Posted: 27 August 2014
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Hidden talent

National Grid is one of the few private companies in the UK with its own programme to help put students with learning disabilities on the path to employment and a productive life. Its EmployAbility, Let’s Work Together scheme is becoming a template for others to follow, as TSO Project Manager Mark Pickles notes.

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Hidden talent

Hidden talent

One of the interns, Taurai Horton, receives the Chairman’s Award. (from l-r): Steve Holliday, Dave Tilley, Neil Russell, Taurai Horton, Sir Peter Gershon, Mark McGill and Mark Pickles.

"Through EmployAbility, we aim to offer internships to students with disabilities to give them an opportunity to develop skills and confidence in a business environment..."

Mark Pickles, TSO Project Manager.


Students with learning disabilities have only a seven-per-cent likelihood of finding paid employment.

Source: Department of Education

When someone asks me why National Grid set up its EmployAbility programme, I answer with another question: how could it turn down the opportunity when the benefits are so far-reaching?

EmployAbility gives students with learning disabilities exposure to a business environment. At the moment, National Grid is one of a very small number of private companies with a programme like this. We were recently recognised with a National Grid Chairman’s Award.

In a sea of statistics on employment, two in particular stand out for me. One is the Department of Education’s finding that students with learning disabilities have only a seven-per-cent likelihood of finding paid employment. The second is the cost to the community of supporting someone who doesn’t get into employment through their life. The figure quoted by the government is £1 million per person.

Our programme is about giving a chance to people who don’t always get one. Through EmployAbility, we aim to offer internships to students with disabilities to give them an opportunity to develop skills and confidence in a business environment, as a first step into paid employment.

Simple model of internships

It’s a simple model. National Grid identifies roles that an intern can fill. The intern then spends about three months in the role, supported by a job coach. Over their final academic year, students do three internships. Our partner schools – in this case Round Oak Special School in Warwick – provide the coaches. They go into the business function, learn the role, break it into component parts, train the intern and help them settle in. As the intern’s confidence grows, the coach backs away.

The results are amazing. Students are quick to assimilate to the business environment. Having been told in some cases that they were failures, they then begin to realise they can actually do a job really well.

As their self-belief grows, so too do their aspirations. Their National Grid internship becomes the first item on their CV and demonstrates that they can operate in a business environment.

Experience leads to first jobs

The first year we ran EmployAbility, we had five students and it looks like they will all get their first job on the back of their experience. One has been appointed to a permanent role in our own Safety, Sustainability and Resilience (SSR) directorate; one has been hired by 14Forty, a company in our supply chain; two others are progressing to paid project activities using the skills they’ve developed; and one is going on to full-time mainstream education.

Come September, we have 14 students starting on the programme, eight in our Warwick headquarters – up from the original five – and six in Hinckley. The following year, we hope to launch the programme in Solihull as well. Our ultimate goal is to change the lives of upto 40 people a year.

Where did it start? EmployAbility grew out of our mentoring of a Special Olympics athlete and a request to provide work experience from our partner school. The athlete I mentored came and did some work experience with us. Then our partner school took us to Royal University Hospital in Bath to see the Project SEARCH model working there. We were inspired and took it from there, launching our programme in September 2013.

Flaw in employment model

We held a conference in June called Working Together that was aimed at engaging with employers and interested parties in the energy industry and beyond – basically any corporation that works with local special schools to provide supportive internships. We want EmployAbility to go places.

We see a gap in the normal employment model. The focus on apprenticeships and graduate schemes are all great. We’re looking at what’s available to students with disabilities. Many have great ability but are going to struggle because the recruitment process demands communication skills that they don’t have. EmployAbility gives them an open interview over their three internships to demonstrate what they’re capable of.

National Grid is going to be the headline sponsor for the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards which take place next April in London. We’re looking to create enthusiasm among other businesses for the work they do in making a difference for young people with disabilities.

The Project SEARCH model originated in America. Most entities in the UK who are using it are in the public sector. We’re one of very few private companies driving this agenda forward. The potential is massive.

  • Tamour Gill

    Dear Sir,
    I want to do intern-ship in the field of substations, i have hands on experience of 3 years on equipments circuit breakers, transformers, disconnectors, compressors, auxiliary supply systems and more, please give me a chance to work at your work place , it would be an honour for me.
    anxiously waiting for your positive reply

    Engr Tamour Gill

  • Mark McGill

    Whilst there is a compelling business benefits case for recruiting and employing previously untapped (disabled) talent, getting involved in creating Supported Internship/Partnership Schemes has proved to be immensely rewarding from both a personal perspective and local community involvement/impact.

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