The academy of hard knocks

The academy of hard knocks

Chief execs are enthusiastic about The Prince’s Trust and its ability to turn out young entrepreneurs and sound employees. BQ reports on reviving aspiration and ambition.

Despite a paucity of funding available for external investment at the moment, many business bosses and their workforces are joining Cheryl Cole’s chorus line to ensure the North East’s Academy of Hard Knocks can continue to develop potential young entrepreneurs and talented employees. The Academy of Hard Knocks – alias The Prince’s Trust – helps 4,000 young people a year in the North East to turn their previously disappointing lives around by equipping them for work and sometimes self-employment.

Nearly 60% of businesses they start up are still running after three years. A BQ check across different sectors indicates unreserved admiration for the trust in the region, not only in its reviving of young people’s aspirations but also in its contributing of skilled labour and entrepreneurial ambition in the workplace. A number of the businesses are currently showing support by contesting a Million Makers enterprise challenge to raise £10,000 each for the youth charity. Enthusiastic members of their staffs are vying over six months to see who can be top fundraiser.

It’s a challenge going on throughout the UK, with up to 100 teams going head-to-head to gross £1m. They know it will be money well spent because more than three in four young people helped by the trust move into work, training or education. And 84p out of every pound the trust receives is spent directly on this. The Million Makers challenge for the North East got under way when employees from seven firms met at an adventure park. The firms include Northumbrian Water, Benfield Motor Group, Tesco Bank, Dickinson Dees, Zodiac Training and HP.

They are now injecting their business acumen, creativity and skill of negotiation into running mini enterprises that will raise the cash to help others find work. The trust says there is still time for others to join them. At executive level, a development committee of notable business names is working to coax financial support in other ways, and it is also hoped, following a recent meeting, to form a leadership committee to spur further corporate participation.

The trust already enjoys active support from well known business people, including David Meldrum (Meldrum Construction), John Holland (of food wholesaler JR Holland), John Marshall (senior partner, Dickinson Dees law firm), Nigel McMinn (Benfield), and John Wall (Proton Power Systems) who heads the development committee. David Simpson of Coutts is also on hand as an adviser.

Singing celeb Cheryl Cole has become a patron, having given already £48,000 raised from an online auction of fashions, and she also plans a concert in the North East next year to add to that.

As donors can ask for funds to go to a certain type of training course or a specific geographic area, she has asked for young people of Heaton, Byker and Walker to be helped – areas of Newcastle where growing up was far from easy for her.

Benfield’s involvement has come about through a lunch conversation that chairman John Squires and managing director Nigel McMinn shared with fellow guests. Benfield has helped charities for more than 50 years, and does it now through its own Benfield Charitable Trust which supports numerous causes at home and abroad, from The Sage concert centre at Gateshead to beekeepers in Africa.

By giving 5% of its operating profits to its own charitable trust every year it can also help the likes of the North East Air Ambulance, Newburn Sea Cadets, St Oswald’s Hospice, and provide food for homeless people. Its role in helping 14- to 30-year-olds via The Prince’s Trust also includes benefits from an annual celebrity golf day which other local businesses support enthusiastically, and which this year is at Slaley Hall on September 30.

A Honda CRZ coupe is promised to any participant holing in one. Alan Shearer captains the Benfield side, and bets may be getting laid already about which car he may drive home in. On the trust frontline, Benfield offers work placements. Nigel McMinn says: “Not everyone has advantages and opportunities some of us have been lucky enough to have. I took it for granted young people had a hot meal every day, went to school, and had both parents to support and encourage them.

“But some kids, I soon found out, have never had that. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s a product of society. If they have grown up without a sense of self worth and never having had someone say, ‘Look you are very good at that, why not have a go at it?’ – they become conditioned to thinking they will not make anything of themselves.” The Prince’s Trust gets referrals from the police, the prison service, schools, employment offices, drug rehabilitation centres – any body coming into contact with strugglers who, it is felt, can pick themselves up with a little help.

McMinn says: “Some young people coming through the trust have enormous talent. It has something like an 84% success rate with them once they have attended a trust course, turned their lives around and got back into education and work through gaining a sense of self worth. It’s remarkable.

“What prompted me to get involved – when you meet some of these young people and they tell you their story you can’t believe it – is that they are very presentable, articulate, bright and confident. Some now have their own business that has been trading for three years.” Statistics say that in fact 59% of businesses started up with trust help are still trading after three years.

McMinn says: “That’s good by any measure. You meet these people and they are fantastic. They tell how they were from a broken home, using drugs or alcohol or both, and getting into trouble with the law and one step away from prison. Some of the kids are actually in prison but show some interest in wanting to turn their lives around.

“Some may have been in prison doing a three- or five-year stretch. You look at them and think, ‘No way – not you. I’d trust you with my kids. I’d trust you with my car!’ But what you see is not what they were. Some say they used to be a hoodie. A lot of us read that as a signal they wanted to be intimidating. It’s not that at all.

“They were ashamed. The cover-up was to protect them from the outside world. It’s a self-reflection. If you bother to understand why these kids get into trouble then you understand it’s because they have never been shown support or encouragement. As soon as they are, it’s like flicking a switch. They are not beyond repair.

“As soon as they are given life skills and projects to prove to themselves as much as anything that they can do things, they suddenly leap forward. You think if it’s that easy to turn those lives around and tap that potential why aren’t we doing more of it?” Benfield, like Cheryl Cole, is also a patron with McMinn introducing other companies to the trust’s work. The charity was founded by the Prince of Wales in 1976, since then it has helped more than 600,000 young people across the UK – and supports 100 more every day.

“There’s a common misconception that The Prince’s Trust is a very well funded organisation because it carries the Prince’s name,” McMinn says. “But like every other charity it has had a very large amount of public funding scaled back just at a time when there is greater need.

So it wants companies to volunteer, open their doors for work placements and unashamedly get them to understand that some more money is needed to keep the thing going.” Chris Gray, head of private sector fundraising for The Prince’s Trust in the North East at Gateshead confirms: “Young people have been particularly badly hit by the recession. Many are finding it difficult to get a job.” She says the cost of £3 a month to give two weeks’ support to a vulnerable young person and help them find their first job compares with the £10m a day cost of youth unemployment in lost productivity, and the £1bn cost of youth crime every year.

John Wall says the high number of people coming through who find and keep a permanent job is particularly significant given the skills shortages widely reported in the economy. “The fact that funds raised in the North East are wholly devoted to helping young people in the North East is something that I think appeals,” he says. Trust running costs are kept low because across the country there are 40,000 people like Cheryl Cole, John Wall, Nigel McMinn and all the others who think the work done is so worthwhile that they serve as volunteers, donating talents and time. Last year’s Million Makers participants included Ward Hadaway, Starbucks, Derwentside Enterprise Agency, Places for People and DWP.

The winner then, Northumbrian Water, raised more than £16,000. Companies in the national competition included RBS, Orange, Ernst and Young and Barclays. Other major corporate partners regularly giving support include the Premier League, the Football Foundation, the Professional Footballers’ Association, more than 60 football clubs and 10 county cricket clubs, Balfour Beatty, Cunard and Marks & Spencer. Skills and expertise are shared with more than 100 blue-chip organisations such as Deutsche Bank, Accenture and HMRC. Many public sector bodies give support too.

Any company wishing to take on the Million Makers challenge in the North East – there is still time – should contact Chris Gray, tel: 0191 497 3210.