Seen from a distance, Kieran White leads an ordinary life. He recently left school, works locally for National Grid and every afternoon he returns to his parents’ house where he lives. He is bright, conscientious and has a good career ahead of him. He is also, as he fully acknowledges, a lucky young man.
Yet ordinary life or not, Kieran’s story is far from ordinary. He has special needs and the school he attended, Hereward College, is a special school. If it wasn’t for the ‘Employability, Let’s Work Together’ programme with National Grid, he might well have ended up without a job and maybe without a future just like the 93% of people with special needs in the UK who are not in paid employment.
Employability, however, has not only increased the life chances of students like Kieran, it has changed lives within National Grid, changed attitudes and, I am not exaggerating here, changed the company for the better.
But let’s start with Kieran’s story.
At school, Kieran described himself as ‘blinded by doubt’. He was not confident about his own worth and truly believed that he would never be equal to the demands of working life. On his first day as an Employability intern Kieran was a bag of nerves. Halfway through the day, however, he found himself asking questions, giving input and, best of all, understanding how improvements could be made. On the journey home, he knew he wanted do this job.
Over time, the doubts started to disappear and his focus was no longer on how he would fall short of people’s expectations but on the excitement of facing new challenges and overcoming them.
He has had placements in Capital Delivery, looking at costs and efficiency, and in Communications. He has become an expert in SharePoint, so much so that he is stopped in the corridor by people in other departments and asked for advice. He has created information resources and guides to facilitate best practice, chaired weekly meetings around performance excellence and communicated results to his department and joined National Grid permanently in their Information Services function. His transformation has been astounding.
He has received huge support from his Job Coaches, experienced people employed by the school but based in National Grid.
Louise Green is a Job Coach and this is her story.
Louise works at National Grid in Hinckley and works with a colleague to look after and support seven Employability interns. She helps to find appropriate placements, matches them to interns, holds regular review meetings with managers, deals with issues as they arise, liaises with teachers and social workers and provides practical help in learning the job tasks. Every morning, she delivers a BTEC course in Workskills for an hour before sending the interns off to their placements. They come back at the end of the day for feedback and reflection.
Interns join the programme in September but she has already met them at school and at the Work Inspiration Week in February, got to know them and what level they are working at. She reads the student profiles and the job specs of placements and comes up with two trial placements for taster days. Then she helps them decide which one is best. For the first few days at work, Job Coaches offer very close support and from then on are available when needed.
Louise enjoys watching school students grow in confidence, seeing them carry out real work tasks and being included and valued, showing pride in themselves and developing social skills. Suddenly they are not school students any more. Although a permanent job is not a guaranteed outcome of the internships, all of the four current interns working with Louise have been offered paid work by National Grid.
Louise is employed by a local school, but paid for by the government’s Access to Work fund – so no cost to the employer. She works closely with the Employability team at National Grid, recent graduates and with managers who have supported the programme.
Simon Henning is Communications Production Manager and this is his story.
Simon was involved from the start when he was asked to go along to the first Employability meeting. He knew nothing about it, carrying with him the normal concerns any manager will have when taking on an intern with additional learning needs. It could be time intensive and distracting for the team. But National Grid has strong values around diversity and volunteering is positively encouraged. He found his heart saying ‘yes’, but his head saying ‘it’s going to be a challenge’.
At the meeting, the first thing that struck him was this is a fully supported programme with a detailed plan, job coaches, a dedicated classroom in the offices and a BTEC curriculum. He was reassured. He only had to do one thing: look at what work this person would be doing for four hours a day. Nothing else. This was a game-changer in terms of buy-in from the team. It was achievable. Taster sessions (all organised by other people) helped too, giving him and his colleagues an opportunity to meet interns and see who would be best suited to the work on offer.
