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Opening doors for the workforce of the future with DFN Project SEARCH

In November 2020, Serco was recognised by a leading transition-to-employment charity, DFN Project SEARCH, in their annual awards, for achieving outstanding programme outcomes through the Project SEARCH programmes we deliver.

Specifically, significant numbers of recent Project SEARCH graduates from three of our UK healthcare sites – Forth Valley Royal Hospital and University Hospital Wishaw in Scotland, and Whipps Cross University Hospital (Barts Trust) in London – have obtained full-time paid employment following their placements. 12 other ‘outstanding’ sites received similar recognition.

Forming part of a programme of community and people inclusion initiatives in Healthcare, DFN Project SEARCH is an international transition to work programme for students with learning disabilities and autism, combining classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on skills training. Over 1,300 young people have now graduated and secured full-time paid employment through DFN Project SEARCH programmes in the UK.

Of Serco and their other outstanding programme partners, DFN Project SEARCH CEO, Claire Cookson, said: “Together we are transforming lives for many young people with learning disabilities and autism, helping them to be recognised as a fantastic talent for employers.”

Our journey with Project SEARCH began at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in 2008, where we delivered the very first UK-based programme for Project SEARCH (which originated in the US). Since then we have launched Project SEARCH programmes across other Serco sites, including those recognised in 2020. Each programme is a multi-agency partnership, bringing together the expertise of our NHS (National Health Service) customers, Serco, and local higher education and employment support organisations.

“We’re opening doors for people who will otherwise leave school and struggle to find opportunities,” says Chris Paul, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital. “Only 3–5% of people with learning difficulties have a chance of employment. That’s one of the lowest rates of employment of all disadvantaged groups, and Covid-19 hasn’t improved those odds one bit. These are good, capable young people at risk of being excluded and left behind because of the disadvantages that have shaped their lives to date.”

Participants undertake three 12-week rotations during the programme, working alongside workplace colleagues in a variety of roles. On-site, they receive additional support from a college tutor and a job coach as they gain experience and learn transferable skills that will prepare them for future employment. All the work-based learning is reinforced by classroom sessions focused on key employee competencies, such as communication skills, team working, and health and safety.

“What we do is give them a chance to challenge themselves,” says Chris, “to gain knowledge and experience, prove themselves and fulfil their potential, with just the right level of support. Many come to us hidden under a cloud of trauma and apprehension. Slowly but surely, they emerge. Someone who might not even speak on their first day will gradually come to life and learn to see themselves and their prospects differently.

“Some may find eventually find work with us. We have more than 15 with us today, including several individuals from our early cohorts. Some will progress – one is the team leader in our post room, for example. But these roles are earned, not given. This isn’t charity – it’s fair and compassionate opportunity where we see people only for what they can do, not what they can’t. It’s about doing the right thing – for them, for the community, and for us – we’d lose an important part of ourselves if we stopped doing it.”