Talent : Unlocking the Secrets of Success


Breaking Barriers

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Unlocking the Secrets of Success | Breaking Barriers founder Matthew Powell wants to help refugees into stable, meaningful work.
“How confident would you feel going for a job interview with a gap of five years or more on your CV?” asks Matthew Powell, founder and CEO of refugee employment charity, Breaking Barriers. “For many refugees, the lengthy UK asylum process is just the start of their struggles to find work.”

The UK is home to more than 120,000 refugees, with 20,000 new applications every year. Yet despite many having high levels of education (36 per cent are university educated) and with successful careers in their countries of origin, the majority struggle to find work. While national unemployment levels are around four per cent, among refugees it’s 70 per cent.

“Those stats blew my mind,” says Powell, who researched refugee integration during his masters in environment and development at the LSE before founding the company in 2015. “Integration makes sense for everyone. Not only does it make fiscal sense to get them off welfare and into work, but they have a hell of a lot of skills, and eagerness to contribute, and can fill many skills shortages.”

He points to the many employment barriers facing refugees, including a lack of UK work experience, a poor understanding about how the UK labour market and recruitment processes work, and employers who don’t recognise foreign qualifications.

With this in mind, Breaking Barriers provides holistic employment and education support. Crucially, it partners with private sector organisations, including IKEA, Deutsche Bank and WeWork, to develop mutually beneficial relationships. These businesses offer a mix of jobs, work experience placements, and skills-based training to skilled refugees.

“Deutsche Bank sponsors and provides IT courses, WeWork provides free meeting rooms for English classes, and Bank of America runs workshops to help young refugees with their confidence and cultural orientation,” says Powell.

It’s the first charity of its kind in the UK. “In the US, you’re given a formal resettlement provider by the state but here there’s no state-funded or statutory refugee support service. Refugees have to look out for themselves,” he says.

Refugees are referred to Breaking Barriers through other charities and job centres or by word of mouth. They are then given individualised, bespoke support packages. “A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work.” says Powell. “We help refugees of all nationalities, ages, genders, careers and educational backgrounds. Being a refugee might be the only thing they have in common with each other.”

Individuals are encouraged to set short-medium-and long-term goals. “We’re not just saying, ‘Right, we’re going to get you into a job’,” explains Powell. “We’re asking, ‘How do we get you to where you need to be to be fully independent and self-sustaining?”

The Breaking Barriers team numbers 14 people – supporting in excess of 500 people a year. But Powell is only just getting started. His ambition is to develop a model that every refugee across the UK has access to. “We have a moral obligation to make the service available to as many people as we can,” he says. “And we hope to be supporting 1,200-1,400 refugees by 2021.”

For this, more corporate partners are needed “It’s been amazing to see businesses embrace the model,” he says. “Many have even started asking us if it could be replicated to help other marginalised groups. Why couldn’t it work for ex-offenders, for homeless people, for people who served in the armed forces? It’s a great way to create systematic change.”

British Airways Business Life Magazine | August 2018

Interview by Hannah Hudson  

Photograph by Richard Cannon