Mark Bowman was appointed chief executive of Inspira, the leading employability and skills expert, in 2009. The charity helps over 21,000 people from Cumbria and Lancashire every year, running employability programmes and providing free careers advice. It works across the sectors, including with local economic partnerships and councils, to solve skills shortages and reduce unemployment, tackling inequalities and building better communities. Mark, 53, lives in Carlisle with his wife Rachel. He has two grown-up children, Connie, 24, and Ted, 20. 

I’m from the North East originally. I didn’t go into education after I left school at 16 – I ended up working in retail for a number of years. I worked in various different record shops. Music has always been quite a passion of mine. 

By the time I was in my early 20s, I realised I wanted to do something different. That’s when I did some night classes. I did some A-levels then went to Northumbria University to do a government and public policy degree. One of the things that I’d read in the literature that people had gone on to do was a postgraduate diploma in careers guidance, and I did that as a postgraduate, which qualified me as a careers advisor.  

At that point, I think I was ready to spread my wings a bit so I ended up taking a role in Derbyshire. Very quickly, I realised I liked working with young people who weren’t in education, who were in the youth justice system. I ran projects with what would be classed as hard to help people. I really enjoyed that. I was supported by some fantastic people. I always look back at that and think if I’m ever running the organisation, ‘That’s what I need to do.’  

Then 23 years ago an opportunity came up in Carlisle to come and be one of the managers of the careers service, and that became Connexions. I worked there for two or three years before taking up an opportunity to become a director of what is now Inspira. It took me in a different direction because I got an opportunity to become a resources director. I did some CPD and ended up becoming a chartered director and looked after all the corporate side. In 2009 I became chief executive. 

I think you’ve always got to try and keep close to the work and find out about what’s going on. I see my role, and anybody’s who works in a support role, as supporting those people. As a charity, we want to help as many people as we possibly can. My role is to make sure we’ve got the contacts and the partnerships.  

Some of the stories I see coming through are really, really fantastic. We have operational bases in Carlisle, Workington, Barrow, Lancaster, Blackpool and Whitehaven. Because we operate over quite a large geographical footprint, I’ve been able to do virtual work over Teams. There are three elements to the work. We work in schools, helping people with advice and guidance, particularly around the transition areas like GCSEs, but also with young people not in employment. The real growing work for us is with adults who are not currently in the labour market. The phrase that’s used is ‘economically inactive’. That’s a real untapped market at the moment and we’re working in partnership with other people to come up with solutions. It’s providing pathways, maybe helping them to start by working a few hours. We run programmes to show people the economic benefits of work. 

Motivating people and providing opportunities for them have to go hand in hand. Where we’ve had real success is where we’ve worked with a number of employers who’ve got some live vacancies. The other interesting thing at the moment is that because there are still quite a few opportunities out there, young people will switch roles very quickly. It’s trying to encourage both employers and employees to look at things on a more long-term basis.  

We touch all sorts of sectors. We’ve got partnerships and we’re commissioned to work with central government, local government and a range of government agencies. Digital skills go right the way through everything and virtually every training course we do now has a digital element in it. The work-ready courses that we do often concentrate on some of the traditional areas. Employers say if somebody shows the right attitude they can help them with the technical skills. Bold, resilient and relevant have become our core values. That really sums us up as an organisation. 

My passion is Newcastle United. Football has always been a real family thing. I’ve just been to Wembley with my 84-year-old mam and my 20-year-old son. My mam still has a season ticket at Newcastle. Ted is at university in Nottingham and Connie is working with a non-governmental organisation in Lebanon, supporting refugees. I’m both proud and nervous. I think she’s picked up the ethos of social justice. We just want everybody to get the best chance in life.