Project SEARCH - a model for supported internships

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Introduction and background

Everyone has the right to work but people with learning disabilities are not always given the right opportunities to realise their potential.  According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, only 7% of people with a learning disability are currently in paid employment, despite the UK's unemployment rate being less than 8%.

There are different pathways to getting a job, and supported internships offers one way for young  people with a learning disability who face the most significant barriers to getting a paid job and a sustainable career.  A supported internship is a study programme designed for young people with either a Learning Difficulty Assessment (LDA) or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).  It is based mainly on employers' premises, with some time in college or a classroom in the workplace.  Support throughout the study programme is provided to both the young person and the employer through a Job Coach.  Supported internships should lead to a job for the young person at the end of their programme and should meet a real business need for the employer.

One way of delivering supported internships is through Project SEARCH.  Project SEARCH is an international trademarked and copyrighted programme model, which requires a licensing agreement with their national office based at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.  The model can accommodate different business sectors and regional variation whilst adhering to their critical core model components which are:

  • Sole definition of a successful outcome is competitive employment in an integrated setting for each intern;
  • Business-led with interns learning relevant marketable skills whilst immersed in the business;
  • True collaboration among partner agencies which includes businesses, schools/colleges, supported employment and families;
  • Interns experience total immersion in the workplace;
  • On-site support provided by a tutor and job coach;
  • Data is submitted to a national Project SEARCH database;
  • Project SEARCH graduates receive effective follow-along services to retain employment.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is working with West Thames College and Action on Disability to provide supported internships through Project SEARCH.  This case study tells the story of 2 people who have successfully completed the programme and are now in paid jobs that they both enjoy. 

Ian's story

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Ian came to Project SEARCH in 2012 as a very shy young man with little self-belief.  He was living independently but struggling somewhat with the complexities of life.  He was unsure of his future path and at 19, didn't have any experience of paid employment.

GSK is headquartered in an office complex that incorporates other retail and service business servicing the workforce.  For his first work placement at GSK, Ian chose to be in the bike shop.  Ian was matched to this placement as he couldn't imagine himself wearing smart clothes.  He did well in this placement, and demonstrated some great customer service skills, which the bike team were really impressed with.  To develop this talent further, he was persuaded to take a reception role for his next work rotation.  This, of course, meant he could no longer hide behind the greasy workshop clothes but would need to don a suit and tie.  He became part of the meeting rooms' reception team, became confident in his smart attire and blossomed in his customer-facing role. 

Ian did suffer some significant health issues and had difficulty with living independently whilst on Project SEARCH.  At one point during his supported internship, his self-belief was at an all-time low.  However with some time off and good pastoral support, he recovered well, returned to his internship and made fantastic progress. 

Ian proved to be so success during his placement with meeting rooms' reception, that when a vacancy arose, he was judged a strong candidate for the position.  As a result, he was interviewed and was successful in getting the job.  He is now working in a permanent position, and is a valued and respected member of the team.  His confidence has increased tremendously, and he now acts as an ambassador for Project SEARCH, mentoring new students on reception work.  He has just moved into a new flat, is enjoying the new smart look and being part of a professional and friendly team.

Charlie's story

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Charlie came to Project SEARCH in 2012 at an all-time low, and was unsure of her career path.  She had previous unsuccessful attempts at getting and keeping a job, and felt that she had been discriminated against because of her learning disability.  She had felt unsupported and misunderstood in previous jobs, and was determined to prove to herself and the world that disability was no barrier to success.

Her first placement was in security where she very quickly became an integral part of the team.  With appropriate support and guidance, she learned all the tasks involved in the role, and by the end of her placement was able perform effectively and independently to industry standards.  She not only flew the flag for disability but for women too as she was the only female member of the team.

Wishing to develop her customer service skills, she then moved onto the front-of-house reception for her second rotation.  Again, she learned the job quickly and made great strides with her confidence.  Throughout her time at Project SEARCH, Charlie acted as an ambassador for learning disability rights and presented, not only to small groups within the GSK building, but to a global audience during an HR event.

Charlie's greatest challenge was her confidence, which had been dented during past employment experiences.  However her determination to succeed and passion for equality, guided her to success.

Charlie was one of the first students on the project to be offered paid employment.  The experience she gained in security and her love of children, helped her to secure a job on community transport.  She gained her Passenger Assistant Training (PAT) qualification, and started working on the school buses assisting children with disabilities during their journeys to and from school.  She did this job successfully until a year later when the opportunity to join the GSK Project SEARCH team as a classroom assistant position arose.  She is now passing on her experience and supporting new Project SEARCH recruits, living independently and feeling positive about her future.

The Project SEARCH model has since had an independent evaluation of its effectiveness in helping young people secure employment. The findings of this can be accessed through our wider resources section