A University of Strathclyde programme providing opportunities for young people on the autistic spectrum, or with learning disabilities, is enjoying major success, with more than 30 of its students going on to paid employment.
Project SEARCH, a one-year transition programme which provides employability training and education, has seen two-thirds of its participants entering paid work in the five years since it began.
This contrasts with figures from the national Project SEARCH UK, which show that 75% of young people with a learning disability want to work but just 6% are in paid employment.
The Project SEARCH concept was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 and the Strathclyde venture is part of an international network. The University joined in 2014, after Principal Professor Sir Jim McDonald heard about the programme at an event the previous year.
The programme is a partnership between Strathclyde, as the host business, and:
- Supported Employment Service, Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership as provider of job coach
- City of Glasgow College as provider of lecturer
- Autism Network Scotland – signposting and training on autism.
Project SEARCH is one of the many initiatives supported by Strathclyde, as a socially progressive University, which aim to raise aspirations, provide advice and guidance, and assist in developing skills that increase employability.
About the programme
Around 10 interns take part in three 10-week placements, over a full academic year to help them gain experience for work. They are supported by a qualified instructor and one, or sometimes two, job coaches to meet their educational and training needs. They complete a minimum of 20 hours per week in their work placements.
The first few weeks are focused on intern induction, hands-on skill assessment, and getting to know the working environment. The interns develop a career plan, which guides the internship selection process and their individual job search.
Throughout the year, the interns work on employability and functional skills for about two hours of their day. Their training room activities are designed around eight focus areas:
- Team Building
- Workplace Safety
- Maintaining Employment
- Financial Literacy
- Health and Wellness
- Preparing for Employment.
In their placements, interns are paired with a volunteer mentor, or ‘buddy’, who helps them settle in and supports them day-to-day by allocating work and helping them to develop their skills for employment. The buddy interacts with the instructor, job coaches and the intern as a consistent source of guidance and feedback.
Job coaches and department staff collaborate to provide support for interns. Project SEARCH staff work with the University to develop reasonable adjustments and standard work procedures. A steering group, comprising representatives from Strathclyde and other key stakeholders from the Project SEARCH partnership, meet regularly to evaluate progress and suggest improvements.
The students gain competitive, marketable and transferable skills to enable them to apply for a related post. They also build competency in communication, teamwork, and problem-solving, all of which are important to their overall development as a young worker.
A key element of the programme is total immersion in the workplace. Each day, students report to the University, learn employability and job skills in the classroom while participating in the three internships. They also attend regular progress meetings to define their career goal and plan necessary steps to achieve it. Family involvement is encouraged to ensure that the student receives as much support as possible to become an independent adult who is ready for employment.
They also get continual feedback from managers, colleagues and Project SEARCH staff and end their day by reflecting, problem solving, planning and recording their key learning.
During the last few months of the programme, the emphasis is on refining skills, achieving each person’s career goal and carrying out individualised job development.
All interns who complete the course have the chance to attend a graduation ceremony at the end of the year, an occasion which enables them to share their success with their buddies, supervisors, family members and employers, as well as receive their certificates of completion from a member of the University’s Executive Team.
Partnerships and Industry Engagement
Educators and supported employment agencies involved in Project SEARCH gain a seamless approach to transition that develops critical adult skills. They are also able to create partnership between education, adult employment services and councils to ensure a whole life approach to supporting young people in transition.
Strathclyde’s links with City of Glasgow College have led to further placements arranged there, as well as employment for two of the University’s graduates. Glasgow Caledonian University has previously taken interns at its ARC Sport and Wellbeing Centre and sustainability team, and is this year providing three new placements.
Strathclyde is also working closely with a growing number of businesses in the Glasgow area, helping interns gain a greater breadth of workplace and sector experience, as well as vital networking opportunities. These include Food Hygiene training provided by PJs Foods and mentoring from Morrison Construction; Balfour Beatty has also offered advice on job applications and interviews, as well as reviewing and advising on interns’ CVs and arranging a placement for one intern in its Procurement department.
The interns also benefit from the links with Autism Network Scotland, which helps them to understand their autism and provides a valuable opportunity to get involved in national autism events.
A socially progressive employer
Departments across the University have provided placements, with positions ranging from IT support and lab assistant, to front-of-desk at Strathclyde’s flagship Technology and Innovation Centre.
The project offers Strathclyde access to a new and diverse talent stream, with skills matching specific workplace needs. The visibility of the interns across campus, and their regular interactions with staff, help to foster a more inclusive and disability-friendly culture, and each year has seen more placements and buddies join the programme.
Project SEARCH stories
Since Project SEARCH began in 2014, 35 graduates have secured paid jobs - five at Strathclyde.
One of these is Robyn McInally, part of the 2017-18 cohort, who had a particular interest in administration work and is now a Modern Apprentice in Student Lifecycle Services.
She gained positive feedback from all the placements on her attitude, strong work ethic and excellent focus and attention to detail.
Robyn said “Project SEARCH is really good. It helped me gain confidence to talk to other people which I found difficult before. It’s also good because we got to know what a working environment is like.
“It helps employers know that having someone on the autistic spectrum in the workplace can be good and the person may have good ideas to share with them. Project SEARCH has helped me gain more experience which led to my apprenticeship which I am enjoying. I hope to continue to learn more skills and stay employed at the University; I would definitely recommend Project SEARCH.”
Kyle McLaughlin, an intern in the programme in 2017-18 said: “I really enjoyed my time on the course and it helped me a lot. They helped me with my CV and how to prepare for interviews. I also worked with a job coach and lecturer looking for and applying for jobs online.
"The best part for me was each 10-week placement. My first was with the Electrical department, then Joinery and lastly with Portering Services.
I was able to get a job with Glasgow Wood Recycling with the help of the Project Search job fair at the end of the course”.
Rikki Cameron graduated in 2018 and is now a Support Assistant for Fortune Works, one of Scotland’s largest social enterprises for people with learning disability.
He said: “Project Search was a really big learning curve for me and allowed me to experience things I had never experienced before. It also allowed me to build on my existing skillset and expand on it to allow me to increase my chances of gaining full-time employment by doing several work placements around the University.
“The programme is a rewarding and a once in a lifetime experience. The support from the lecturers and job coaches was great and they were always on hand, especially when I needed help writing applications or going for interviews.
Project SEARCH is a five-star experience and one I will always remember for helping me get to where I am now.”
The programme has not only benefited interns. For the buddies who volunteer to support them, it is also a very rewarding experience.
Former buddy Robert Hume, a Library Operations Assistant, said: “I have enjoyed every minute of Project Search and have learned so much from it. The last person I worked with on the programme still keeps in touch with me and he is doing very well.
“Project Search has inspired me to work voluntarily in my spare time within the autistic spectrum. It’s amazing and I wish it every success for everyone involved. Thank you for letting me being part of it.”