Tag Archives: employment

Getting Ready For Work

Podcast Episode 76 For many young people with additional needs finding a job can be incredibly challenging. It takes planning and for most requires them to go way outside their comfort zone. This week’s guest Dr Michael Reiter runs work readiness workshops and he talks us through the three areas he focuses on to help the emerging adults in the group find and keep a job.

Michael talks about the importance of setting goals and making sure these are SMART as well as identifying the types of jobs a young person might like to do but also has the required skills to do. He discusses the interview process and the fact that as much as this is about the practical things like being able to answer questions it’s also about the ability to manage your own anxiety. Interviews are stressful for most people so ways to help manage that stress, so you still are able to perform at your best is a key part of finding work. Finally he discusses how they address the after you have the job issue looking at the social skills required in a workplace and how to manage those.

Michael talks about the need to have realistic expectations around work but for the emerging adults he works with using this approach he is actually providing them with a realistic change of finding and keeping a job.

Getting a job for our young people will probably never be easy but by helping them prepare properly, using a model like this, and giving them greater autonomy to plan their own work future we are helping increase the probability it will happen one day.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
Debra: Welcome to Episode 76 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode our topic is all about work. I’m talking to Dr. Michael Reiter who runs a work readiness group. I came across Michael via Main Street which is bringing housing project and I spoke to Jillian from Main Street back in Episode 60 and Michael’s group was mentioned in the Main Street newsletter as an example of resources available in the area. Now obviously most of us can’t access to groups like this but I reached out to Michael because I thought he might be willing to share some ideas. And to be honest, he pretty much shares his blueprint for what to cover in a group like this.

He placed the work readiness group downing to 3 areas; the first is about goal-setting — finding out what young people want to do using SMART goals. We already do this a little bit with our own daughter in helping her set goals (or be it just for the week) but just to give her an idea of what to do and how to do it because we do it ourselves. The second thing that he covers in the group is interview preparation. Although he talks about in terms of actually alleviating the anxiety that going to an interview can bring so it’s all about managing that sort of anxiety.

I’m kind of hopeful in some ways that this issue might actually become less of a problem in the future because there are now many companies that understand that face-to-face interviews aren’t going to help our young people, not going to showcase their skills, and certainly not show what they are capable of in the actual workplace. But saying that, most of us will still need to help them out when it comes to preparing for an interview at some point.

And the final part of what Michael talks about is after getting the job is staying in the job. And that’s the big challenge. This really is a big issue and to use a cliche, It’s a game-changer when you have in place support for employers. And most successful employment programs I’ve seen such as the one that Team Domenica runs (which we talked about in Episode 45) inclusion element of employer’s support on the eyes on of the employees in some ways. And it provides that extra step and keeps the young people in their jobs which is what we want.

So Michael talks us through those 3 areas in terms of how he works with the young people in the group. The other thing that I found that really interesting in my conversation with Michael is the way that he uses the term ’emerging adults’. I actually never heard anyone used that term before. And it’s a term I really like because I think it kind of sums up what all about our people young people go through. They take a bit longer to get things, they take a bit long becoming to adulthood. And the idea of an emerging adult — it just kind of resonated with me.

Michael talks about a few resources and I’ll put those in the show notes. He talks about The Holland Codes Test, he talks about the Occupational Outlook Handbook, and he also talks about Stages of Changes. So these things are those in the show notes if you wanna have a look and find out a little bit more.

Debra: Today I’m talking to Dr Michael Reiter who is a Licensed Psychologist based in Maryland in the US. Welcome, Mike!

Michael: Thanks for having me, Debra.

Debra: Can you tell me, first of all, a little bit about yourself and then also about what we’re going to talk about today is actually something you do called an Employment Readiness Group.

Michael: Sure, happy to do that. I’m a clinical psychologist and I practiced just outside of Washington, DC. I received my degrees from The George Washington University and my training background is generally in family systems and cognitive behavioral therapy. And generally, I work with teenagers and emerging adults who are struggling with navigating their next steps. This could be while they’re in high school or post-secondary, some of my clients have gone off to college and they’ve returned home and are regrouping, some are yet to leave the nest. They’re often underlying challenges that are contributing to why they’re having a hard time moving forward. Some of those could be anxiety, social anxiety. I see a lot of OCD, depression, executive functioning challenges such as ADHD. I do see some clients who have autism spectrum disorders or challenges with social cognition, social communication.

In terms of how I came to working on developing this group, over the years I’ve worked with a lot of young adults who struggled with navigating the employment world. Thus, I want to put a group together that help them navigate the employment process but also addresses some of the underlying issues that might be getting in the way of them moving forward. So in some ways I think about this group as a therapeutic employment group which is a blend of vocational rehabilitation and supportive employment curriculum with cognitive behavioral therapy and also helping participants understand employment world as a social world and how to navigate it.

Debra: Can you just talk me through then what you do with the group? Do you have a schedule of I guess workshops that you run through or people just come along and you talk about issues for that particular person? Or how does that actually work?

Michael: Well, when someone will call me and show interest in a group, sometimes it’s the parents of the emerging adult and I’ll invite them to come in front and take appointment. So, just be one meeting where we get to know each other a little bit and I get to learn more about what their goals are. At that point, we decide whether the group seems like be a good fit for them or not. And at that point, I also assess if there are other supports in the community that might be more appropriate for them. If it seems like the group is a good fit, then they’ll sign up and it’s a 15-session group, we meet twice a week for about an hour and a half each meeting. There’s a parent meeting in the beginning of the group, that’s to orient them to the curriculum, answer questions they have about the group and most importantly so they can ask questions and we can talk about how they could support their emerging adult in the group. I think all parents are eager to help their young adults in the process and find it hard to know how to do so. And they’ve tried to work together in the past and sometimes that works well, sometimes it doesn’t. So we talk that through at that time. And also, I think them knowing that we’re gonna be covering certain topics here helps them feel more relaxed at home that we’ll be working on some of the goals that they’ve been trying to do at home on their own. Parents also get offered a meeting at the end of the group where we can provide feedback to them and talk about the next steps and come with a plan for what the participants will be doing later on.

I’d loosely break up the group content into (of the fifteen sessions) into three categories; the first third of the group is geared more towards goal setting, self-exploration, and being prepared for the application process. I’d say the second portion of the group focuses on anxiety management, interview prep and practice which is important for a lot of reasons including exposure, facing our fears, getting feedback from your peers. The third portion the group is geared more towards social communication at the workplace, so managing difficult situations, communicating with your coworkers, with your supervisors.

So we start off with SMART goals which are basically goals that will orient everyone to what they wanna accomplish during the course of the group; their specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and have a time frame associated with them. We talk about what those are, people do worksheets and bring them back in for the next meeting. And then we learn how to.. we take a Holland codes test. We learn how to do that. It’s a vocational career interest survey and we use the Holland codes results to guide us through what’s called the Occupational Outlook Handbook. That’s basically an encyclopedia that the Department of Labor and Statistics in the United States has which gives a listing of job occupations and vocations and what those jobs do, how much they get paid, how do you get that job, what kind of training do you need, and also some more occupations. So really is a self-directed job search. So it’s interest-oriented, you’re not telling someone “Hey, this is what you should be.” This is more of “What your personality type looks like would fit for you in the future, now let’s go search some more”. So we started off with that. We do some worksheets on the benefits and costs of work which gets us to the motivation for wanting to work.

