Skill Up Step Up: The remarkable story of Devonte, from school dropout to the O2

‘My story shows that however bad your past, with the right help, you can turn your life around,’ says 19-year-old

David Cohen
Campaigns Editor
Monday 06 December 2021 16:04
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Skill Up Step Up: Christmas campaign launched to support London's jobless youth

Few people gave Devonte a chance of making a success of his life. By the time the tearaway sat his GCSE exams at Catford Library, he had been permanently excluded three times and had achieved the dubious distinction of being kicked out of a pupil referral unit – a unit that actually specialises in re-socialising kicked-out children.

Even for them, Devonte was too disruptive to handle. “My story shows that however bad your past, with the right help, you can turn your life around,” he said, referring to the training course he completed with Springboard, the charity that upskilled him and found him a job – and the first partner announced as part of our Skill Up Step Up campaign.

Today, the grin on the 19-year-old’s face was infectious as he proudly showed us around his new work place – the O2 Arena in Greenwich – where he is employed by the hospitality company Compass.

The south Londoner looked poised beyond his years, but truth is, few teenagers have had to fight as hard as Devonte. Brought up by a single mother, Devonte was just six when one of his older brothers was stabbed and killed at a party over a mobile phone. “We were very close,” he said. “My brother would pick me up from school and we would often bake apple crumble together. He was 15 when he died and after that, I didn’t know how to deal with my sadness. I wasn’t aware that I was angry, but I would easily lose my temper and I started getting into fights at school.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Click here to make a donation and help us give more young people the training they need to get into work

At eight, Devonte’s primary school expelled him to Summerhouse, a pupil referral unit for primary school children in Southwark. By the time he started secondary school, he was already way behind his peers and feeling like he was being bypassed. He didn’t hang around long. At 12, he got into a physical fight with a teacher and, again, he was expelled. But the pupil referral unit he went to excluded him, too, and he found himself at the end of the road – a therapeutic PRU in Kennington for children with adverse childhood experiences.

Years later, Devonte would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services), but the support he was due came too late to save his education.

The appeal will help unemployed young people get ‘work ready’

By his mid-teens, Devonte’s home life was unravelling. His mother had been diagnosed with cancer and he would return from school to tend to her and clean the house. By age 15, his mother had passed away and Devonte was homeless. “I went to live with my brother but we didn’t get on, so for a year I slept in abandoned cars and on night buses and sofa surfed at friends,” he said.

Devonte was put into care and given a room in semi-independent, shared accommodation. “I ended up sitting my GCSEs at Catford Library but I failed pretty much everything. I needed to fix up because after losing my mother, I had to start earning and becoming independent. I love food and I had ideas about starting my own Caribbean fast-food business, so I decided to start at the bottom, learn some skills, and work my way up.”

Devonte was given training through charity Springboard

But what followed was “three years in the wilderness”, said Devonte. “I looked for entry-level jobs and applied to be a shelf-stacker on the night shift at Tesco. I tried garages, department stores, job centres – I made hundreds of applications. I had functional-level-2 English and maths but it wasn’t enough. I started to feel hopeless.”

He added: “I began to stay up all night watching movies and would go to sleep at 6am, waking at midday so the day didn’t feel so long. Then Covid hit and people were let go and finding a job went from hard to impossible. Everywhere I turned I faced no entry signs.”

But last October his social worker told him about Springboard, a charity based near Liverpool Street Station that is plugged into the hospitality industry and offers a three-week course in employability skills. “I thought, ‘It’s free, what can I lose?’”

Springboard helps disadvantaged young people prepare for work

They were three weeks that changed Devonte’s life. He said: “The first thing Springboard gave me was a routine and a reason to get up in the morning. I would set my alarm for 5.30am because I had to commute from south London and I started to go to bed at a normal time. I loved the course and felt productive for the first time. They taught us how to lay out our CV, what to expect in an interview, how to prepare and structure our answers. I learned to always be early and that body language and tone is even more important than the words you use, although words matter. I learned that the customer is always right and how to take criticism and to improve from mistakes rather than be defeated by them.”

Within a week, Devonte had a job at Compass, where he has now been employed for a year. He said: “That course was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got a job as a dishwasher, then I worked in the kitchens and prepared lunches for the players at Wimbledon. Now I have a new job working between the bar, the kitchen and front of house at the O2 Arena. My manager told me my customer service has improved a lot and that I’m an enthusiastic, hard worker. I am excited to be working here at such an iconic venue. I’ve got my mojo back, I am one billion per cent more confident than before I found Springboard.”

Devonte at his workplace – the O2 Arena

Work has brought Devonte stability, cash, purpose and pride. He has moved into his own digs, a studio flat in south London which he rents privately. “Wages and a job are not a cure but they are freedom. Without a job, you can’t travel or have a nice meal out with friends. After three years, I was proud to finally tell my brothers, ‘Guys, I have a job!’”

He feels energised. “When I was at Springboard, we zoomed with this guy who started at the bottom and now cooks for Will Smith. He has inspired me hold on to my dream, too. One day I will open an outdoor eat-all-you-can Caribbean fast-food trailer and I will call it OnaMunch. Nobody gave me a chance until Springboard did. I am on my way.”

Our campaign in a nutshell

What are we doing? We have launched Skill Up Step Up, a £1m initiative in partnership with Barclays LifeSkills to upskill unemployed and disadvantaged young Londoners so they can be “work ready” and step up into sustainable jobs or apprenticeships.

Why are we doing this? Youth unemployment in London has soared by 55 per cent to 105,000 since the start of the pandemic, meaning that 21 per cent of 16-24 year-olds are jobless at a time of record job vacancies of 1.17 million countrywide. This mismatch, caused largely by an employability skills and experience gap, is leading to wasted lives and billions of pounds of lost productivity for our economy.

How will it work? The £1m from Barclays will provide grant funding over two years for up to five outstanding handpicked charities that provide disadvantaged jobless young Londoners with employability skills and wrap-around care to get them into the labour market and transform their lives. The first charity partner, announced today is Springboard.

They will support young people into jobs in the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, bars, leisure and tourism) via a 3-6 week programme that includes one-to-one mentoring, soft skills and employability development (confidence, work attitude, CV building, interview practice, time management), practical industry and hard skills training including food safety and customer service, as well as access to work experience placements. More partner charities will be announced in due course.

How can the young and jobless skill up? If you are aged 16-24 and want to upskill towards a job in hospitality, contact Springboard https://careerscope.uk.net/skillup-stepup/. For tools, tips and learning resources visit: www.barclayslifeskills.com.

How can employers step up? We want companies – large, medium and small – to step up to the plate with a pledge to employ one or more trainees in a job or apprenticeship. They could work in your IT, customer service, human resources, marketing or sales departments, or any department with entry-level positions. You will be provided with a shortlist of suitable candidates to interview. To get the ball rolling, contact the London Community Foundation, who are managing the process, on: skillup@londoncf.org.uk.

How can readers help? The more money we raise, the more young people we can skill up. To donate, use: www.gofundme.com/skillupstepup.

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