Upturn marks 15 years of unlocking potential

Upturn 's Maria Williams and Anwar Ali at Diodes Zetex with Dave Benstead and apprentices
Upturn 's Maria Williams and Anwar Ali at Diodes Zetex with Dave Benstead and apprentices


AN Oldham-based social enterprise, Upturn, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this autumn and reflecting on helping over 6,000 people gain work experience and secure employment over the years.

Upturn has helped people to set-up their own micro businesses and, in the process, become more confident, self-sufficient and able to contribute to the local economy.

It has worked with large and small businesses across various sectors to help shape their recruitment strategy and identify, select and recruit the workforce or suppliers of services that they need.

Upturn also provides bespoke training to existing staff and says it delivers services cost-effectively and in the spirit of true social value; which is in partnership with businesses and the people they want to engage with.

Upturn’s roots go back to the early 2000s when it was linked to former government-funded regeneration schemes initiated by the local council. As part of the Oldham Single Regeneration Budget programme, Upturn worked in the communities of Coppice, Werneth, South Chadderton, Limehurst and Hollinwood. This ability to work with local communities has proved invaluable to Upturn’s approach to projects, it says.

Today, Upturn is based at Chambers Business Centre. Managing director Anwar Ali told Oldham Business Edge: “Direct experience has taught us that to help people access work and provide businesses with the employees they need, it is essential to take account of all individual circumstances.

“We often meet people who are well-qualified but have withdrawn from employment because of caring responsibilities or other domestic and personal matters that can overwhelm them. Getting back into work for them can be daunting. With the right help and support, these people can re-engage with the world of work and become valued employees,” he said. “Our ‘whole person’ approach is reflected in all that we do and the services we offer to businesses and other organisations.”

He added: “For success, we must fully-understand what each business is seeking to achieve, the skills-set it needs and how it would like to recruit its workforce? If we get this right then we can help recruit, develop and retain a skilled, committed and cost-effective team that meets the immediate and future needs of the business.”

One of the businesses Upturn works with is a semiconductor manufacturer called Diodes Zetex, based in Chadderton.  Dave Benstead, Diodes’ quality assurance, IT & HR director, said: “Every business should be able to find effective ways to introduce and develop new talent. One of those ways is to use apprenticeships.

“Using Upturn has allowed us to identify and agree specific roles and responsibilities to run our apprenticeship scheme much more effectively than in the past. This creates an environment that provides a rewarding experience for all parties whilst improving the way the performance and well-being of each apprentice in turn is managed. This ensures college work is submitted on time and the progress of each apprentice is reviewed and developed.”

Balanced recruitment

Anwar added: “Although Upturn is a social business, we recognise that we must deliver to the highest standard and provide value for money.”

In developing its recruitment model, Upturn recognised the simple fact that recruitment activity can be expensive if poorly executed.

He said: “Our view is that for recruitment to be successful, three things need to come together – the right person, the appropriate skills, qualifications and experience, and the right attitude, motivation and ‘fit’ with the values of the business.  We believe the ‘fit to the firm’ is vital and can be missing from the traditional recruitment model, leading to high attrition rates.

“For example, an employer could be sent five candidates who may have the skills and qualifications but if they are not suited to the work environment or in-tune with the business’s values than any new recruit may quickly conclude that it isn’t right for them and leave. This creates more disruption and expense in repeating the whole recruitment process, and recruitment agency fees can be expensive.

“Employers may have concerns that the candidate doesn’t have the right skills or experience. We find that, given the opportunity and the right ‘wrap-round’ support, most people can do most things. We believe that if the right support is provided, local people can become great employees because they’ve been given a chance to prove themselves.

Upturn can also provide support to existing staff along with management and leadership training if required.”

Upturn’s early days

Recalling the launch of Upturn in the early 2000s when the organisation had very little infrastructure or staff, Anwar said: “In the early days there was nothing.  I had to recruit six local unemployed people. There was no proper office. Nothing existed except lots of SRB documents. I remember going home and saying to my wife that I had no idea what all this is. I thought I’d made a mistake in accepting the role but then I thought I’d give it a go.”

