National Grid’s EmployAbility programme gives young people with learning disabilities a life-changing opportunity to unlock their potential. Dr Emma Fitzgerald, Head of National Grid’s gas distribution business, explains why more private companies should follow their lead.
“Our employees are inspired by the tenacity and determination to overcome problems that our interns demonstrate.”
Dr Emma Fitzgerald, National Grid.
The cost of community care, if someone is unable to find work in their lifetime, is a staggering £1 million.
Source: National Grid.
Young people have it tough in today’s job market – and it gets even harder if you have a learning disability. Many companies’ recruitment processes screen out young people with additional needs before they’ve had a chance to prove their worth. A huge amount of promise and potential remains untapped.
The statistics are seriously sobering, with just seven per cent of people who face these challenges currently in paid work. They’re locked out by a possible lack of qualifications or because they don’t have the communication skills to succeed in a job interview. The cost of community care, if someone is unable to find work in their lifetime, is a staggering £1 million.
National Grid is one of the few private companies in the UK that is passionate about changing this. We run our own programme – called EmployAbility, Let’s Work Together – that puts students on the path to paid work and a more productive life. It has been so successful that we want it to be a blueprint for other companies to follow.
EmployAbility takes students with learning disabilities – aged 17-22 – from five schools and colleges close to our Warwick and Hinkley offices and places them in internships that expose them to a business environment.
We identify roles that the intern can do. A job coach, from one of the supporting schools, then supports them as they get to grips with the role. As the intern’s confidence grows, the coach backs away. It’s a fantastic opportunity for students to develop their work-based and personal skills, and gain a BTEC qualification.
We started the programme in 2013 and it has gone from strength to strength. It’s also part of a wider commitment to actively support programmes that aim to change stereotypes of our industry, accessing hidden talent and the value it brings.
The first year we ran EmployAbility, we had five students and this year we have 11 across two sites. Our ultimate goal is to change the lives of up to 20 people a year.
Quick to adjust
The scheme has far-reaching benefits both to the individual and our business. Students are quick to adjust to the business environment. In some cases, they may have been told in the past that they were failures. But they quickly realise they can actually do a job really well and turn their challenges into an advantage.
Take Taurai Horton, one of our first interns. Meningitis as a baby left him with a learning disability. As he grew up, he sensed that many of his older peers had no prospects other than a life on the sofa and benefits. But Taurai’s internship changed all that.
“I realised I could do something that I thought was beyond my ability,” he says. “People with special educational needs are so committed, yet so often forgotten. And we can add value to your business.”
Taurai now works for us as a support assistant and is a fantastic example of how the programme changes lives. Self-belief, confidence, communication skills and ambition all grow in our interns.
Happy young people
We see it time and again; individuals who once struggled to communicate and were withdrawn blossom into confident, happy young people, with an ambition to succeed in the world of work.
The programme also has business benefits. For a start, our employees are inspired by the tenacity and determination to overcome problems that our interns demonstrate. It helps them understand the importance of diversity in the workplace. They also tell us their engagement levels and pride in the company have increased as a result of working alongside our interns.
Our graduates also get involved in the programme, which develops them as individuals, and, as our future leaders, gives them disability confidence for life.
We’re keen to spread the word about our incredible success story. National Grid recently sponsored the Target Job Awards and we used the opportunity to showcase our EmployAbility programme to 1,500 people in the audience. We were also please to win the award for Diversity Recruitment at the event.
Another of our interns, Jonny Shaw, spoke at the event and urged those in the audience to give other young people the same chances he’d had. “Thousands of my peers want to add value to society,” he said. “They have no hope now, but you can give them hope.”
Jonny made it clear that the internship had changed his life. They were moving words – and a powerful message for other private employers to hear.
We’re passionate about keeping up the momentum and will be holding two ‘Working Together’ conferences on 22 May and 4 June. Our objective is to encourage further take up of the EmployAbility programme in other organisations and we already have 110 people from the business world signed up to attend. If you’d like to join them, you can sign up here.
We’re keen to team up with other companies and work together, because by doing so we can better understand the challenges facing society. Combining ideas can also create better outcomes and have a more positive impact. The work we do with the Energy and Utilities Industrial Partnership, the Science Museum and our lead on Careers Lab highlights how collaboration with other businesses can have a greater impact.
We also recently signed up to the Government’s Disability Confident Campaign, where we’ve joined a number of other large employers in making a commitment to creating opportunities for disabled people to fulfil their potential. We’d encourage all businesses to sign up and run schemes like EmployAbility.
Our experience is that colleagues with disabilities add real value and, having often overcome significant barriers in their personal life, demonstrate perseverance and a strong ability to manage challenges in the business environment. They’re role models to us all.