AS Lee Madden scrolls through the photos he has taken of the HIV/AIDS-affected youngsters finding refuge at Nyumbani Children’s Home, you could be forgiven for thinking that he had just returned from an Overseas Aid trip to Kenya.
But, for the managing director of GR8 Recruitment, supporting this life-changing charity is a natural extension of the work he does to help the economies and communities of both Jersey and Africa.
While Lee’s professional relationship with Kenya started as the world began to recover from Covid and address a skills gap exacerbated by both the pandemic and, locally, Brexit, his desire to match people with jobs goes back several years.
Having had a varied career – ‘I have the attention span of a five-year-old’ – which began with a stint in the Army before he entered the police force and then opened a restaurant, the Jerseyman set up the government’s Back to Work foundation programme, helping 16-21-year-olds ‘with significant barriers to finding employment’ to enter the workplace.
‘I had always wanted to be a policeman but realised that I didn’t have the qualifications to enter the force through the conventional route and so I joined the Army and became a military officer,’ Lee recalled. ‘After working in
the UK for many years, I returned to the Island and joined the local force for two years. When my father – who had owned the Drive In BBQ at Gorey – died, I had the romantic notion of following in his footsteps and opening a restaurant.’
When that business dream faltered early on, Lee ‘kissed a lot of frogs’ before ‘giving up on running on his own business and joining the government’.
‘That gave me my first taste of recruitment but, in 2017, I realised that I didn’t want to be a civil servant anymore and, after looking at my skill set and lack of qualifications, I realised that the best thing I had was my personality,’ he said.
And so, in March 2018, Lee founded GR8 Recruitment, focusing initially on the construction industry.
‘At the time, that was the sector with the greatest demand,’ he explained. ‘I remember dropping my first recruit to a construction site at Les Quennevais on a very cold morning in March 2018 and realising that the business had just made its first profit – of £1.25.’
Fortunately for Lee, his faith and hard work paid off and it was not long before that first recruit had been joined by a further 25. And then came two key milestones in the company’s history.
‘I hadn’t been trading long when I was given the opportunity to buy a competitor, a move which tripled the size of the business overnight and enabled me to start employing operational staff,’ Lee recalled.
And it wasn’t long after that growth that dinner with a friend led to GR8 Recruitment expanding its horizons even further.
‘I was having dinner at a friend’s restaurant one evening when he suddenly turned to me and said: “Can you find me a chef?” I thought: “Sure. How hard can it be?” and, from there, the hospitality arm of the business was born.’
As Brexit triggered ‘a massive shortage of staff’, Lee focused on employing people on work permits to support hospitality businesses, a move which was gaining traction across both Jersey and Guernsey before Covid hit.
‘Straight away, everything stopped,’ Lee said, ‘and so we turned our attention to supporting the community and, in particular, workers in health, hospitality and retail, moving our resources around to cater for demand across the Island.’
While this approach continued to generate money for the firm, Lee was adamant that he did not want to ‘profit from Covid’ and so he ringfenced the funds and donated £25,000 to local charities.
‘While GR8 is becoming known for its work bringing workers to the Island from Kenya and the Caribbean, we also do a lot of work to support local staff,’ he said. ‘Drawing on my background with the government, we work particularly closely with organisations such as the Jersey Employment Trust, the prison and shelters to support people who, either through disability or from having fallen on hard times or made some wrong decisions, may struggle to find work.
‘We also work closely with students, sponsoring the Highlands Foundation Project, which provides funding for people who need financial support.’
Dismissing the suggestion that the Island is undergoing a ‘recruitment crisis’, Lee said: ‘Businesses are quick to say that recruitment and staffing is the biggest issue they are facing but we have the solutions. Whether you are looking for a heart surgeon or a barista, I can find you one. It’s just a question of thinking creatively and looking for solutions rather than problems.’
And, for Lee, many of those answers have been found overseas.
‘We live in a global village and reaching out to find resources can be quite straightforward,’ he said. ‘The government and immigration service have given us the tools we need to find good, reliable staff and, between 2021 and 2022, we have employed just under 400 people across the hospitality industry in Jersey and Guernsey, bringing in talent from Kenya, China, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.’
Having started by focusing on construction and hospitality, GR8 now provides staff to a wide range of industries, with 12 healthcare assistants having just been offered jobs and the first cohort of early-years carers due to arrive in the Island in the next month or so.
‘While the rest-of-the-world activity fills several vacancies, we also operate as a “normal” recruitment agency, with a strong focus on the local population. In fact, we found work for around 600 Islanders last year, using our “mix and match” service to find the right staff for businesses in both the white- and blue-collar sectors,’ he said.
And it is not just businesses and people which Lee matches, with the recruiter also working hard to find accommodation for those staff who move to the Island from overseas.
‘This is another area in which the Island tends to focus more on problems instead of finding solutions,’ he said. ‘We know that if we bring people over, they have to have somewhere to live and so we find accommodation for them, often in people’s houses. This has worked so well that, in many cases, the family and tenant have become friends and spend a lot of time together.’
And it is this people- and community-focused approach which Lee says has enabled the business to ‘change lives, one job at a time, both locally and globally’.
‘Our footprint has extended to so many continents. By providing work for people in the Island, we are changing the lives of families and communities in countries such as Kenya and Sri Lanka,’ he added. ‘I’ve been to villages where the children had never seen a white man before. I’ve been to places where, before the locals found work in Jersey, they were living in homes without any electricity, running water or furniture. They are now much more self-sufficient.
‘And, just as importantly, we are working with charities, such as Nyumbani Children’s Home, to make a real difference in the heart of those communities. To see the impact that our work is having in these places is incredible and a huge privilege.’