We talk about stages of change where is everyone in their stage of change. So the stages of change are pre-contemplation, contemplation, action, maintenance, relapse and it’s an interesting conversation to have. We discuss our vocational supports so those referred to our family to maybe outside supports, coaches, therapists what are the aspects of support that we need, what are the aspects of support that we don’t need as much, how do we communicate those needs to those around us. We learn about stress and coping with the process, how do we manage stress, we call that The Stress Tolerance. We share our strategies, we discuss new strategies that might be useful for the process of looking for work. Looking for work as a stressful process and if you’re struggling with mental health issues or disability it’s even harder, so it’s a really important conversation. So, so far this first third of the group is getting us ready and prepared for the process; orienting ourselves to what we want to be doing or what we want to be looking for.

And then we do a little more hard skill development. We spend some time in resumes and cover letters and talking through tips and strategies for organizing the search. We do a lot of peer feedback at this point. We talk about the application as a social engagement. This is something that I think is really important. Well, a lot will think, we think of applying for jobs as you just like find that online and then you click on that and you submit and you wait to hear back and that’s maybe the first step but after that, you have to start talking to people, whether it’s through email or through phone calls or in person. And we have to like really navigate this process as a social engagement and I think that can be really scary and a foreign world for a lot of people and that’s where I think people tend to get tripped up sometimes. So a lot of the group really focuses on demystifying that and helping people understand what the steps are and managing the underlying issues that been getting in the way of that. So I’d say that’s the first third of the group is focusing on orienting ourselves and setting goals, coping with the process and getting our resumes and ourselves right need to take that step.

Debra: Can I just ask a quick question about that. Do you know you think that often young people who have additional needs are not very good at setting goals. They’ve never really thought about setting goals because I think it’s a hard thing to do anyway for most of us, but, do you find that that’s something that they find particularly challenging — setting goals about what they want?

Michael: Sure. I think it’s very hard. I think that that’s one of the struggles that I notice happens when someone comes to the group, they had a hard time with setting their goals and not achieving them and then it feels like the goals are unachievable. So part of this is helping individuals learn how to set realistic goals and to break them down into smaller steps that are more achievable. But we’re talking about working with young adults who may not actually know what they want to do and that’s okay. So I think that it’s okay to not actually know what you want to do and maybe the goal is just to get some experience and part of this is also expectation management. It might be that these emerging adults who are coming here or anywhere else are thinking, “Oh, I need to have my career lined up. I need to know what I wanna do” but that may not be the case, it may not be realistic. So I think that sometimes we need expectation management.

Debra: Can we talk a little bit about the parents because I think that’s an interesting thing that you mentioned before about you support the parents as well and that that to me seems a really essential, doesn’t it? The parents have to be kind of on-board and helping the young person at home but you did mention that often parents don’t know what to do. What are some of the tips you would have for parents just in a general sense of being able to help their young person with some of the challenges?

Michael: Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s a hard question to answer a little bit but I think that one of the things that I would suggest is to think about autonomy. I think that sometimes the parents and the emerging adults that caught up in a sort of power struggle about the process and moving forward. And are trying to help but that help isn’t necessarily coming across in a positive way even though it’s help that is needed or maybe wanted by the emerging adult. I think it’s important for parents to think about how they can support their young adults without it feeling like they are telling their young adults to do something. So how do we support our emerging adults without undermining their own motivation. And all the people who are coming to the group are motivated to move forward but then what’s going on at home that might be undermining that and I think being transparent about that motivational process or undermining motivational process that’s going on with parents. Here we have that discussion about self-determination theory. That’s the theory behind it and I talk about it with the emerging adults as well and we try to come together so everyone can understand what people’s intentions are in the ways that they’re trying to support each other. So, I think for parents to be mindful of how their support comes across is important.

Debra: So the first step is the setting of the goals, and the second is the..you said the process of how you apply. Was that right?

Michael: I’d say the second section I would loosely put into a category of anxiety management and interview practice. And I would say this is maybe the most important piece. Once you have the foundation of what you’re looking for hence, coping skills in place to navigate and to start the process, you really have to manage the anxiety associated with the actual process of looking for work. It can be really stressful. I hear a lot that sitting down and looking for a job, figuring out how to answer questions on application, aside from the actual interview and meeting people and communicating and knowing what to say can be really stressful. So I take very much a cognitive behavioral therapy approach which we learn about our anxious thinking styles, we learn about positive self-talk, cognitive thinking ways to use self-talk to work through these stressful applications and the process, we learn about avoidance variables. The whole group itself from beginning to end is an exposure because you’re forced to face the idea of looking for work.

But this section here really talks a lot about exposure and facing your fears because when we have anxiety, whether it’s the primary issue or it’s a secondary issue, and by that I mean someone might have social anxiety that’s a reason why they’ve had a hard time with the process or maybe someone has ADHD and they’ve had a hard time engaging the process because of executive function challenges but because of that they’ve developed some anxiety about the process. Whether it’s primary secondary issue, it could be a lot of anxiety and which creates avoidance and then we need to learn how to face that fear and the group really teaches individuals about that process and we start to practice it. So it’s an anxiety management aspect here where we’re learning about how to manage anxiety and stress.

And then we practice interviews; we prep for, we dress for interviews. Everyone comes in, we do it a few different ways so we can try to get different experiences. The first what we do is we use actually Zoom video conferencing and I have someone in one room interview with a stranger, in the other room the group watches the interview and afterwards everyone is able to give feedback on the interview including the person who is conducting an interview which is very unique. Often when you have an interview, you don’t understand or hear any feedback to why it didn’t work out. So this is really important.

Then the recorded interview is sent to the participants so they can review it themselves and I also review it and give additional feedback later. Then we also do in-session practice where we pair up and interview each other and the group watches and then we also do fun practice where we call each other from different conference rooms. So we do in a variety of ways all which are targeted towards giving feedback. I think it’s a really important aspect of the group so that helps a lot with the anxieties.

Debra: Because it’s interesting you say that because it’s a little bit of a move I think for interviews be a little bit different because some people really find it a massive challenge to go through that very, I suppose, systematic process of sitting down there, answering questions. So there have been a number of companies haven’t there that talk, that do something slightly different to give people.. because you do not always see skills, do you, in an interview with them sitting and answering a question if they’re not very good at answering questions?

Michael: That’s right. It can be very hard. Yeah, we talk a lot about the difference between soft skills and hard skills. Sometimes I think some people tend to lean on their hard skills, sometime in interview answers sometimes they lean on their soft skills. So we talk about how they can help describe what their abilities are.

What we do is we have people research a job that they want to apply for or they’ve applied for and they do the interview for that job and then when we do it practice interviews again we actually interview over and over again for the same jobs to really refine that skill set.

Debra: And so what’s the final third then?

Michael: The final third focuses more on this idea of once you have a job, maintaining work; workplace communication, healthy work relationships, self-advocacy. So in the last portion of the group, we talk about handling difficult conversations with peers and supervisors, how you might manage workplace conflict, boundaries at work, social skills in the workplace. We talk a little bit about workplace accommodation, so how you might qualify for those or ask for those at the beginning of the process or once you are already employed, assertiveness. So that’s the last third of the group.

