Podcast Episode 77 When we’re young we think we can do anything, be anyone, achieve everything. But as many of us get older we learn to fit into the box of expectations. For young people with additional needs this box can be small, with many assuming that they will not be entering the employment market any time soon.
This week’s guest Alison Thwaite, the Employment Development Manager of the WorkFit programme run by the Down’s Syndrome Association, does not agree. She offers a much better model of presumed employment.
Presumed employment comes from the angle that employment will happen at some stage and works towards that time. The WorkFit program takes young people though the process of deciding what jobs they might like to do while also helping them be realistic in terms of the skills they have. In addition, they are helped to identify whether there are local employers that can offer the roles they may be suited for.
Alison talks about the wider issues around why young people with additional needs find getting paid employment a challenge, as well as the role that parents play – this can be very positive but occasionally can also restrict opportunities and hinder progress. She also discusses the importance of supporting employers, educating fellow employees, and providing ongoing support to ensure that the transition into paid employment is not only as smooth as possible but is also sustainable in terms of the individual staying in a role and even advancing within the company.
If presumed employment was a reality for all young people with additional needs who do want a paid job, then we really could see an inclusive society where people are valued for themselves as individuals and not for any label they may have been given.Show Full Transcript
Debra: Welcome to Episode 77 of the Journey Skills podcast. I wanna start this week with the name of this episode because I think it sums up what I hope this podcast can be all about which is changing people’s minds. The name of the episode is Presumption of Employment. Now I didn’t come up with this name, that was in fact my guest’s, Alison Thwaite who is the Employment Development Manager for the WorkFit Program which is run by the Down’s Syndrome Association.
Now I know that some listeners might now tune out only because they might think that what Alison has to say won’t necessarily apply to their young person. This couldn’t be further from the truth because what she talks about applies to every young person with additional needs. And it’s about thinking differently and presuming our young people can and will get a job.
I’m also gonna be pretty honest here and say that I’ve got this one wrong myself. Not to beat myself up too much (that’s kind of unproductive) because it certainly isn’t the case that I don’t believe my daughter will one day get a job. She can, she will, and she believes that she will, which is what is most important. However, along the way, I don’t think I’ve thought enough about the presumption of employment because actually to make presumption of employment a reality requires a plan. If I think about my older daughter, she had a plan– she thought about what job she wanted, she wrote a CV, she went to an interview, and then she got a job. But my youngest is now 18 and we’re in the eye of the storm in terms of finding her work experience. And now she meets the end of her formal education and all the safety and security that provides for her and frankly for us too. Because we didn’t start earlier with helping her get work experience and possibly even find a weekend job, this has been so much more of a challenge. So while we might have presumed employment, we didn’t put a date on it and we didn’t have a plan.
This also brings me to something else that Alison talks about which made me rethink my views. And that’s the role of parents in all of this. Like all of you, I am my daughter’s biggest fan and I think I’m the one that can do it all for her, but what Alison says is sometimes, having that third party between us and prospective employers can actually make all the difference. I wish I had realised this a lot earlier because I think it’s actually true and for all the reasons that she shares in our discussion. Alison talks about this wider issues but she also discusses how the program works and how important the support to the employer is in making the program such a success and keeping young people in their jobs long-term.
One thing Alison did ask me to do and really it’s a no-brainer is to reach out to anyone in England and Wales who knows a local employer or is an employer who’s looking for motivated employees because she has a pool of untapped talent waiting for the right roles with any organisation.
Debra: Today I’m talking to Alison Thwaite who is an Employment Development Manager for the Down’s Syndrome Association. She is going to talk to us about WorkFit, which is their employment program. Welcome Alison.
Can you tell me first of all a little bit about yourself and then also about the WorkFit Program, please?
Alison: My background professionally is HR management and a commercial development and I didn’t know anything about down syndrome until 13 years ago. And then my brother and his wife had triplets and one of their children, Olivia, had down syndrome. And I thought, “Well, I need to find out about down syndrome as a condition. I need to up-skill myself so that I can understand and support her and be the best possible auntie that I can be.” So I joined a local down syndrome support group and that was over 13 years ago. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s really enriched my life beyond anything I could have imagined. It’s been a really positive experience and as I said at the time I was working in HR management in a commercial development. And then an opportunity came along with the Down’s Syndrome Association WorkFit Program almost 5 years ago and having had a background in recruitment and HR, I thought it would be something that I would be able to contribute to when it was something that excited me very much. So I was successful with my application, started off working as an employment development officer in the North of England and then almost 2 years I was asked to manage the project. The program’s going from strength to strength and I feel very privileged to be involved with it.