In those early days I spent a great deal of time thinking about what the service offering might be. I could already envisage the potential of what we could do as a social business for people and their communities.

“But I asked myself how best to engage and encourage the business community? How could we make the proverbial ‘two-plus-two make five’? In fact, it was easier than first envisaged once we understood what the business community needed. Businesses wanted cost-effective and well-thought services that help them develop and grow.

“But it was also clear that they could also see other opportunities. Through effective community engagement they could support local initiatives, meet local people and explore ways to access the local untapped potential – and gain the advantages that can come from recruiting locally.

“Coming from the private sector, I realised that there was a natural synergy between the aims of a social business, Upturn, and the needs of commercial business. Over the years, we have developed winning combinations that have quite simply achieved startling results time after time.”

Upturn’s HR and recruitment team is led by Maria Williams, a founding director. Maria has been an Oldham Business Awards finalist twice in the Business Person of the Year category.

Anwar said “The team has worked with residents, with single mums and young people, and local businesses and stakeholders. We could see there was a demand for our type of enterprise. We kept growing with trainees and temps and developed our services.

He emphasised: “A really important aspect of our work is that we go into communities and really find out what obstacles are holding people back from employment? There are multiple problems such as debt, housing, matters of health and wellbeing and the costs of caring for and nurturing children.

“Many people at grassroots level looking for work or training often think that too many big employment organisations just go through superficial ‘tick-box’ exercises and don’t genuinely help people to change their prospects. Often, nobody has ever asked the people we work with about their individual situations. In contrast, we really want to know about people’s circumstances. Once we understand the issues facing them, we can help.  It’s about trust. Our task is to help people improve their prospects and unlock their potential.”

Employers also benefit from Upturn’s bespoke recruitment approach, added Anwar.

“Many employers lack expertise in recruitment and seek external help, yet they are often dissatisfied with the selection services offered by larger, purely-commercial recruitment agencies.

“In contrast, we provide bespoke services, training and support. We can also take-on the person looking for work if need be, so the employer does not take on the risk. This can help shape the business’ recruitment strategy. Recruitment can be an expensive and complex process. Businesses need to be sure they are getting value for money and that what’s offered really meet their needs.”

Key sectors and clients

Bill Lovat of Regenda Housing and Anwar Ali of Upturn


PICTURE: Bill Lovat, Regional Director of Regenda Housing, and Anwar Ali of Upturn.

The housing, manufacturing, construction and care sectors are among the most important industries for Upturn’s services.

In Oldham’s Limehurst district, Upturn works with the Regenda Group housing organisation. Speaking about the work, Bill Lovat, Regenda’s Regional Director for Customer Services, said: “We are unlocking the potential for people at Limehurst and elsewhere by increasing and improving access to employment, skills and enterprise opportunities. This work represents one of the most important challenges in making our tenants and communities stronger and more successful.”

Elsewhere, Maria Williams from Upturn has provided leadership and management training for clinical trials specialist Synexus Clinics. Speaking about that activity, Melissa Kerr, operational compliance manager at Accelerated Enrolment Solutions, which works with Synexus, said: “Maria is an excellent coach when it comes to developing leadership skills. She has the ability to engage and motivate clients to achieve success through effective teaching methods.”

The care sector is another important industry and Upturn works with clients locally and nationally. Upturn has also developed a Health and Social Care Pioneers project for the sector.

Anwar explained: “There are not enough care workers for the UK’s ageing population and the care sector suffers problems in staff retention. The sector is haemorrhaging money through the loss of staff.  Most care sector workers are women with family commitments, often with their own caring responsibilities. Factors such as shift patterns and wage-cuts have been a problem in parts of the sector. However, we’ve worked with employers to change their shift patterns, pay a bit more money to workers and offer better training, which is pays-off with better staff retention and development.

“Some women looking for work believe they haven’t got the right skills for the care sector – yet they may have cared for their own mother for ten years. In fact, many people who have cared for family members have got the right skills and the right values for this sector. But they need to be made aware of opportunities and career progression to other levels of care or health work. So, there are multiple factors to address.