Debra: Because that again, that’s quite interesting as well because a lot of people will get a job and then they won’t actually keep it, will they? Because they can’t deal with the day-to-day challenges that work brings.

Michael: Yeah that’s true. That’s where someone might benefit from ongoing supported employment so our long-term support. And that’s something that the group doesn’t have which is the group I think has a lot of benefits. One of the benefits of the group is that you’re with peers and if you’re with peers then there’s accountability and I think that’s the important piece of being in the group. I think that one of the downsides of the group or any group is that you don’t have the ongoing individual support afterwards. I think that the model of having a group such as this combined with individual support, whether it’s from parents (this is why we involve the parents in the process afterwards or family members or if it’s a job coach or an agency that’s working with the individual) to continue the support that you’ve already received. And there are a lot of supports available at least in our area here for individuals with disabilities. The unfortunate thing is that there’s a service gap. Sometimes the individuals who are struggling don’t meet the requirements or their disability isn’t significant or severe enough to be eligible to access those services.

Debra: Do you have any sort of success stories that you could share with us?

Michael: Yeah, I can’t get to specific but I do think that we’ve had… this past group, we had some success actually about 75% of the group went on by the end of the group had a job, full-time or part-time. And I think that part of that was due to the accountability factor in the group. It’s one thing to be accountable to a parent, therapist or coach but I think it’s different when your peers are doing something that you’re supposed to be doing and you know you have to talk about it with them in two or three days and also getting the feedback and having that peer support of knowing others are having the same struggle.

We did have successes this past round in a group where individuals got their jobs of choice that they wanted to. And I think that had to do with also being realistic about what they’re qualified to do and being motivated and wanting to do it.

Debra: What do you think has been the biggest challenge for the young people that you’re helping?

Michael: I think for me, one of the biggest challenges was working through the group topics and curriculum while also tailoring to each participant’s needs. The group is the group. So if someone is able to continue to pursue looking for work on their own without additional individualised support, then that’s great but they’re not. And they need that support then it might be a little harder for them. So I think that the challenge is having a comprehensive support for individuals who need that support and pulling that together so having a team really for the person.

I think that in general the challenges that I see are the emerging adults understanding how to navigate the future. I think that when you’re in grade school and high school, the world is basically organised and structured and given to you. Here’s where you have to be from 9-5 or whatever your school hours are. You know, here are friends, here are your social activities, here’s what you’re doing before school, after school, you have to wake up and go. And then when you go off to college and to work, these supports slowly get peeled away and how to do it on your own becomes more and more foreign. And if you have social anxiety or if you have a social, communication, or cognition challenge such as autism, then you’re really like in a foreign world and you just don’t understand how to navigate it and I think that’s where the challenge really comes into play. Then that’s really the goal that we have here to really try to be a part of the process of helping that out.

Debra: Michael, thank you so much for your time.

Michael: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

Debra: Key takeaway– For me personally it was to listen more and to empower my daughter to think more about her own future; to help her take ownership or as Michael says to have more autonomy in deciding what she wants to do in the future.

Dr Reiter’s Group
The Occupational Outlook Handbook for self-guided career interest searching
Holland Codes Test
Autism Speaks Employment Toolkit
Stages Of Change

Please subscribe to this podcast and if you have a story you would like to share I would love to hear from you just email debra@journeyskills.com

Please Review Us On iTunes

If you liked this podcast and would like to help us, please do the 1, 2, 3:
(1) Click Review on iTunes (2) Click ‘View in Itunes’; and (3) Click on ‘Ratings and Reviews’ (just to the right of ‘Details’) and leave a review.

Attracting The Best Person For The Job At Specialisterne

Podcast Episode 72 Everyone has unique skills; everyone is a specialist in something. This is something this week’s guest Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne understands completely. Specialisterne translates from Danish as “The Specialists” is an organisation focused on helping young people with additional needs find meaningful employment. The focus is on matching the skills of the individual with the role not trying to make the person fit the job.

Specialisterne have also developed a unique approach to assessing the skill of individuals in a way that enables them to showcase their individual skills as well as show how they work in a team. This is in recognition that traditional interview approaches limit the opportunities for young people with additional needs to fully illustrate what they are capable of.

Specialisterne also work with employers proactively, to not only help them maximise the skills of their employees but, with practical support around what reasonable adjustments might be necessary in any workplace.

Specialisterne also has a much wider purpose than just helping people find work, they are on a mission to show employers how they are missing out on utilising an incredible pool of talented individuals with specialist skills that could give their organisation a competitive advantage.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 72 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode, I’m talking to Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne which is an organisation that aims to change people’s mindsets around what makes a great employee. Thorkil explains why and how Specialisterne came to be, but this one to highlight a couple of things that I think are really important. The first is about the interview process. And speaking for my own personal experience with my daughter, I can already say that a formal interview process won’t really bring out the best in her. It won’t show potential employer what she’s capable of. So one of the innovations that Specialisterne has is an interview process that actually doesn’t include an interview.

And second, the idea of training and supporting employers. I think this is really key when it comes to increasing employment options for young people with additional needs. There are already schemes out there that help people get into work. The challenge for many seems to be staying in their jobs. And one reason I think for this is (and this is really coming from speaking to lots of employers on the podcast interviews) is an employers need to be trained as well and they need to be supported. And making this a key part of what we do to increase employment opportunities is in my opinion key to going forward because as it is being said by many people on the podcast, it’s about understanding, it’s about awareness, it’s about acceptance– acceptance of an individual’s skills, acceptance of the individual, and also seeing what they bring to the workplace and to a team. And Thorkil talks about that as well. Certain more about how Specialisterne is helping employers to harness the under-utilised talents of so many young people.

DEBRA: Today I am talking to Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne which is based in Denmark. Welcome, Thorkil.

THORKIL: Thank you, Debra.

DEBRA: Can you tell me a little about the story of Specialisterne?

THORKIL: So 20 years ago, I was technical director in an IT company. The traditional family life– 3 kids. When my youngest son was diagnosed with autism, the idea of a perfect family was challenged because we didn’t know better at that time. Suddenly to have a disabled child among us, it made us reflect on a lot of things and we’d read books about autism and that kind of documented why we should not expect too much and why our son should not expect too much. But even though we as parents took some tumbles then nothing changed for our son. He was the same wonderful child the day before and the day after the diagnosis.

So when we realised that, we skipped the trap of pity that many fall into at that time and we thought, well the most important thing is how can we support his development and how can we do what we can to make sure that he’s included like everyone else like his older siblings, like everyone else. So we came to a conclusion, instead of trying to train our son to behave like a non-autistic child so he could get a job, one day rather see if we could change the labour market so be more understanding and accommodating and creating zones for everyone where they can excel instead of having a few standards to you had to fit into.

In my career as an IT professional, I knew how difficult it is to find people who will hide pride in what they do, high accuracy, attention to detail, critical thinking, honesty.. they’re hard to find. But I also learned that there are a lot of people out there with those characteristics who don’t get a chance just because they don’t live up to the social expectations in any occupation. So I decided to try to change that and I quit my job and started as a social entrepreneur with Specialisterne in 2004. Specialisterne by the way is Danish for Specialists who want to create a room in the labour market for those who are not just generalists and fit the expectations from recruiters.

DEBRA: When you started the organisation, did you partner up with employers? How did it kind of started?

