Forging a Different Path to Employment: An Interview with Dental Insider Magazine

Forging a different path to employment

Tina Pincott explained to The British Dental Industry Association (BDIA)’s Dental Insider Magazine how helping neurodivergent young people access employment is rewarding for everyone involved.

Forward2Employment is a post-16 provision that provides supported internships across a wide range of sectors in Medway, Kent and the South East. It helps young people with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) find permanent and purposeful employment.

The idea behind Forward2Employment was formed when I was working at Bradfields Academy in Chatham Kent, a specialist SEND education provision. A team of us from the Fortis Trust found ourselves discussing what the academy’s sixth formers were going to do after leaving school. We had heard that supported internships were extremely popular in the Midlands and the North, but there were very few in the South at that time.

We had the idea to set up our own supported internship programme, and in 2018, we started our journey with just myself as job coach and three interns with placements at the Henry Schein Dental Distribution Warehouse in Gillingham.

From small beginnings

Our partnership with Henry Schein Dental resulted from a chance meeting at a local networking event. Angela Gillett, then employment engagement officer at Fortis Trust, had been introduced to Steve Tredwell, director of business systems, UK and Ireland, at Henry Schein Dental, who expressed an interest in understanding more about autism and the incredible attention to detail that people with autism often have. Angela reported this back to Elizabeth Halton, now our head of provision, and the idea of working together on supported internships blossomed from there.

We placed our first three interns with Henry Schein Dental in 2018 and they were all subsequently successful in gaining employment there. Since then, more employers have come on board.

How it works

Young people are usually referred to the scheme by the local authority in Medway who fund the programme. We’ve also started to receive some referrals from Kent, as people are starting to hear about us further afield. The young people we work with often have an educational health care plan (EHCP), which is considered by the local authority, and if they think the individual might be a suitable candidate for our programme, they will organise a meeting.

We are not a traditional educational route; we are a provision for young people who have struggled at school or have been to college, but don’t know where to go next. Many have practical skills, but do not possess the confidence to go to an interview. Or we may have someone referred to us from a grammar school who has passed their English and maths qualifications, but they need to work on their soft skills and employability. Once we have received our referrals for the year, we will carry out vocational profiling and a skills assessment to help us identify the most suitable employer.

Each group of two to four interns is assigned a job coach. The job coach’s role is to bridge the gap into employment for the interns, providing them with the support they need until they are independent enough to do the job on their own. The internship lasts for a year and is funded by the local authority. It is like a long working interview.

The interns attend their work placement for four days each week and spend the fifth day in education, studying for a B-Tech work skills qualification. They also have a chance to achieve a maths and English qualification if required.

A practical approach

We’ve found that for many young people who might have struggled in school, the educational side is made much easier by putting what they learn into practice in the workplace. For instance, one of our young people struggled with maths and didn’t know her odd and even numbers. We used a simple visual at work and within two weeks she had mastered it, simply because she was applying the rules in practice.

What sets us apart from other supported internship programmes is that the job coach is highly involved throughout the week, including the education day. Many of our young people have anxiety or autism which can make adjusting to change daunting. The job coaches are on hand to address any problems or triggers and help them cope. They also train the employees and team leaders at the work placement to ensure they know how to accommodate the young person’s specific needs.

A boost to morale

We offer something really rewarding and valuable to our partner companies and we see evidence of this in the feedback we receive and our daily experiences as job coaches.

At Henry Schein Dental, I could see that the internships had a positive impact on staff morale. A team meets a young person who lacks confidence or skills for the workplace, and by the end, they see a completely new person, who may even become a permanent employee. It gives the team a real sense of achievement to be responsible for our young people and to help them grow. The training we provide also adds real value and we’ve seen those who take part gain a whole new sense of awareness of neurodivergent people and an appreciation of how valuable they can be to a company.

Onwards and upwards

Despite the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have expanded our provision and currently support 40 interns with a team of eight job coaches. We have placed interns with a wide variety of companies, including Sainsbury’s and DHL. We’re always looking for more opportunities and businesses to work with because we provide such highly individualised internships.

And it’s not just about bagging that first job for our interns; it’s about keeping it, too. Many of the Forward2Employment interns we have placed stay on successfully as employees. I remember one intern at Henry Schein Dental’s Distribution Warehouse who, thanks partly to her autism, never deviated or cut corners once she had been shown a way to do something. This meant her accuracy rate was exceptionally high!

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