Debra: Can you explain exactly what the program is all about?
Alison: Yes absolutely. The concept of WorkFit is to bring people who have down syndrome and employees together with a suitable fit. So that the two elements… to that we work with our job seekers, we refer to them as candidates. We go and meet our candidates and we find out what interests them, what their ambitions are around having a job, what their experience is, what motivates them as an individual– that’s all very important. We do a vocational profile with them to capture as much information as we can. We ideally have a CV from them as well if that’s something that they can provide. And then we look at the different sectors that they might want to work in. What we find is the people who have down syndrome have usually got experience in hospitality, retail, so they tend to think of those sectors that they would like to go into and sometimes part of our role is just to broaden their horizons a little bit and talk about different types of jobs. We have people working warehousing, in museums. You know there’s so many different industry sectors out there that they could find out more about that we can organize some sessions for them.
Then on the other side of that, we have our employers that we work with. So again, we go and meet our employers, we do an assessment with them, we look at the workplace, their culture, things like health and safety and we look at the type of opportunity they might want to offer and we’re very flexible around that. So, some of our employers want to offer work experience placements, some want to offer placement and then we’ll offer permanent paid work, if everything works out. Some just go into offering permanent paid work from the start, and we also support supported internships and supported apprenticeships if that’s what our candidates are looking to do.
One of the things about our work with employers which is very important is the support that we offer them. So we offer a lot of resources, advice, and also training which is fundamental to the success of the program. When we go in, we train the staff within the organisation and we talk to them in a quite a lot of depth about the learning profile of people who have down syndrome, we talk about strategies to help them at work and motivational tools, lots of different aspects that might help them basically to help them to get the most out of and their person who has down syndrome at work.
Debra: What’s the biggest challenge for them? Do you think coming into thinking about getting a job, is it the fact that they’ve got a narrow view of what they might want to do?
Alison: I think that can be a factor but also a low expectations I think play a part. That it may be that through their academic career, they haven’t had people around them who have this presumption of employment for them. We think presumption of employment is very important. We are hoping that from the age of 13, 14 people in their support network are talking to them about what kind of job they might want to do, how will they travel to and from work, has their education help them care plan? So, it’s a lot around expectation and perception of that individual and also the people around them. We want to, you know, nurture their ambitions to go to work and nurture their desires for independence; you know things like independent living can be assisted greatly by them being employed in paid work.
Debra: Something like they get a CV, what are some of the tips that you would offer if they’re coming to you and they haven’t had any experience. How do you go through that process with them?
Alison: We have a section on the CV called personal profile and we encourage them to talk about themselves as individuals. We don’t place as much emphasis on qualifications and experience and things like that because it’s more about placing somebody who’s got an interest in the job and attitude perhaps who’s motivated to do the job. So we wanted them to talk themselves as an individual, what they enjoy, what their hopes and interests are, what areas of specifically of help that they might need just to give the employer a kind of view of them as a person and what to expect.
And then when they come and meet the employer, we support a very informal interview and tour of the workplace to help everybody relax and feel quite informed about the whole process, but it’s nice for that employee to have a CV of whatever format, whatever kind.– it can be pictures, it can be texts, whatever, just for them to have some kind of idea of that person and perhaps have some ideas of what they would talk to that person about when they come in.
Debra: It’s not necessarily having to build a traditional CV, it’s about highlighting their strengths.
Alison: That’s it.There’s so many skills that they can illustrate. You know, if people travel independently, that’s a great skill to have. If things go well, that’s fine and if they manage to cope with scenarios where things don’t go well around travel and things like that, it shows that they have some problem-solving skills, that they have ambition to get to where they need to go and they are quite resourceful in lots of ways. So things like that. An employee can see a lot of skills and abilities in the individual just by them explaining about things they do maybe in their social lives or spare time.
Debra: How exactly do you find the employers?
