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Insights 10 Oct 2016

Meet Our Network: Matthew Powell, Breaking Barriers

By Denise Delaney
Matthew Powell, Breaking Barriers speaking to Denise Delaney in London. Image © Amy Hawke

Matthew Powell, Breaking Barriers speaking to Denise Delaney in London. Image © Amy Hawke

Denise Delaney interviewed Matthew Powell, CEO of Breaking Barriers, a young charity working with refugees and business in the UK to break down the barriers to meaningful employment.

What’s the scale of the challenge in the UK?

There are over 125,000 refugees in the UK with the legal right to work from countries such as Syria, Turkey (e.g. Kurdish people), India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, Cuba, China, Iran, Vietnam and Eritrea. Over 30% settle in London.

Unemployment levels are over 50% for this group, compared to a national average of 6%. Some lack English language skills – but not all – and UK work experience or education, not to mention knowledge of the UK labour market and simply culture; some UK employers do not recognise overseas work experience or education. The concept of a CV is foreign to many, not to mention that a CV with an unemployment gap – which is often years-long given asylum applications can take years – will not pass most business’ CV screening procedures.

So while 34% are university educated, refugees can be forced into the informal labour market, often resulting in ‘in-work poverty’. At best, this is usually low-paid and won’t take advantage of the skills many refugees have; at worst, it can be dangerous.

Perhaps more than the skills and jobs themselves, it’s the social exclusion that prevents assimilation and integration into society and greater social and community cohesion that is so concerning.

Perhaps more than the skills and jobs themselves, it’s the social exclusion that prevents assimilation and integration into society.

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How does Breaking Barriers respond to this challenge?

We are an integration service with a focus on employment. Employment is the biggest factor for integration in the UK – bigger than housing, healthcare or any other individual issue – for any marginalised group. The model is simple: we train refugees and connect them with the private sector.

Breaking Barriers is unparalleled in providing English language support, employment skills-based training and relevant UK work experience. It’s also balanced so that refugees can come off their unemployment benefit but maintain their housing support, which provides the necessary stability. We are now packaging this up into the Employment Academy, which as a programme could be replicated beyond London and with other vulnerable groups as well.

Companies provide financial support, work experience places without any obligation to hire anyone at the end of the process and their employees as volunteers to deliver training. We’ve also now built up a network of corporate partners who spread the word and share lessons with each other.

Some of our corporate partners include Accenture, Booking.com, Mayer Brown and the NHS.

We are an integration service with a focus on employment.

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What has Breaking Barriers achieved so far?

We have placed over 170 refugees in employment in just over 18 months. One of our success stories is Mayada, a Sudanese lawyer who sought and was granted refuge in the UK. We placed her at Booking.com initially, where she built up experience working in the UK and her confidence. Now she is a paralegal with the immigration team at a world-class law firm, Mishcon de Reya. 

Where have you found the most willing corporate partners?

So far, legal services have been the most supportive. Their client focus means it is easy for us to navigate and talk to the right people quickly, they are collaborative in nature and themselves being well-networked. Sustainability and CSR are pre-competitive areas for them. We hope to get financial services more involved. We have also been delighted to receive early warm signals from some CEOs. We’re also looking at SMEs, which tend to be nimbler and get on board more quickly.

Word-of-mouth is very powerful for what we do. Human contact cannot simply be replaced.

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What do partners in the private sector say is the value to business?

For socially concerned and forward-looking businesses, Breaking Barriers is a new kind of partnership. For many, it delivers on sustainability, CSR, community or human resources objectives and targets. Some see it as part of their contribution to the Global Goals (or Sustainable Development Goals). For many, it is about the quality of the volunteering opportunities for their employees, and they know employees are valuing this more and more.

For some, it provides a solution to talent attraction and retention. We’ve actually been able to support some companies with particular labour shortages. Refugees will always be competing against everyone else for jobs – this isn’t about charity or creating roles where there aren’t any – but there are sectors where their language or other skills can be a real boon.

What’s the biggest misconceptions of refugees in the UK?

First, they are very motivated, which contradicts most popular opinion. Secondly, tech is not the answer. An app is not going to integrate refugees in society, or connect them to work. Many refugees are wary and fearful of technology due to experiences where they have been under surveillance, often part of the reason they fled. They may have a smartphone but they won’t download apps and will choose to use public computers in libraries. We have to earn refugees’ trust. Word-of-mouth is very powerful for what we do. Human contact cannot simply be replaced.

Tech is not the answer. An app is not going to integrate refugees in society, or connect them to work.

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What’s the key message to business in the UK?

We wouldn’t expect business to be able to do this on their own, for all the challenges we’ve talked about. But business is an obvious partner; business drives employment and benefits from a more productive and integrated society. Breaking Barriers, as a charity, has developed the effective vehicle – the access to the communities, the know-how, the trust, etc. – but we need the experience and opportunity of those in business.

At an individual-level, it’s about tolerance and building awareness about refugees. And remembering that anyone at a company can drive this, not just the head of sustainability, CSR or human resources – or a CEO. The personal will and connections of individuals at some companies has been impressive.

What’s next for Breaking Barriers?

Right now we are focused on the 6-month Employment Academy, in addition to the other bespoke support needed, and further down the line we want to consider a 12-month programme. Longer-term, I would be interested to see Breaking Barriers scale and roll out in other major capitals – New York, Paris, etc. – where existing partners have operations. We also see the utility of a Women’s Academy to tackle the challenge of childcare.

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