cope with his loss, and then served four years in Exeter and Channings Wood for grievous bodily harm with intent.

But he has turned his life around and has just opened the first Caribbean catering service in Plymouth.

“I never dreamt I had it in me to run my own business,” he says. “Everything I did in the past was illegal, but this is legit, I don’t have to look over my shoulder all the time and I love cooking!”

Holder’s story defies the stereotype that ex-offenders, former drug users and the long-term unemployed can only work in low skilled menial jobs. He was helped by Working Links, which since it was established in 2000 has challenged that assumption, helping 3,000 people start their own businesses – ranging from tree surgery to photography.

Focused on individuals

Working Links’ approach is individually focused. Each client is assigned a personal consultant who acts as a guide on the rocky road to self-employment. Consultant Neil Davey sums up his role: “I’m an adviser I try to figure out who people are and what they’re trying to achieve. I support them through options and signpost them to other organisations.”

The services provided by consultants vary. Holder’s mentor found him a course at a local college to gain food and hygiene qualifications, helped set up his first bank account and got him a volunteering placement serving Caribbean food. After Working Links put him in touch with a local business school, Holder was able to apply and obtain the start-up capital for his new business.

Holder says Working Links offers something that typical statutory services do not: “Jobcentres are overstretched – they want you out the door as quickly as possible, but the personal touch at Working Links makes you feel special.”

Breege Burke, director and general manager at Working Links, believes many of her clients respond better to self-employment than conventional contract work because “self-employment allows you to be your own boss and regulate your own income – growing your own business massively benefits your self esteem”.

People who have problems with authority respond well to the freedom offered by self-employment, she adds. Similarly, for those who struggle to maintain their enthusiasm for the nine to five life, self-employment can be a more motivating option. Working Links’ emphasis on employing hobbies as well as talents also helps sustain individuals’ commitment to working life.

Their approach seems to be working: in a world of intense competition, the success rate of Working Links’ self-employed businesses is 60%.

Of course, self-employment is not an option for everyone. “We only work with people who we think can really set up their own business,” says Burke. “When people don’t have that spark we won’t suggest going into self-employment – the last thing we want to do is set people up to fail.”

The trick is to match people’s skills with their ideas in the event of a mismatch, the best advice is often to drop the idea. But as Davey explains, there is a balance to be struck between being realistic and building confidence and self-esteem.

“I don’t get a buzz from saying ‘You’re not right for this’, but I make sure that everyone I see recognises the skills they do have and the choices that are available to them.”

Commercial ethos

Working Links has a strong social purpose but it operates in a commercial way. The first public-private-voluntary partnership in the UK, it is paid by results, something that Burke thinks motivates more efficient delivery. Working Links’ budget, currently £75m, is set to rise to £100m next year. The self-employment programme constitutes just 5% of their work, the rest helps people back into more conventional forms of employment.

With an average budget of £500 per client, Working Links cannot come close to covering the costs of setting up a new business. Rather than trying to fund initiatives themselves, the organisation signposts users to other sources of funding that are appropriate to them, opening up possibilities that aren’t feasible on in-house budgets alone.

Holder’s story is testament to the success of this approach. His new business, Caribbean Dutch Pot, was launched last week. If anyone is in doubt that people can retake control of their lives and make a positive contribution to society, try ringing his business line on 07743 434450 when you are in the area and order a takeaway. The food speaks for itself.

Lessons learned

● People who have suffered social problems are not just capable of self-employment they may actually be better suited to it.

● Self-employment is not for everyone pushing those with inadequate skills down this path simply sets them up to fail.

● There is a balance to be struck between building confidence and being realistic.

● People need to recognise and appreciate their skills before they can use them effectively.

● Signposting users to external sources of funding enables projects to go ahead despite limited in-house budgets.

Find out more at

This article is published in the 3 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Something’s Cooking

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.