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Hope for unemployed in Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 09:52 16 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:39 03 July 2010

He looks an unlikely candidate for finding a job in a town where it was recently estimated at least seven people are chasing every vacancy.

Shaven-headed and covered in piercings and tattoos, one a four-letter anti-prison message on his palm, the legacy of a frustrating stay at Norwich Prison, Mark Pomfrett, 36, laconically admits it is a “miracle” someone has given him a fresh chance.

He looks an unlikely candidate for finding a job in a town where it was recently estimated at least seven people are chasing every vacancy.

Shaven-headed and covered in piercings and tattoos, one a four-letter anti-prison message on his palm, the legacy of a frustrating stay at Norwich Prison, Mark Pomfrett, 36, laconically admits it is a “miracle” someone has given him a fresh chance.

However, dispelling prejudices born of his appearance, the father of 10 children dispersed around the country now travels to work from Newton Flotman, near Norwich, to Great Yarmouth each day with a smile on his face.

He credits his remarkable transformation into a loyal member of staff from a no-hoper, once hooked on drugs and often drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, down to a pioneering social enterprise scheme that has turned a seafront leisure complex into a job training ground.

It seemed fraught with dangers when the Lowestoft-based Grow Organisation, which already provided training for disadvantaged people across spheres from grass-cutting to accountancy, decided to move into an industry involving gambling and alcohol.

However, in the six months since Hospitality & Grow was launched at the Atlantis Arena nightclub, bars and arcades complex, its remarkable success has attracted a ministerial visit and given intense satisfaction to the venue's directors, including Colin Abbott, who were keen to put something back into the community.

Of the 15 trainees - ranging from ex-offenders to people with learning difficulties - originally taken on to work alongside the complex's 40 existing staff, five, including Mark, have been taken on as full-time employees, five others have found jobs elsewhere and four are still in training. Only one dropped out and he has since found a position.

Daryn Ferguson, 43, manager at Hospitality & Grow, said: “It was three years ago that Trevor Lynn, the CEO of The Grow Organisation, saw the opportunity to help the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders.”

Beginning with a modest grass-cutting enterprise, he proved the model worked and moved into different industries, from catering to recycling - linking up with Atlantis Arena in May, where they carry out a range of tasks.

Mr Ferguson said: “It appealed to Trevor because it was quite controversial going into a sector involving gambling and alcohol.

“But it is also very relevant because 32pc of employment in this area is in the leisure industry and one in six new jobs are in the hospitality trade.

“This can hopefully become a model for seaside towns across the country where there is high unemployment and high levels of disability.”

A casino manager for 15 years, Mr Ferguson took voluntary redundancy to nurse his father during his final months, and then personally discovered the frustrations of looking for work and being rejected.

He said: “I know what it's like not to have CVs replied to and the feeling of gradually losing motivation and spending more and more time playing on the X-Box.”

He stressed such feelings of despair and frustration would have been magnified for their 15 trainees as they were all classed as NEETS (not in employment, education or training) - enough for many employers to consign them to the scrapheap.

Under the scheme, the trainees' wages are met by government funding. By the end of their six months, the aim is for them all to have achieved a National Open College Network training certificate in catering, equivalent to a level two NVQ.

Mr Ferguson said: “The scheme has inspired remarkable loyalty from the trainees, possibly greater than is the case among normal trainees.

“Mark was given the job of painting the gates. He did not finish it in one day so came in the next day which was supposed to be his day off. How many people would do that?

“The transformation in their confidence is amazing. It is as though their heads come up. One girl who came to interview was hiding behind her hair. Seven weeks later, she was introduced to the minister, Angela Smith, and was interviewed on the Politics Show.”

He said the pool of trainees had given them an edge in a difficult year financially because it enabled them to provide better customer service.

Hospitality & Grow is now working with the mental health charity Mind to bring in its next intake of trainees and has ambitious plans to renovate the complex's 62-bedroom hotel, which is currently disused.

It is negotiating with funding providers, including the investment arm of the Big Issue, to source the estimated £6.5m required.

Mr Ferguson said their vision was to have a new generation of trainees working alongside tradesmen and learning construction and painting and decorating skills.

Keen to endorse the scheme, Mark, now a floor walker in the arcades, said he had been clean of drink and drugs for four and half years when he came out of prison in May 2008, but with his track record he had had no expectation other than signing on for benefits.

He said: “To be given a chance to prove myself has been a miracle. I never thought I would get a job.”

He is grateful to have been given the opportunity to start the climb from his lowest point which came when he was sent to prison for three and a half years for threatening to kill someone: “Something I did not know I had done because I was so drunk.”

Jodie Coldman, 20, another trainee who is soon to become a full-time cleaner at the complex, has struggled with a short-term memory disability since her early days at school.

She described it as soul-destroying to sign on the dole when she left Great Yarmouth College, and described working on the scheme as “like a family”.

“Everyone treats you with respect as an equal,” she said.

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