THORKIL: It started in a way where my former employer, I went to the HR Director and said, “I love working here but I feel I have to do something else.” And I told him about my son. My experience from them when I was acted being in Autism Denmark, so many who don’t get a chance while there are so many unfilled jobs. And I feel I need to try to make a change here. And then, my former employer we agreed that I should discuss with managers in my former employer company to see if they could be the first client and so I had talked to my former colleagues and a lot of them said, “Makes sense. We need to have tasks sort and many of these tasks good be a good fit such as software testing, data-analysis, data entries.”

So when I signed my resignation, I also signed the first client contract. So that gave me room to work on the essentials; how do I organize. I never went to business school, I did not know how to start a company but I feel I had to. So I tried to figure out how do I figure out what autistic people are good at? My competitors, they’ll hire the ones with the best resumes, CVs, job experience, education. I claim that there’s a lot of raw material among autistic people that can be utilized but what is it, how do I find it and how do I create environments where autistic people can excel, what they’re good at instead of trying to predict how to interact correctly the next situation.

So I went to Lego because I found out when meeting with other parents that one of few areas where many autistic people excel is when they play with Lego, so there’s some kind of systematic that could be a window to view on what are autistic people good at, motivated for. Communication is one of the challenges and when they’re not good at selling themselves and writing above themselves, how do I find out so that it would end. I thought if I can make them show me instead of telling me about themselves, that’s one way to grow.

And I went to Lego and came back with a Lego mindstorms robots that turned out to be a wonderful tool for creating playful environments where autistic people thought they were playing but actually they were showing us a lot about motivation, vulnerability, individual skills, shared skills and professional skills. So that worked out well.

I started up in a small city. I didn’t have any startup capital, I had to ask my wife if it was okay to mortgage the house. She said yes and we’re still married but I had no money when we started, only the contract with the employer and upfront payments. So whatever chances came we have to sold it because it was not a parking ticket it was a family’s economy that was at stake almost from day 1.

So I went to employers and with the case from my former employer that’s now called TDC in Denmark. I went and got my second employer and third employer and then BBC Worldnews came along and suddenly it was a story globally. And there I receives requests from all over the world from more than a hundred countries who were saying, “For our kids’ independent future, please come and do something in our country.” And when families contact me I cannot say no because I’m also a parent. I do understand their frustration and their hope. I guess I can say, “Be patient.”

And then I founded Specialisterne and the foundation in 2008. The goal to generate 1 million jobs for autistic people and people with similar challenges around the world. So this is now the platform where I’m the chairman of the foundation. I’m associated with the world economic forum as what the foundation social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow global network of social entrepreneurs and Specialisterne Foundation is associated with United Nations. So we have some big stages to work from and then we started Specialisterne in other countries. We now have operations in 12 countries. We worked with big employers around the world and we’d been copied by so many. We love to be copied. So probably my estimate is that probably 10,000 autistic people have gotten a job because of what we started back in 2004.

DEBRA: Let me go back to the bit about the robot, so what you got was the guys I’m assuming playing with the robots and from that you work out what their skills were, what did you then do in terms of going to the organisation and saying, “We have a person with these skills, these skills, and these skills.” How did that work? Because obviously you’ve identified in the young people what they can do, how do you then translate that to the employer and say, “This would work with this job.”?

THORKIL: Well we basically have two models: one is that we assess and hire the autistic people ourselves. And then we go out and offer consultancy services to clients. And in that situation, then we would know very well what the autistic people is good at and then we’ll go and sell that as a service. And then we can target clients that has a need in the area where the autistic people excel. So that’s kind of straightforward. We are the managers, we are responsible that everything works. So that’s one way. It’s a kind of a low-risk way because we’re in control of it all. But 90% of the autistic employees work at the client’s site so that’s a lot of engagement but it’s our employees. But it’s hard to scale and it’s very cost-heavy. The most scalable solutions is to help pick companies recruit autistic people. And in that case, if it could be Microsoft, SAP, EY, PWC, there’s many examples out there who have said, “Well, the autism in my brand it’s sounds interesting to us so we have some jobs here, maybe inside the security or in data design or data mining or something, could this be a good fit with autistic people? Then we go and visit the company, we meet the leadership, the management, the grass roots in the company because in all companies, there are family members who have a big patient for autistic people or people with similar challenges. And we like to contribute as buddies or mentors or somehow else take part in this.

Then we go through the job descriptions and kind of feel–“Do you really have to have many balls in the area to be flexible, to be good at selling yourself for a role in data mining?” And often they say, “No, actually not.” But this is kind of a standard job description. So we take some parts out typically that is not really relevant. And then we get an impression from the employer is this an employer who is willing to adapt the management style in order to support autistic people in the workplace. We don’t want to work with any employer. We expect 4 values; one respect that autistic person can add value to a diverse team and that yes this person has a formal disorder but you should expect the same as you would from anyone else because you should work with us because of talent acquisition and not because of CSR.

The second is accommodation. We had to create workplaces where autistic people excel so if it’s an open office environment, it should be okay to have noise-canceling headsets and small dividers if that’s what is needed for the person to feel comfortable in the work zone. And of course, there are flickering lights, we’ll have to deal with that but there’s always a solution to organise that.

The third value is clarity or transparency. It has to be understandable what is expected from you. So, say what you mean, mean what you say. Set expectations clearly. In return, you will get a very honest feedback and you will learn to appreciate that. And the fourth is accessibility. So if there’s need for guidance, if the person is getting stuck, the person should always know where to go.

So with respect, accommodation, clarity, and accessibility– this is really good management and what the examples from employers is that it creates a better workplace for everyone in that department. So, we claim that a workplace where autistic people thrive will be a better place to work for everyone. So, we have a 4 week standard assessment and on-boarding program where it all takes place at the employer because many autistic people have never been in a workplace before. Some have but that had been a bad experience. So we need time to kind of create the individual’s comfort zone in the workplace.

We train Lego Mindstorms, we get settled in the workplace in week one. Week two, we grow from an individual to a team comfort zone. We introduce Lego Mindstorms robots in a scrum setting. Scrum is an agile development framework where you learn how to work with others, how to optimise your own contribution compared with what is the capability of your team members and you learn how to deal with rapid decisions that takes place in most workplaces. So we have a scrum week where we give the challenge. They have to solve with Lego mindstorms robots in a team setting framed by the scrum methodology. So that’s actually it. Very often, I make it a moment when someone realise that they can actually work in teams and contribute to teams. They may have been told otherwise until then. But when you create these environments where people thrive and think they’re playing then a lot of things are possible.

And then the last two weeks we engage more in the assessment of professional skills, individual skills, motivation, work ability and we train the manager, buddies, mentors. So the workplace, it’s introduced to how to understand and work well with these new colleagues. And then we set up a support structure. So, the autistic people when hired, they have peers, a go-to person for understanding daily routines, a go-to person for kind of workplace questions and there will be HR person connected and then we’ll have connection to a professional outside the workplace. Someone who have more expertise in autism and can deal with (if there’s) anxiety issues or something else.

Beyond the 4 weeks we describe a personal business profile of the individual and we translate that to the employers. So we create these environments where autistic people feel welcome and we do not just depend on one person, it has to be real inclusion.

DEBRA: So you very much sound like it’s focused on IT, is that the only thing that Specialisterne does or do you have other industries that you operate in?

