The career path of Ann-Marie Conlon-Taylor has, by her own admission, been a bit ‘squiggly’.
OCS’s Public Sector Social Value Manager has always taken the attitude that when opportunity knocks, you open the door – and that attitude, combined with a deeply ingrained belief that you need to have ‘people on your side’, has seen her help countless people into work over the past three decades.
“I want to enable people to fulfil their potential, and be the best they can be for themselves,” she says.
“That’s what drives me – that belief and the knowledge that we have some great talent out there just waiting to be given the opportunity.
“None of us were born into the roles that we do – we didn’t just appear and say, ‘Hi, I’m a CEO!’. We’re in the roles that we are because, somewhere along the way, someone gave us a break, believed in us, mentored us, and supported us.”
And that’s what Ann-Marie is focused on doing for others in her role at OCS.
The winding road
Before joining OCS in October 2022, however, Ann-Marie’s ‘squiggly’ career saw her work in recruitment and life coaching before teaching in further education.
Working in recruitment led her to engage with candidates who were very privileged and frequently highly paid, with no concept of what difficulties others in society may face.
Finding this soul-destroying, Ann-Marie began looking for a more fulfilling and rewarding career and began working for local councils as part of their adult education provision – especially supporting those in society who faced additional barriers and challenges, covering everything from language barriers, learning difficulties or the circumstances life threw at them.
“For example, with Milton Keynes Council, I did a lot of work with young mums, helping them understand their life hadn’t ended just because they’d become a parent, help them, get qualifications and get into work.”
This led Ann-Marie to work in partnership with Milton Keynes College – firstly on a project to help young mothers, and then with the National Offender Management System to help reduce reoffending.
“When you look at the factors that make people re-offend upon leaving prison, unemployment is one of the three key reasons,” she says.
This led Ann-Marie to work in the world of prisons and probation services, which, while tough and challenging, was, she says, one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“I hadn’t had any exposure to people coming out of prison, so it was a whole new world for me, understanding the barriers they face, and what had led them to where they’d got to.
“Of course, some people absolutely deserve to be in prison and deserve to be locked away for a very long time. However, there are a lot of people in prison who, through life choices, or the hand that’s been dealt to them, have ended up in prison. When you get to hear their stories, you often think, ‘there but for the grace of God’ – things happen to people that are out of their control and shape the way they go on to behave.”
Benchmarking social impact
The projects helping people into employment after prison were a huge success, winning awards from the Ministry of Justice, and in 2016, at Milton Keynes College, Ann-Marie then found herself leading employer engagement, working with employers to develop employment opportunities for offenders, and creating a benchmarking system to enable all stakeholders to measure the impact.
“The college tendered for the Prison Education contract, and as part of that, we needed to help people better understand social value.
“This was six years after the Social Value Act was established, but the Act and the social value movement as a whole was still relatively unknown,” she explains.
After much thought and evolution, The Employment Academy was established, bringing businesses into prisons to co-deliver alongside tutors. Employers from hospitality to retail and warehousing were brought in to deliver education and training – and subsequent employment opportunities – and it was a resounding success, despite widespread doubts.
“It was an innovative approach, which wasn’t without its challenges or dangers,” she says.
“Governors and prison staff were saying, ‘this is never going to work’, but it evolved in a really good way.
“We worked with companies including Timpson, who are amazing to work with, Greggs, Boots, Greene King and RMF, who actually helped us get into HS2.”
The impact of helping offenders into employment
One of the moments that made Ann-Marie stop in her tracks to appreciate just how much of an impact they’d made was when Laing O’Rourke delivered an HS2 induction alongside course enabling candidates to gain their PTS (personal track safety) card and qualification in HMP Hewell Grange.
“We trained guys to the standards they needed for them to come in and deliver the induction,” she says.
“Men were released on ROTL (release on temporary licence) – which means they go back to the prison every night after work – until they were released. This enables them to be fully equipped to gain and sustain employment upon release, one of the key factors that reduce reoffending.
During Ann-Marie’s four years leading the project, more than 700 people had been helped into employment – something which has naturally made a long-term impression.
“Even the other day, I had a message from a guy I’d helped into employment from prison,” she says.
“He’d been in the academy through that got a job with Timpson – and he sent me a message to let me know he was now an area manager.”
Helping OCS deliver really social value
After 12 years in the prison system, during which Ann-Marie also developed volunteering pathways as well as ‘careers in custody’ for long-term high-security prisoners, it was time for a change – which is when she saw the opportunity with OCS.
During her time helping offenders into employment, Ann-Marie had worked closely with facilities management companies, so had a good understanding of the sector.
That, combined with the importance of social value in contracts, the work OCS delivers, and the guiding belief of the organisation that every human being deserves the right conditions and opportunity to thrive, convinced her this was the right next move for her ‘squiggly’ career path.
“Social value can and often counts for around 20% in contracts, and there are measurable KPIs we must deliver on, whereas previously it was ‘nice to have’,” she says.
It’s important that companies develop a workforce that is reflective of the communities they work within as well as adding value to the local communities by supporting them to improve their environment and develop skills that enable them to improve their lives and develop more vibrant local economies.
In her role here at OCS, Ann-Marie says while it’s still early days, momentum is building, with recruitment pathways being established and people successfully placed into work.
“We’re really starting to positively impact our social value, our customers’ social value and the communities we work with,” she says.
And you get the very real sense that, with Ann-Marie helping shape the future of OCS’s social value initiatives, the impact is only just beginning.