Community bike shop Westminster Wheels has been training unemployed residents to become bike mechanics. Rebecca Morley finds out more
This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
In a time of doom and gloom headlines surrounding a looming recession and high inflation, it’s great to see any programme helping out those most in need in our communities. Bike shop Westminster Wheels is doing just that, providing opportunities for out of work residents to train as bike mechanics and be paid the London Living Wage while they are learning.
The shop is located just off Edgware Road, one of the areas with the highest rate of unemployment and health inequality in Westminster. “We put them through an employability training course and sign them up on a paid contract at London living wage,” Westminster Wheels project manager Barnaby Stutter told BikeBiz. “And while they’re on London living wage, we pay for that City & Guilds level two in bike repair, so they get paid to learn.
“In that time period, we attempt to get them into the whole ethos of working life, as in timekeeping, presentation, having a little sparkle in the eye, a bit of keenness when it comes to customer service, and all those soft skills on top of the hard skills of bike repair. There’s nothing worse than a miserable bike mechanic.
“It’s those skills that I think are as equally important as the ability to repair a bike – the ability to diagnose the customer. It’s super critical, especially as the bike industry has woken up to the fact that 51% of the population aren’t male.”
It’s been proving difficult to recruit young women, Stutter continued: “It’s perceived as a very dirty, macho industry, but in reality, some of the trendsetters and leaders in the industry are women. I think we really need to shout from the rooftops that there’s a good career for women in the bike industry.”
The programme takes six months to complete, after which trainees have hopefully gained confidence as well as skills, Stutter said. “The first thing I find that it’s important to ingrain in young people is eye contact, confidence, presentation. We guarantee that we will put them in front of potential employers at the end and we support them through that.
“Obviously they come through the course with a lovely shiny CV because they’ll have their employability training, they’ll have their City & Guilds Level One or Two, and depending on the time of year and where we are in the programme, they might get a first aid course or a fire marshal course or a health and safety at work course – anything to pile onto that CV.
“And then, we put them in front of potential employers. We’ve worked quite deeply with Balfe’s Bikes and we’re working and reaching out to people like Decathlon. And weirdly enough, we’re in negotiation with Veolia, who are the waste collection services, they are now moving into e-cargo bikes. They’re using four wheel cargo bikes for micro waste collection, and those machines are going to need servicing. We’re very keen to be involved in the revolution of e-cargo bikes.”
Real life experience
The stakeholders for the programme are Westminster Council, Cycle Confident and Groundwork London. The real nuts and bolts of it came together at the height of lockdown, explained Stutter, when there was a dearth of bike repair.
“Westminster is acutely aware of the bike shop deserts in the borough. Even the major chain stores cannot operate profitably with London rents. A lot of them purely operate by negotiating rent free periods, and their business plan relies on that.”
Throughout the six month programme, the trainees work alongside experienced bike mechanics refurbishing old bikes – of which 80% are sold at affordable prices to generate income for the shop, and 20% are donated to the local community.
“What we realised is that the community is desperately in need of repairs,” said Stutter. “We’re providing that as a community bike shop. The young people, when they’ve reached a certain level of skill and ability, they can do those repairs with our oversight. We’ve got two fully trained mechanics working alongside them. And we’ve found that the business side of that has really exploded, providing real life experience for young people.”
As of June 2022, 30 Westminster residents have completed their six-month training since the shop opened in March 2021, and most have gone on to secure further employment, many within the bike industry.
Chris Whiteley, who successfully completed his paid work placement with Westminster Wheels and who is now a full-time bike mechanic, said: “I first moved to London last year. I was homeless before I came here so I moved in with my sister.
“I found a poster for Westminster Wheels when I was going for a walk one day and thought, I love bikes and would love to learn how to fix them. Westminster Wheels has absolutely changed my life. I went from having no idea or what to do with my life to finding a career that I could happily spend the rest of my life doing.”
On the importance of providing that experience for young people, Stutter said: “It provides them with an environment to grow into it. They’ve got room to fail, but fail upwards. Timekeeping, presentation, attitude, are never going to be their top skills when they come into the project.
“I would not trade my place with a young person these days, in terms of how society views them, how society cares for them. I think the pressures on young people are horrific. I’m sort of the avuncular project manager, and you have to hear people’s stories. Their backstories where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through, be it as carers for ill parents, be it from the care system.
“That’s where we draw our cohort from, people who have fallen through the cracks because of life circumstances and it’s very difficult for a standard employer to take that on board in terms of their productivity. We have really watched people grow and blossom.”
On plans to expand later this year, Stutter said: “We would love to. We are heading into a deep recession. Youth unemployment isn’t massive at the moment in the borough, but it’s only going to go one way.
“And we’re in negotiation with other organisations. We’ve actually got a fantastic programme now with Public Health England. There’s something called social prescribing, so you go to your GP, maybe with depression or with diabetes, and they’ll say here you go, I prescribe a bicycle. We are going to provide 270 refurbished bikes. They will be going to various good causes, some of those will be for social prescribing.”
Recognising that maintaining a bike can be expensive and a barrier to riding, the shop will also be donating bike servicing vouchers to low-income families in Westminster.
Linking in with Westminster City Council’s wider climate action plan including its ambition to become a carbon neutral council by 2030 and city by 2040, the project also has a strong sustainability focus.
In its first year, nine tonnes worth of disused bikes that would otherwise have gone to waste have been refurbished. The project’s reach has been made possible by sponsorship from businesses in Westminster including Capita, Ecoworld, Grosvenor, The Howard de Walden Estate, RMG, Westminster Community Homes, Ecoworld, HA Marks, Wates and Vital Energy.
Councillor Geoff Barraclough, cabinet member for planning and economic development at Westminster City Council, said: “Westminster Wheels has helped people who face high barriers to employment such as homelessness learn new and useful skills.
“Over 60% of the trainees are now in full-time employment. If you’re a cycling enthusiast or just starting out on two wheels, please check out the Westminster Wheels shop on Church Street to meet the trainees and get expert advice on affordable bikes and servicing.”
“We’re a bit of a pilot scheme,” Stutter concluded. “I think other boroughs are looking at their location. Sometimes they don’t need retail space because there are some boroughs which are blessed with some fantastic bike shops, but they’ve still got youth unemployment and there’s still a shortage of bike mechanics. They might have a similar but different system there and other boroughs can tailor make the project to fit their needs.”