THORKIL: We operate in many industries but the IT was the starting point and it has been hooked on to our brand, so far. Also thanks to the first big clients like SAP and Microsoft and these IT giants but we work very much in other industries as well. We have a lot of experience in the financial sector in Australia. We’re also strong in pig farming which is one of my favourites because in the outbacks of Australia, it can be difficult to recruit people who want to do a career in pig farming, but there’s a lot of autistic people who love working with animals. They’re just not thought of pig farming as a career but it has been a fantastic match and the autistic people have all enjoyed of work that has had a positive impact on the whole of the organisation.

So, from cyber security to pig farming, you can just imagine where good memory, sometimes better recognition skills, high accuracy in repetitive tasks, but also new ideas to solve traditional challenges. And honesty, and dedication can be used all over. I claim that in any business area, you would be able to find at least 5% of tasks that would be very well suited to autistic people and no one have clip me wrong in that assessment.

DEBRA: You talked about having specialists and I think there has been a trend, hasn’t there in the workplace to go to sort of generalist being able to do different tasks in any job, do lots of different tasks and that’s obviously something that a lot of people with additional needs don’t find very easy to do. So the whole idea that you could specialise must be key part of it as well why it’s successful because people can focus on what they’re good at.

THORKIL: Yes, that is the way you build your comfort zone but my experience is that as you build your comfort zone, you will feel more comfortable also to try out other things. So it’s important for us that it’s not enough to get a job, you should also kind of grow your comfort zone and your self-confidence and your skills so that you can also try out other things because in this job of mine, things change. That’s the only thing we can say. And it’s not enough to be an expert in one area and then close the door and work on that, you have to be ready to kind of find your opportunities as things change over time.

DEBRA: You’re saying that people’s skills just develop anyway because their confidence develops. A lot of people don’t have great social skills as you mentioned but you would get those just by being in an actual, real-life workplace.

THORKIL: I think so. And the way we grow social skills is a two-way streak, really. So, we help the autistic person understand how the workplace works but we also teach the workplace how autistic people think and how they can contribute the most. So, it’s not a one-way saying, “We have to practice social skills for the individual.” We’d like to do that but we also… it’s just as important to focus on preparing the environment because autistic people, they have their specialties that should be an asset in a workplace that competes in a global knowledge-based market economy, where being the same will be more of a problem that being different.

So I think autistic people can add value to most teams in a knowledge-based market economy. No one have to be able to excel in everything. So if you’re really good at your expertise and you’re good at working in teams and finding out how can your knowledge benefit beyond the task itself or if you’re in an environment where others can help you will contribute the most, then that’s the best way to prepare for the development in the labour market.

DEBRA: Yeah, I think it’s interesting what you said before about jobs specifications always saying the same thing like must be able to work in teams, and good communication skills. And there’s many people don’t have those so it’s stop from getting into jobs that they would excel at, as you say, so it’s actually about making the job fit to the person rather than the person have to fit to the job.

THORKIL: Yes, but I also think, we used to assessing autistic people who are outside their comfort zone, and then we can see a lot of challenges. But how does it look like if you get autistic people in their comfort zone. So, being outside the comfort zone for example communication is a challenge because it can be hard to read what is not had been expressed so that scene has a problem today. But actually, it’s a problem for everyone. So, if you’re in a workplace where there’s a lot of ambiguity, then you never know what you’re getting in return. So, if workplaces get more used to setting expectations clearly, then they can, I think, improve their communication capacity in the whole department. So, an autistic person well included in a team could actually raised the whole department; communication capacity and if the workplace understand how to get the most out of this autistic person, not just the skill sets but also the kind of personality.

So I think workplaces can learn a lot from autistic people but we have to turn things on their head sometime and say, “Okay, so communication is not a problem for this individual or is it the canary in the mine shaft saying if that’s a problem for this person, is it also a problem for everyone else?” And often, it’s the latter and if we look at the eyes at the world through the lens of autistic people sometimes, then I think we can see a lot of room for improvements in workplaces that could reduce the stress-level and grow efficiency into one.

DEBRA: You talked a little bit about the future, so where does Specialisterne go now? What are the plans for the future? You said the foundation, so I’m assuming that the organisation that does the consultancy and gets the guys in there is just running itself in a sense? Or are you still actively involved in that?

THORKIL: I’m not actually involved. My last involvement was to start Specialisterne in the US. So, I lived for 5 years in the US but I’m back in Denmark now, and I’m working on models that can lead us to a one million job goal by 2030. We still have 990,000 to go. But the next focus area will be large populations in the developing countries and we have most of our experience from the Western world, but we also have some experience from Brazil and India and China. But now, we need to invest more in learning what we have learned over the first 15 years, 12 areas, and what is the experience working with partners and how can we support employers and followers who want to follow our example. And then how can we work on the supply side with governments and the school system because we want to remove the divide, not just build bridges. So how can we get back to the roots and say how can we help families realise that there are some other learnings in life you will get out of this. Some will hit you, some will give you a lot of joy.

We have to create environments, not just in the labour market where autistic people will be welcomed, but also in the education system. So I think, that is the long-term contribution from Specialisterne and the foundation, that we will try to help companies with more inclusive workplaces and help the education system and governments kind of looking at this area from another angle.

DEBRA: You mentioned before as well that people have copied you, a lot of people will do amazing things but then, they’ll do it by themselves rather than taking information from other groups. So I’ve got some examples of employers over here in the UK that started something and then they’ll go and talk to someone else who started something similar and they never talk to each other. I mean I’d imagine, that you’d rather that people sort of came and looked at what you’ve done rather than sort of trying do something themselves… because it’s 15 years in and you’re still as you say, learning.

THORKIL: Yeah, I think what we’re looking for is more capacity in our foundation to kind of see not just what has been done in the Specialisterne and the group but also, a lot has been learned from followers, so this is one of our ambitions; to see if we can grow the market together instead of working as individuals. So, this is also I think one of the major areas to focus on. And another way is to see how can we use technology to help identify personalities and skill sets, and how can we also use technology to match the tasks with the talent. Not just jobs with job seekers because jobs are often a bundle that includes a lot of things that autistic people may not be so good at, but if we can identify tasks at a more differentiated level, then a lot of autistic people will feel they can contribute more.

Lots to bid on but I think the biggest effort will be to change the mindset globally that this is a different journey and there’s a lot of untapped talent that societies, employers should not miss out on. It’s too costly not to benefit from this talent anyway.

DEBRA: Thorkil, thank you so much for your time.

THORKIL: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Debra: Key takeaway? Employers need to be embracing new ways of assessing the skills of potential employees. By not doing this, I am missing out on many talented people– some of them specialists, who would enhance their workplaces.

Specialisterne website
Specialisterne on Facebook

Please subscribe to this podcast and if you have a story you would like to share I would love to hear from you just email debra@journeyskills.com

Please Review Us On iTunes

If you liked this podcast and would like to help us, please do the 1, 2, 3:
(1) Click Review on iTunes (2) Click ‘View in Itunes’; and (3) Click on ‘Ratings and Reviews’ (just to the right of ‘Details’) and leave a review.

