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National Grid launches internship programme for students with learning difficulties, with inspiring results

From left to right: Taurai Horton, Mark Pickles and Jonny Shaw at the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards

‘There are thousands of my peers across the country who want to fulfil their ambitions and add value to society. They have no hope now but you can give them hope.’ That was the heartfelt plea made by Jonny Shaw, a National Grid employee with learning difficulties, to recruiters from across the UK at the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards last week. Jonny explained that taking part in National Grid’s supported internship scheme had changed his life, and urged other organisations to offer similar opportunities.

The programme that helped Jonny into employment grew out of a partnership between National Grid and a special school, Round Oak School, near to its main office in Warwick. The initiative, which is called EmployAbility Let’s Work Together, now involves five local schools and takes students with learning disabilities into supported internships in suitable business areas.

Jonny explained that taking part in the programme had given him a chance to show what he could do: ‘I know that I am one of a very few who have made it into a job because of this supported internship scheme.’ While on the scheme, he developed the National Grid UK YouTube page and built intranet pages for the organisation. He is now a support assistant in National Grid’s shared services directorate.

Claire Cookson, deputy head of Round Oak School, said that the programme had changed the culture of the whole school by inspiring everybody with the confidence that they could get a job too. She said, 'We have seen how individuals who once struggled to communicate and were withdrawn transform into buzzing, confident individuals adding real value to a corporate business.'

‘We are so committed, yet so often forgotten’

Taurai Horton, who also works full-time for National Grid and is a support assistant in its safety directorate, explained that he agreed to take up an internship through the EmployAbility Let’s Work Together programme because he felt he didn’t have anything else to lose. If he hadn’t had that opportunity, he suspected he would not be working now, but would be ‘sat on the sofa having achieved nothing today, yesterday, last month or last year’.

‘Before the age of one, I was diagnosed with meningitis and began to show signs of late learning development physically and mentally,’ he told the audience at the Awards. ‘I was then sent to a special needs school where it was made clear to me that I had now got a label. At the age of 10 I couldn’t do a lot of things educationally, even write my own name. As I grew into a teenager I sensed that many of my older peers had no prospects other than life on the sofa and on benefits.’ Taurai went on to appeal to recruiters to open their doors to candidates with learning difficulties: ‘Please do not forget my peers with special educational needs. We are so committed, yet so often forgotten. And we can add value to your business.’

Only 7% of students with learning difficulties find employment

Mark Pickles, TSO project manager at National Grid, leads the EmployAbility Let’s Work Together programme and spoke to the audience at the Awards both about the rationale behind it and the benefits to the organisation as a whole. He pointed out that currently, only 7% of students with learning difficulties find employment. However, he believed that there were huge benefits to tapping into this previously untapped resource.

He explained that in his experience, people with disabilities brought to work qualities they had developed in their own lives, such as commitment, tenacity and the determination to overcome problems. The work ethic and attendance of interns on the EmployAbility scheme was impeccable and they were inspiring role models for the whole workforce. At the same time the interns made great gains in self-belief, confidence and communication skills from taking part.

Recent graduate recruits to National Grid have had the opportunity to get involved with the EmployAbility Let’s Work Together scheme as part of the graduate development programme. Earlier this year, graduate trainees hosted a group of nearly 50 students with learning disabilities from eight special schools for a ‘work inspiration week’, involving taking them on visits around the company, playing business games and helping them to make a presentation.

Other employers are looking at the programme with a view to introducing similar schemes to create a more diverse workforce. National Grid is keen to share its expertise and experiences and is hosting conferences at its Warwick offices on 22 May and 4 June to give insights into the model it has developed and the potential benefits.

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