Cynthia Anderson on a “not-to-miss talk” in Herne Hill

Colin recently gave a talk as a guest of the Herne Hill Society. Here is a review of that talk, kindly provided by Cynthia Anderson.

The title of the first Herne Hill Society talk of 2013 attracted my attention immediately as a not-to-miss talk, and indeed so it proved.

Colin Crooks, a local resident, former Lambeth Councillor and businessman, spoke without pictures or powerpoint and without notes, and held the attention of the audience throughout. He began by introducing himself and his career prior to starting his own business.

His business had begun as a part-time venture, a small office and an old Ford Transit camper van, collecting used paper from banks and similar organisations and taking it to a paper merchant in Coldharbour Lane. The business grew, to such an extent that he was able to give up his regular job and work full-time on this project that really interested him.

The next part of the talk was about his experiences with recruiting and training his staff. By and large, he needed unskilled workers: for example, people to sort and weigh paper and cans for recycling, and van drivers. He soon found that there were many unemployed people desperate to get a job, and whenever he advertised, there would be many applicants.

Unfortunately for all concerned, many people were unqualified to take on even unskilled jobs, being “functionally illiterate”. He told us of one driver who punched him twice in the cab of the van, out of frustration for having to reveal that he was unable to read an A-Z. Having learnt from this experience Colin always now checks in the course of an interview for drivers that the applicant can read a map.

By this time, we understood that Colin was passionate about the problem of unemployment, as it affects his business, unemployed people and their families, crime — the whole of society in fact. We were not surprised to learn that he had gone on to research the data regarding unemployment, unskilled workers and their qualifications.

He provided us with definitions, facts and figures, all fascinating stuff. For example, 9.8 million people of working age have no qualification of any kind; 19 million people have full-time jobs (or read this as only half the population of working age having full-time jobs); 6.5 million people would like to work; there are half a million vacancies; 38% of people in the Coldharbour Estate have full-time jobs. If we needed persuading, he emphasised the deleterious effects of unemployment: far from enjoying a lie-in every day as “strivers” set off for work in the early morning, the unemployed person suffers from a variety of problems chiefly derived from a loss of self-respect, including loss of self-confidence, depression, obesity and apathy.

And, finally, he offered some ideas to solve this problem. The Government has focused on creating jobs, but has not been able to provide enough jobs that are attractive to unemployed people. Instead, job-creation thinking should concentrate on what motivates people; to match jobs to people, rather than people to jobs. Motivated people are enthusiastic, creative, eager to learn, and keen on training. Colin provided a couple of examples of stroppy teenagers who had blossomed once given work and responsibility that they relished.

People who want to know more should read his recently published book How to Make a Million Jobs: A Charter for Social Enterprise.