Alison: We tend to have different routes into employers. When we first meet a candidate and we ask them, you know, what kind of work they’re interested in, we also tend to ask if there are any local employers that they are interested to meet with or go on work for, and sometimes people have a list or sometimes presented with a list of 10 or 15 employers which is really helpful for us and sometimes our candidates say, “We really have no idea, we’re not sure.” So we have some quite strong relationships with quite a number of national employers, the retailers. logistics companies, different people like that who have locations across England and Wales and sometimes we might approach a particular site from one of those organisations that we don’t currently have anybody placed with and just talk to them about what we’ve done with WorkFit, we have the locations in their group that we’re working with and just ask them if it’s something that they’ll be interested to get involved with.
The other option is we take the list from the candidate and we simply call employers, often we tell them about ourselves, what help and support we can offer, we advise that everything we do is absolutely free of charge, we talk to them about the benefits for them which there are considerable number of benefits for employees in terms of getting involved– accessing a great pool of talent, improving staff morale for their existing staff, improving their corporate image. So we talk through all of those options and we can usually get a feel for… if a company’s genuinely interested and if they are we would then move up forward, we would go in and meet with them, do an assessment , talking a bit more detail about the program.
Debra: Do you think sometimes and it’s a lot of employers are more than willing once they’ve realised that there’s actually benefits that you mention because there is a pool of talent, of unused talents, out there?
Alison: Yes, yes. Sorry to interrupt but yes. Employers, I think, often just don’t know how to go about recruiting somebody. They may have very good ambitions around fulfilling the quality and diversity agenda and want to get involved but don’t necessarily know who to talk to, they may not know what help and advices out there, they don’t know about MDWP funding like access to work and those kinds of support mechanisms that are out there in place.
Debra: If someone gets a job and you go and you do training, what kind of things do you cover when you do the training because I’m assuming you’re training the other members of staff within the organisation?
Alison: It’s training for the current staff and in particular, buddies. We advocated a buddy role within the organisation so we ask the employer to maybe ask for volunteers or designate somebody that they feel would be a good buddy for the person coming in who would work very closely. So, we’re looking for a buddy with the right degree of patience and beyond understanding. So then we bring as many people along to the training session as the employee would like and we talk about down syndrome as a condition, (a lot of people don’t know a great deal about down syndrome so we talk about that), we talk about possible health implications, we talk about the learning style which is absolutely crucial. So we talk about structure, repetition, and routine which is very important for our individuals going in and then we talk about we have the buddy stepping back all the time, allowing the person to go in confidence and to flourish and maybe to take on more responsibility if they want to. We talk about various strategies in various anecdotal information about things that may or may not happen and how they might want to deal with it.
But the main message of the training is just to explain that people who have down syndrome are just like everyone else. They have the same dreams, hopes, and ambitions as everyone else. They just want to be part of the team like everyone else is.
Debra: Have you found that extra support is kept people in work because one of the big issues that seems to me is that young people with additional needs can get a job but they can’t keep it because of the challenges being in the workplace? Is the program that you have is that really help them stay within that role?
Alison: Yes, well we commit to supporting that individual and the employer for the lifetime of their employment with that organisation. So what we tend to do is our support initially is quite intense, as you would imagine, and then you know the length of time between us doing reviews tends to lengthen. Once we’ve had somebody established in a permanent paid job for 2 years, we tend to not go in and do it face-to-face review because we are confident that everyone’s happy, things are going well but what we always say is we are available at the end of the phone, or at the end of an email or if people want us to come in either party wants us to come in, we’re more than happy to do that. But yes, that on-going support is very important. We don’t just, you know, hand somebody across to an employer and say “There you go, this is your new employee. Thank you and good night.” We wouldn’t do that, especially on those first few weeks since people get to know each other. You know, something might have done an employee might call and say “Oh this happened today. We were a little bit unsure how to handle and what to think”. But to be honest, it doesn’t happen very often because we tend to cover as much as we possibly can in the training session to see, you know, “If this arouse, you might want to do this or you might want to do that”. But we do stress it’s all about getting to know the individual, that’s very important. And getting to know what motivates them, what they enjoy, what keeps them happy, what they’re likely to respond to and being very positive at work.