Finding The Right Fit Into Work

Podcast Episode 65 It’s not only about finding work, it’s about matching the skills of the person with the job. This is the view of Derek Groves, from Employment Futures, who discusses the idea of vocational matching and the many benefits it brings to a young person with additional needs and to employers. He also talks about how employers still have some way to go in terms of being flexible in their employment practices, especially when it comes to the use of a traditional interviewing process which simply does not allow some young people to showcase their strengths.

Another issue that Derek addresses is positive disclosure, that is how much to disclose to an employer about an individual’s additional needs. Although, as he says, its a personal choice in many instances, it can help the employer match the person with a job role and ensure that reasonable adjustments are possible without being costly or disruptive to the workplace.

The work of organizations like Employment Futures is so important in breaking down the barriers into work and helping employers change their perceptions about employing young people with additional needs.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 65 of the Journey Skills podcast. No prizes but guessing the theme of this week’s podcast, yes it’s work, but to be honest I make no apology for that because I believe that this particular interview will add to our knowledge around work and that’s no bad thing.

I’m talking to Derek from the North East Autism Society about their Employment Futures program. And again, although it’s a UK-based organization, it’s a bit like the last episode when I spoke to the Able Coffee Roaster guys in Los Angeles, much of the information that’s shared is universal. Although the North East Autism Society is clearly focused on helping a particular group, what Derek says is very transferable for anyone looking at the employment issue.

Derek explains how the Employment Futures program works by being very person-centric and trying to find people jobs that fit their specific skills or Vocational Matching as Derek calls it. He also talks about the dreaded reasonable adjustments and again highlights the lack of understanding of this term. He also shares some of the challenges they see and provides I think some key advice, especially around positive disclosure.

You could say this is an all Australian final as you may have noticed that Derek is from my part of the world and it’s a final because the podcast will now take a short holiday break and we’ll be back again on September the 9th. However, I’ll be taking the opportunity to do a series of videos over the summer highlighting previous podcast episodes, not just about work but also, about daily living skills and relationships.

DEBRA: Today I’m talking to Derek Groves who’s the Employment Service Manager for Employment Futures which is the department of North East Autism Society which is based in the North East of England. Employment Futures is an organization which is focused on helping young people with additional needs access employment opportunities. Welcome, Derek!

DEREK: Hi, thank you very much, Debra, for the opportunity to talk today.

DEBRA: Can you tell me a little bit about first of all yourself and then also about what Employment Futures is all about?

DEREK: Yes, so, I’m a father of a son who’s on the spectrum and so I’m very keen to make some changes happen within the field of employment. From a personal level, to see that he can go on and get into a satisfactory job which he can contribute, add value and enjoy and also the work that I do now; working with individuals and seeing once they do find that right fit in an environment that’s good and productive. The joy that comes from that, it’s a very special feeling.

DEBRA: What does Employment Futures do? It’s part of a large organization, so how is it different than the rest of that organization?

DEREK: I guess we consider ourselves the baby of the organization. The North East Autism Society as a charity has been around for over 35 years. It is grown from a small collective of parents starting a school to now delivering education services, residential care services, family support, day programs. They didn’t have an employment service and it’s only 3 years ago that we identified really that there was that gap in provision, a need for that and demand out there and so along with the CEO and the support of the trustees, we launched Employment Futures as a department. It started up very small, just the 2 of us as a team working with a very small provision to support a handful of people. It’s grown over that 3 year period to now having 12 staff and last year, we reached 191 people. So, it’s growing and we believe that it’s having an impact. Certainly, the joy of seeing somebody in their first job and being productive and enjoying that is fantastic.

DEBRA: What kind of programs do you have within Employment Futures?

DEREK: So all of our programs and employment services start with quite a thorough assessment. We really believe in person-centered planning; putting the individual and their needs at the centre rather than trying to fit them into a standardized program or training course. So we need to start that by really understanding what’s going on for that individual in their world. That profiling we use a tool called Dua Profiler which really gives quite a holistic look in terms of financial position, what’s their situation with regard to benefits, mental health position, a sensory profile so understanding what environmental factors need to be considered in looking at workplace and putting all that information together really gives us the opportunity to develop that person-centered plan. And that’s how we start all our programs.

DEBRA: So once you find out information about them, what’s the next step after that?

DEREK: So we develop with them an individual action plan from all of the things I’ve identified. It might be really poor sleep routines and poor sleep habits and trying to withdraw and address that before putting them into all a situation of a workplace. We develop that action plan in agreement with them around what are the priorities, what do we really need to focus on. And some of them are real health and well-being stuff so, you know, sleep patterns is a big issue for many of the participants we work with. Then the action plan goes through usually one to one, working with a job coach to support them through those activities to move them forward.

And then we can engage in the actual process of linking them with an employer. So there’s a second person from my team called an Employer Engagement Officer, which is a full-time role, out there educating employers out there representing the individuals we work with and selling the skills and abilities and the talents that they’ve got to employers. And their role is really pivotal but it’s the combination of the two. One we can work with participant and overcome some of the barriers that they might currently have but you’ve also got to work with the employers and educate them and talk to them about reasonable adjustments. So that’s the two working together.

DEBRA: When you said before you put together a personal plan, sometimes do you find that people will come and they need to upskill before they can even get to the employer?

DEREK: Yes, certainly, for many people progression to structured training may be part of their pathway to employment. So, we try and work by matching people to both their skills and their interests. If you can find a job that you’re good at and you enjoy, you’re streets ahead; you’re a long way there to making it work for the long-term. So, we start with that mentality, but in many cases, there will be some skills that they need in order to get into a career in that field. So, we do work with training providers and access different provisions that will get them that next step along the way.

DEBRA: Let’s say they find a role for a young person that you’re helping; is there an interview process that they go through with the employer?

DEREK: Yes, we deliver our training with the employer. So, often our employers will have some or limited knowledge about autism but because the employer engagement officer also knows the individual and how autism specifically affects them, they’re able to deliver meaningful training, able to give training to a line manager or a supervisor so that they can understand how to best support this person in the workplace.

We’re also disability confident lead, leader organization, so we promote and advocate for disability confident, reasonable adjustments in the workplace. We also, with some employers are doing what’s known as a workplace assessment so if they feel that the circumstances, the environment, the factors that were mentioned before regarding a sensory profile may contribute to a person’s anxiety or distress, we can go into the workplace with the support of the employer and understand the environment the person’s going to be working in, make some reasonable adjustment recommendations for them as well. So really, in order to make it sustainable and working for both the employer and the employee, you got to be talking about that full picture and reasonable adjustments.

DEBRA: What kind of employers have you been able to work with so far?

DEREK: They’re really quite a broad range. It’s necessary because the variety of personal interests that people who come with, you need to work across a broad range of industries and sectors. There is definitely the IT community whether it’s from their ability to make reasonable adjustments; I’m seeing larger employers across the region who are quite flexible in a way that they can support individuals. It’s also an area where there is a skills shortage and skills in demand for that sector. So it seems more amicable to taking people in and making those kinds of adjustments in order to make it work. But we work across a really broad range of sectors.

DEBRA: Can you give me some examples of reasonable adjustments? What have employers done?

DEREK: Yes, they can be quite simple things. So, one of the misconceptions that we overcome with the employers is that it’s going to be expensive, that they’re going to have to change a lot of things in order to make it work. And in many cases, the adjustments are really quite simple. The young man who’s working in an open-plan office, for example, is wearing headphones and playing his own music to tune out all of the peripheral noises that would be otherwise be quite distractive for him, would build up and cause him some sense of sensory overload but being to wear headphones and letting the employer know that this is part of his strategy. It works for both the employer and for the employee.