And the team benefitted too. From the start of the placement, he saw motivation levels rise. Team members could ask the intern (Jonny) to do jobs that were waiting to be done. They started to talk to each other in a different way, driven by the need to include him in discussions. Soft skills that he hadn’t noticed before were coming out. It also gave team members an opportunity to supervise. The team bonded better around a shared sense of purpose – getting the best out of the four hours each day that they had Jonny. He was a catalyst for change, his work was good quality and he added value. Indeed, the web pages he created are still being used.
And Simon benefitted too. His manager said to him in his annual review that the programme took him out of his comfort zone and he rose to the challenge, bringing out qualities that he didn’t know he had. There’s a time commitment for managers but not as much as you may suppose. Simon invested around an hour a week, talking to Job Coaches, to Jonny, to members of team. The people who supervise interns, many of whom are recent graduates, spend more time of course but their positive experiences contribute to their own development.
Sophie Woolham joined National Grid in 2012 from the University of Leeds and this is her story.
A year after starting work, Sophie was ‘volunteered’ by the Chair of a graduate student group and has been involved with Employability ever since. Her first task was to project manage the Work Inspiration Week in February, working with three schools in Hinckley, Coventry and Warwick. She talked to Heads, Deputy Heads and parents to explain the programme, spoke to students and presented at parent evenings. She is now one of the site leads for the programme at Hinckley, setting up the base room, finding placements and speaking to Job Coaches to understand the profiles of students. She also organises a celebration event at the end of placements to showcase interns’ work, to which she invites current and prospective placement managers. She is also involved in the graduation ceremony for outgoing interns, the taster day for students in June and the parents’ visit in July.
All this is in addition to the work she is paid for! June and September are the busiest months. But Sophie thinks it averages out at about half a day a week.
Although not technically part of her job, the Employability programme is in her objectives and is recognised as benefiting her in several ways – especially in improved communication skills and confidence. It also helps her to understand the business better as she needs to explain the programme to others. Networking gives her visibility within the company, she needs teamwork to organise events and her project management has improved. It’s rewarding to see so much change, to watch interns become almost completely different people.
She has also noticed a cultural change in the organisation. People know who interns are and as they stop and speak to them, they become interested in the programme and this breeds better disability awareness and confidence. Employees are more able to share experiences, so the programme is a catalyst for wider openness. Interns invariably impact the team they are involved with and this helps to bring people together. It’s educational for employees to understand and help to realise potential.
As far as a graduate recruitment message is concerned, she feels that Employability offers a great opportunity for personal development over and above the day job. As she says: “It gets us noticed as a responsible business, and why wouldn’t you want to work for a responsible business?”
It goes without saying that an initiative that offers opportunities to a group of young people more accustomed to life’s short straw; which benefits managers and teams; which makes the company a better place to work in; which develops graduates and which strengthens the graduate recruitment proposition is a GOOD THING. But, like Simon, you may be put off by thoughts that it’s all so difficult. Maybe this might help you commit…
Ten reasons to reassure an organisation which believes it’s a good idea to give talented kids with learning difficulties a chance in life but is worried about the work involved:
- There is a working model in existence, a very detailed model that National Grid will share with you. They will also be happy to give you advice.
- There is virtually no paperwork involved.
- It costs next to nothing.
- The job coaches who support the interns on their placements are employed by the school and paid for by the government.
- No full-time employees are needed.
- It has proven results and benefits.
- It changes the organisation for the better.
- It breeds disability confidence amongst the workforce.
- It unearths hidden talent.
- IT CHANGES LIVES. EVERYBODY’S.
It does need someone in the organisation who believes in giving people a chance, someone who is passionate enough to push the programme through. Because passion, as you know, rubs off on people. Before you know it, everybody’s passionate and a small number of local kids have their lives changed for ever. For more details of the initiative, look here:
The site also tells you all about the programme, the benefits to employers and a step by step guide to the process you need to go through to implement something similar in your organisation. Big impact – low cost. Lives changed. It must be worth a look!
National Grid are the headline partners of the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards 2016 and they intend to use the opportunity to promote the programme and share the benefits of Employability with other employers.