“Improving the care sector workforce can bring benefits for the health service too. For example, ‘bed-blocking’ is a problem in many NHS hospitals. This is because elderly patients often must remain in hospital after their treatment simply because they cannot 100 per cent support themselves at home – they still need some care at home. But because of care worker shortages, they can’t return home. So, they remain in hospital which can costs £500 for an overnight stay.”

Competing for commissions

Anwar said a significant challenge for Upturn is that larger businesses and organisations often choose to work with big recruitment or skills agencies over smaller operators because of risk-aversion. So winning large or long-term contracts can be difficult.

He said: “We’re often sub-contracting because we can’t get the bigger contracts. Yet we believe we make the biggest community impact. Typically, larger recruitment and skills agencies are chosen because they may have £5million savings, in case anything goes wrong. However, the risk from giving contracts to big providers is that they don’t make a real difference to local communities and economies.

“So, we believe a key consideration for the commissioning organisation should be ‘what will help people into work in a local community?’ How can big organisations achieve that? We often win the arguments about the impact of our work but unfortunately we don’t always win the commissions because our’s is a smaller organisation.

“For example, last year we gained a 12-month contract with a well-known learning provider and got 250 people into work. However, we believe we failed to win a bigger £100,000 follow-on contract because of our size. Imagine if they had spent that sum with us over five years? That would have really been a boost for us and the people we help.”

However, commissioning attitudes are changing in some organisations. Anwar highlighted the Warrington-based Taurus Foundation New Leaf Programme which has agreed a long-term contract with Upturn as a self-employment specialist provider. He said: “Taurus Foundation could have gone with a bigger skills agency, but they chose us. We are now in the third year of a £10.6m five-year programme. We are helping deliver this programme across Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Warrington.”

Andy Rawlins, Programme Manager at New Leaf, said: “Funded by the European Social Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund, New Leaf helps people who are the furthest away from employment to get closer to work. More than that, New Leaf helps its participants become happier and healthier members of the community. New Leaf participants have access to over 20 different partner organisations including Upturn who work together to provide holistic support to help people reach their potential.”

Starting a business

People wishing to set up their own business can sometimes be frightened and put-off by conventional start-up business advice or funding programmes, said Anwar. Typically, applicants are asked to provide business plans, financial plans and cash flow forecasts.

“It’s easy to overlook that people with ideas for a business may have a number of transitional issues that need to be addressed if the embryonic business is to have any chance of success, he said.

“We take a wholistic approach. We see if there are other ways to think about and start a business that can deal with the obstacles and uncertainties as the transition is made into self-employment? Our aid for start-ups is about timely and consistent support, coaching and mentoring from the outset. This type of integrated support is not widely available.

“It is increasingly recognised that social businesses can play a significant role providing a diverse range of products and services needed in our local communities and beyond. We are currently working with partners from Oldham’s business community, public and voluntary sectors to prepare a bid to access a national fund of £33million, which, if successful would result in £5.5million being secured by Greater Manchester. Oldham would be awarded an allocation from that to create sustainable social businesses.”

Loyal and ethical

Due to its successful results, Anwar said Upturn has been asked on a number of occasions to relocate to the neighbouring Greater Manchester boroughs. However, he said Upturn remains loyal to Oldham and to Oldham Council, which supported it in the early days.

He added: “We like our base in Oldham, but we should not forget that we can also learn from and support our neighbours and partners in Greater Manchester where some great initiatives are underway.

“As we move forward, we need to bear in mind that people, communities and businesses are inextricably linked, each supporting the other. It is often out of the hard miles and the ordinary that extraordinary things can happen.”

PICTURED, back row from left: Jake Robinson, Michael Clarke, Daniel Johnson, William Beaumont, Joe Kobyra, Arshad Rigby, Tasmin Gaiger. Front: Maria Williams of Upturn, Dave Benstead of Diodes Zetex and Anwar Ali of Upturn.

by Darren Robinson

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