So I think, if we feel as though we’ve done a good job with the training and given the employee and the buddies as much information as we can, it’s very rare that we get any kinds of issues. It tends to be more an external issue. We’ve had some challenges for people who have gone into work but then they’ve had bereavement plus somebody close to them had a major issues in their personal lives something like that tends to impact on them at work which is very understandable.
Debra: But that would happen to anybody I’d assume. So it’s not that unusual, is it?
Alison: Yeah, absolutely.
Debra: Because your program is obviously very structured and there’ll be lots of people listening to this who can’t access it, what are some of the tips that you would have for parents who have a young person and they want them to have her believe that they can get a job, what kind of things could they start doing with them?
Alison: It’s very important to have to just to go back to that expression of the presumption of employment. To talk about what they might want to do, what they might enjoy, what they feel good about, you know. We talked to candidates about friends and relatives and what they do and often, you know, they know there’s mum and dad go to work, brothers and sisters go to work, they may not necessarily know all of the details but they know that they want to have experience themselves, they want to feel good about themselves, they want to be part of their community, they want to earn money, they have bills to pay, they want to spend money on holidays and various other things. So, it’s about setting the scene, setting that expectation, instilling in them the desire if you like and the motivation to go to work and the rewards that come from that.
Debra: In terms of practical things, how do you think people should approach employers because if they haven’t got your, I guess, infrastructure. Is there ways to talk to employers? Do you think to sort of make and see that this young person might be a good fit even if it’s just for work experience? Because that is a pretty big issue find work experience often for young people who have additional needs.
Alison: I think sometimes employer are slightly hesitant if approached by a parent because they worry that parents will be quite protective which of course they will be that’s quite understandable. I think they sometimes worry that parents won’t be quite as objective and may not understand sort of their business needs if you like and you know, they don’t want to come over as not being supportive and don’t always know how to interact necessarily with the parent. And I think having a third party like WorkFit or another supported employment agency is very valuable in that respect in terms of being able to get all of the benefits to the employer and being that sort of meddle man that go between if there are any issues or concerns, that person steps in to get involve between the employer and the family. So I think sort of genuinely quite keen to do with a lot of employers just worry the dynamics. They don’t want to upset people, they don’t want anyone to feel that they aren’t doing the right thing. So having that third party is quite important in my opinion.
Debra: Yeah and also possibly parents then reassuring the potential employer that they’re not going to be that helicopter parent that’s going to want or expect, what you’re saying, want them to have everything…
Alison: It just makes it a more… a smoother process shall we say it. And as well, the employee feels more reassured because we have the experience of developing opportunities and being able to talk about things that might happen. So I think it is very reassuring for the employer and the family to have a supported employment person involved.
Debra: What does the future hold then for WorkFit? Where are you guys heading?
Alison: We are a team of 9, we’re quite a small team and we cover the whole of England and Wales with that team of 9 people. Obviously, Down’s Syndrome Association is a charity so we are relying to donations and charitable twists and different funding streams to be able to continue our work. We aren’t in the position to call it the whole of England and Wales which is a shame but at the same time we don’t have the constraints around resource. So we work very hard in terms of supporting as many candidates and employers as we can to get the outcomes that they want. And I think the future’s very bright for WorkFit. We’ve had a lot of rewards particularly in the last 3 years, we’ve been recognised by a number of learning disability charities and supported employment governing buddy which is the British Association of Supported Employers. You know, we’re very fortunate that the model is recognised as one that is very effective and delivers a lot of great outcomes. So, I can only see very good things for WorkFit. I think it will go from strength to strength and it’s just wonderful to see so many people have their career and ambitions realised.
Debra: Must be changing perceptions as well within the employers because I’m assuming that the more young people that go and work for these (even the larger employers) the more people around them understand that they just like everyone else and they just want to work.
Alison: That’s right. It’s so important to you know if you go into a local retail outlet or a local restaurant or wherever you see somebody who has down syndrome working there, we wanted to be just the norm that of course somebody would be working there why wouldn’t we be there. You know, we wanted to be accepted and not for it to be an exception. So the more people that we have in work and part of their community , the better.
Debra: Alison, thank you so much for your time.
Alison: My pleasure.
Debra: Key takeaway– start the planning early so that presumption of employment is well planned for.
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