DEBRA: Can you give me some examples of challenges that you’ve found with the reasonable adjustments where I guess organizations have maybe struggled? Have there been examples of that?

DEREK: Yes, one of the things that I think we would like to see more progress in is around standardized recruitment. Many of the larger organizations struggle with adjusting the interview application process to suit people that might have challenges with social communication. It’s, to some level, somewhat frustrating because we know that the evidence is that interviewing people for 20 minutes doesn’t necessarily get you the best person for the job. And we’re strong advocator of working interviews, we try and encourage employers where they’re able to adapt to providing a working interview situation where the person can go in and practically demonstrate what they can do rather than trying to sit and talk about it for 20 minutes.

DEBRA: The young people that come to you? Do they come through the North East Autism Society or did they come from external?

DEREK: Mostly, they’re external referrals. Some through self-referral, they’ll identify from the website or our Facebook presence that actually we’ve got some services they might want to access. Others will come from a Job Centre referral, so they are registered with an unemployment service. I think the specialism that we have and the differences that we have any provision make us attractive for job center to refer them to us as well.

DEBRA: I guess as a parent of a young person who’s getting to work age and you want to look for roles for them, what kind of tips would you have for parents to help them I guess make the transition into work and make it easier for their young person?

DEREK: So vocational matching. The idea of trying to match the job and the role to the skills and abilities of the person. There is a bit of a science to it but if you can start with what their key interests are, what things really they get enthusiastic about and what things are their strengths, what are their good characteristics and traits. And everybody has a combination of those. If you can work with those, identify those and then look at how do I match those particular employers that value those skills and abilities. It’s the strongest way to go forward by vocational matching.

DEBRA: You mentioned about the job coach, what’s their role with the young person?

DEREK: Yes, so they’ll be working with them on the individual aspects that they’ve identified. For many individuals, it will be about things like managing their anxiety and teaching them some self-regulation techniques where they might be able to identify when they’re getting anxious and identify some strategies that work for them, that they can use and implement to kind of self-manage that to some degree. It could be around practical things like CVs and then preparing for a combination of talking with employers.

One of the things that I do think still differentiates us is we talk about positive disclosure: How do you talk to an employer? When do you talk to the employer and what do you say if you’re going to disclose that you’ve got autism? It’s an area that I don’t think there is enough conversation about. I think that it’s a very important conversation to have. And I think that people often walk into it unprepared. So, preparing an individual for that conversation in the workplace is an important part of what we do as well.

DEBRA: Do you think that transparency is an essential part at the very beginning?

DEREK: It is a personal choice and we always advocate it’s not a legal requirement that they have to disclose and many will have reservations about doing so because of a past experience that they’ve had but we do encourage that. Particularly a disability confident employer, if you’re able to disclose and do so when it’s framed in a positive manner, the employer usually has a desire to help and support so if they’re not informed, don’t know about the needs, they’re not able to do all they could in order to support an individual.

DEBRA: Have you noticed that employers changing then in their perception of employing young people with additional needs? You’ve been going for about 3 years you said, so have you noticed changes?

DEREK: Yes, I think so. I think that there’s more public awareness of it and that drives employers change, behavior changes. I think that we’re starting to get more publicity around those good case scenarios and that also drives some competitive nature among businesses when they see that actually, somebody else in the same sector is doing a great initiative at working. Other employers are more likely to onboard and do their own programs and initiatives. So I think that’s a new trend that we’re seeing.

DEBRA: Do you also think there’s a better understanding that employers need support as much as the young people?

DEREK: Yes, I think that there are support mechanisms out there but I don’t think they’re widely understood. I mentioned disability confident and I know that that campaign is still growing and employers are coming on board to that initiative. There’s also access to work and many employers either are not aware or unfamiliar with just how flexible it is in terms of supporting non-physical disabled individuals. There’s a vast amount that can be done through an access to work grant.

DEBRA: In terms of the future then for I guess two parts of the future really; the future of what you’re doing at Employment Futures but what do you also think the future of young people working in a more wide range of industries will be?

DEREK: I think it’s great, potentially. I think they’ve got a lot to contribute. We know individuals who’ve been very successful in work and I think the more that that’s public and the employers are aware of that, the greater the acceptance and the greater the level that they’re prepared to, to take people on and make those reasonable adjustments in the first place. I do see it trending in the right way. I do think we’re still a long way to go. There are still organizations that are very traditionally based in their recruitment and not inclined to make those adjustments so I’d like to see that trend continue.

DEBRA: Key takeaway? The idea of vocational matching and how important that can be in terms of finding a young person a role that they really want to be in and that really takes advantage of their skills.

Employment Futures
Employment Futures on Facebook

Please subscribe to this podcast and if you have a story you would like to share I would love to hear from you just email debra@journeyskills.com

Please Review Us On iTunes

If you liked this podcast and would like to help us, please do the 1, 2, 3:
(1) Click Review on iTunes (2) Click ‘View in Itunes’; and (3) Click on ‘Ratings and Reviews’ (just to the right of ‘Details’) and leave a review.

Creating Job Options

The world of work has changed, in part because of new technology but also in expectations of us as employees. Jobs have become more generalized. Retailers, in particular, want flexible employees who can perform multiple tasks. Why is this? Well, as my guest on the latest podcast Yes She Can Inc, Marjorie Madfis said, businesses aren’t in the business of employment, they want as few employees as possible.

The impact this trend has on young people with additional needs formed part of the discussion with Marjorie. She explained that around 80% of adults with autism in the U.S are unemployed and, as the parent of a young woman with autism, she decided to take things into her own hands and create a reselling business called Girl Again. This reflects her own daughters’ interest in American girl dolls. This decision was also driven by her observation that the programs that were supposed to be developing her daughter’s employability skills were not training her in the skills she really needed in the workplace. These included understanding the priorities of others (managers and customers), shifting from one task to another, and dealing with uncertainty and incomplete information.

These types of skills that are harder for our young people with additional needs to develop. In my own daughter’s case, she likes to know “the plan” and changes to that plan do upset her. So I can only imagine what the result might be in a workplace if she was asked to move from one task to another, or something unexpected happened.

One of the keys to the success of what Marjorie is doing seems to be in her actual choice of business type. Girl Again is a reselling business. They receive donations of American Girl Dolls and then sort, clean and prepare them for resale. The dolls are then sold in their retail store as well as online. This process enables the development of a variety of skills because, as Marjorie says, if the dolls were brand new the number of steps in the process would be small. The great thing about a reselling business is it can be in anything that a young person is interested in… I wonder if there is a market for second-hand Harry Potter merchandise!

But, and its quite a big but, it is often the case that even with all the employability training in the world some young people with additional needs will still find it hard to develop the transferable job skills talked about above. They may have an excellent set of narrow skills which may not fit into today’s job market. The answer to this dilemma, according to Marjorie, is to look at smaller businesses where specialization can add value to that business. She uses the example of the real estate company who have sales staff doing data entry rather than out selling houses. The right person with the right skills could free up their time. The key here, as with a lot of what so many people I talk to on the podcast are doing, is making people see that someone with additional needs can be as productive in the workplace as anyone else.


