Lancashire bosses told to 'give a chance' to young adults with special needs

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Employers across Lancashire are being urged to consider offering work experience to teenagers with special needs and disabilities (SEND).

The county established a network of “enterprise advisers” in 2017 – employers drafted in to help increase the number of secondary school pupils meeting businesses and spending time in the workplace.

Bike Works boss Colin Southern (left) with recent recruit ErikSidlauskas

Bike Works boss Colin Southern (left) with recent recruit ErikSidlauskas

After two years of the programme, almost 60 percent of teens in Lancashire are benefiting either from placements or volunteering.

But the latest meeting of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP) skills board heard a call to ensure that SEND youngsters are getting the same opportunities – in the short and long term.

“If there are barriers [to getting work experience], that can do damage to a young person’s aspirations,” said Preston’s College principal Lis Smith.

“We need employers to be aware of the value of employing SEND people and the different types of disability which can suit a particular job – as well as the support available to them.

“The opportunities for somebody with SEND to find employment are limited – so at interviews, employers should think about how to make adjustments and look out for the potential of what that person might be able to do.”

One employer already committed to taking on staff with SEND is the social enterprise Bike Works, whose cycle repair courses and bike donation projects began in Blackpool.

Erik Sidlauskas, who has learning difficulties, arrived for an apprenticeship at the firm six months ago.

Chief executive Colin Southern says that the responsibility given to Erik has transformed him from the near-silent young man whom he had been told to expect.

“He hasn’t stopped talking since he got here – and now he’s like a comedian. When I told his old school, they couldn’t believe it was the same guy.”

According to Colin, the benefits of Erik’s apprenticeship are far from one-way.

“He has this natural charm and people warm to him – he’s just the guy who is the ice-breaker, which is great for the kind of work we do.

“I’ve put him in charge of the parcel collection service we operate, because I thought it’d be good to give him some control and interaction with customers. Now people come in and ask for Erik by name.”

Erik himself says he feels like he is “improving every day” in his new role.

“I have a sense of purpose now – I’m getting out of the house more and feel relaxed. I really enjoy learning new skills as well,” he adds.

Colin’s advice to other employers is simple: “You’ve got to give these guys a chance – it’s a wasted opportunity for you and them if you don’t.”

But he admits that the process is not always plain sailing.

“If you’re going to do it, then make sure you have one designated person to look after them who is laid back and has patience – because they will mess up at first.

“But I just throw them in at the deep end – if they fail, that’s the best way for them to learn.”

It is an approach which has seen an easy rapport develop between Erik and his new boss.

“Erik likes flirting with the women who come in,” jokes Colin.

“No – that’s you,” comes Erik’s quick-as-a-flash reply.