Working Together

We all have a group of people we feel most similar to, who we identify with. For many of us, it is a group of other parents on a similar journey to our own.  My daughter’s group at the moment are her friends at her specialist school. Her friends are in her own word “just like her” and that makes her feel secure. Nothing wrong with that I hear you say and I totally agree. However, there is one problem and that is that this doesn’t reflect the real world of work that she will one day go out into.

So, when one of the ideas discussed in my latest podcast was around an integrated workforce it made me think about the kind of workplaces young people with additional needs really might want to be part of. The main topic of the podcast Enterprising Ideas at Acceptable Enterprises was around creating sustainable economically viable businesses in order to then meet social objectives. But a key part of their model was the idea of 1/3  +  1/3  +  1/3, which is where they try to employ in each of their businesses 1/3 people with additional needs, 1/3 people who have faced challenges in their lives, such as mental health issues, and 1/3 people from the local community.

David, the CEO of Acceptable Enterprises, argues this is much more reflective of the real world. It also creates more opportunity to change perceptions and increase understanding on all sides. Breaking down negative perceptions seems to the first job to be done to enable people with additional needs to be considered on an equal playing field when it comes to employment. So, by bringing people together in this way this must help change perceptions. Work also helps to tackle another major issue, that of social isolation and creates a community both inside the workplace and then outside in wider society.

David also discussed a “perception” that if a company employs people with additional needs, it will impact on the quality of the product or service. The online reviews Acceptable Enterprises receive strongly refute this idea. However, as he suggested the prospect of making reasonable adjustments when hiring employees with additional needs can be quite daunting. However, if you listen to the podcast you will hear how Acceptable has very successfully made these reasonable adjustments.

The most successful employment opportunities, I have discovered, have involved organizations being part of the community right from the start, such as REDinc and Ignition who both strive to become part of their local community and, by doing so, change the ideas people might have about people with additional needs.

Now I’m starting to wonder if we need to take this a step further and be working towards an integrated workforce, not just projects that help young people with additional needs but projects where the focus is also about encouraging everyone to start working together. Surely this would help change perceptions quicker and combat social isolation at the same time.

Off To Work

Our job, our role, our purpose for our day is so linked to our identity. I’m a… My job is… or I work at… however we introduce ourselves is what people recognise us as.

But what happens when we don’t have that? How do we feel then? How do people categorise us? Do they feel sorry as we flounder with I’m just …’ We’ve all heard stories about people who retire and say they lost their identity on the day they stopped work.

Debra and I once had a hard time getting a job when we returned to Australia. We’d always been in work, and the difficulty came as a bit of a shock. And when you say you haven’t got a job, people do look at you a little different. And you feel a little different.

But for the most part I’ve been lucky. I’ve always had a tag to put to my identity, although I must admit it’s not always been the title I would want to put to myself. Published novelist I am not, but I’ve always had a purpose to get out of bed of each morning.

And so this is one of my big fears for my daughter. To not have a purpose to her day.

She would like to get up in the morning, make breakfast very early, and then go on her tablet/computer/Xbox and stay there all day. But what she doesn’t know yet is that is not purpose.

At the moment she goes to school, and as Debra says, teachers are like an annoying boss who tells you what to do. But when that isn’t there, and her workmates – her class friends – have all gone, what then? Who will she interact with?

I don’t know about you, but most of my days aren’t spent with friends. They are with work mates, and then family. If I didn’t work, I still wouldn’t spend all day with friends because they’d be off doing whatever they do to earn their livings. And so if my daughter didn’t have work, or a key purpose to her day, I think it unlikely she would spend all day with friends.

And that could be the problem. Without a purpose she would regress into her own company too far. She would lose the ability to deal with people, even if they are annoying teachers and classmates who don’t always see everything her way.

I know I’m preaching to the converted when I say we need to find a purpose for our children after they finish school. And I know many of you are in the same position as me with children whose special abilities aren’t particularly job friendly. With the best will in the world I don’t imagine my daughter ever being over-qualified for any job. But I do think she would be diligent to the point where it could be written as a strength on her CV and as Sam, in this week’s podcast, talks about making sure her CV showcases her strengths.

So the ultimate goal for us all is paid work for our children – that goes without saying. Supermarket chains in the UK are well known for making extra effort when it comes to employing people with additional needs. But no matter where we are in the world we need to look for opportunities for our young people, because opportunities won’t just come looking for us.

Through my own day job I know a mother who has a son with additional needs, who made his way across London, negotiated two buses to get to his college course. He was so happy that he had a purpose to his day. Then, as any college course does, it came to an end. Suddenly he had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. He felt that acutely. He sat at home, not quite knowing what to do with himself.

To cut a long story short, she arranged an interview with a local supermarket. What she didn’t tell her son was that it was a voluntary position, not a paid role. So now he goes to work one day a week and she puts a £20 note in a brown envelope which she gives to him at home as payment. He has purpose. Obviously this is not a long term solution and has its own issues but it gets him out of the house and he  is learning new skills which one day may help him get a proper paid role, maybe even with the same employer.

The real point is, though, she’s carved out a purpose for him. That’s admirable. But it was her that went that extra mile to get him something, and I think it’s what many of us will have to do to get something for our children. I can’t imagine my daughter being able to imagine all the possibilities for her to find where work is, and so I will have to help. I will have to ask my friends, and anyone else I know.

But if we can’t find paid work for our children we will have to do the next best thing, and that’s give them a purpose to their day. Whether that be with a £20 in an envelope or in a voluntary capacity. It may even be in an activity centre. Regardless, I know my daughter and her online world need to be parted for the best part of the day. They need to so when someone asks in conversation what do you do, or where to you go in the day, she can answer. She can say ‘I’m a…’ or ‘I go …’

Thus far in this blog we’ve talked about identity. But then there’s money to consider too. I’m not going to stray too far into money here, but I want her to have a place to go more than I want her wage to sustain her. In the money blogs we talk about strategies and tactics, but if I’m honest I don’t think she will earn the wage that will give her everything she wants unless she is incredibly lucky. We have to help plan for that. Maybe that is knowing the entitlements she’s allowed. Or maybe that’s us thinking we should cover the big expenses, like accommodation, and let her pay for the rest from her own earnings.

I think I’m saying for me it’s not the wage that’s important so much as the benefits a purpose adds to my daughter’s mental health. A purpose allows her to say ‘I’m a…’ and have pride in her identity. Going somewhere, working for the boss, is a bit of a bind, but at the end of the day it can also be sanity too. I don’t want my daughter to wander through life from 20 to 70 not quite knowing what label she can apply for herself so that she feels comfortable having an identity.

I do think there are plenty of opportunities out there, we just have to work hard to make them come our way. But then we’re used to working hard for our children, right?, because that’s what we’ve always done. Neither we nor them have expected the challenges our lives have thrust at us, but we deal with them. We’ve battled for them since the day they were born. And this is another battle. But it’s an important battle because it can easily be overlooked – I don’t want to ever think that because my daughter is quiet inside her online world she is fulfilled. Fulfilment comes with activity.

For us at Journey Skills purpose is one of the three main areas we focus on. Every parent looks out for their child’s education. But we also need to think about relationships and daily living skills, as well as purpose. A purpose, a point to the day, is a big part of why we are alive. We just need to be pro-active in finding a purpose for our children.