As a school, we are committed to preparing our pupils for the world of work. Currently, only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time, paid employment, and our aim is to help change that statistic. As part of their education, we offer supervised work placements for our students in some of the region’s biggest and best companies.

Each month, we’ll feature one of our partners and ask them about their experiences. This month, we spoke to Shilpi Arora, a Talent Advisor at Yorkshire Water, about the company’s placement scheme and how our students have been getting on.

Tell us a little bit about Yorkshire Water and your role within it…

Yorkshire Water is the Kelda Group’s main subsidiary and is one of the ten largest water companies in the world. Yorkshire Water supplies more than 1.2bn litres of water to homes and businesses in Yorkshire every day. At the same time, we ensure that the region’s domestic and industrial waste is collected, treated and returned safely to the environment.

I work as a Talent Advisor for the Diversity and Inclusion department at Yorkshire Water and was involved in the planning and implementation of the programme along with our Talent Manager, Rebecca McDonnell and another Talent Advisor, Natasha Cahill.

The program is now mainly supported by our HR Apprentice, Abbie Hammond who is currently studying for her Level 5 CIPD and has been working closely between our team and the Lighthouse School students.

Why is Yorkshire Water such a good environment for Lighthouse students to work in?

Our environment is very secure and safe for the interns to walk around while on site. All their placements are very close to one another, so they all feel comfortable knowing their fellow students are close by.

To travel to Bradford, the students meet at a central hub and travel via mini bus with their job coaches every morning. They always have the same drive, which ensures that the students don’t have to worry about how to get to work each morning and they arrive in a positive upbeat mood ready for the day ahead.

We have also provided the students with a base room for them to work together between placements. This room allows them to complete any work together as a team, it is also somewhere they feel safe and where they can have some time out if they ever feel like the atmosphere is too busy for them in the office.

Our offices are open plan and have a spacious layout making sure that the students never feel trapped within the building. Our lunch time areas are nice and spacious and open an hour before you get the lunch time rush to allow them to all sit together, with their job coaches and eat in a nice, calm environment.

As well as preparing our facilities at Yorkshire Water, we have delivered training to all staff members that work alongside the students so they know exactly how manage the interns in different circumstances.

What sort of roles do Lighthouse students take on during their time with you?

The roles that the interns undertake are very varied and all jobs are real roles that need completing to support the business. The key departments they work in are

  • Payroll Team
  • Account Payables
  • Account to Report
  • IT Team
  • Facilities

We have students within our Shared Services department scanning and filing invoices. They are also working with the mail, sending out post to the different departments within Yorkshire Water. We also have interns working within IT, in this placement they could be helping create ID cards for new employees or employees that may have lost their own ID cards, they are also wiping and setting up SIM cards for any phones that are sent out to people within the business. We have another student who works with our catering team, cleaning down tables and the general dining area at the end of lunch time.

How do you think the students add to your business and workplace?

The interns are undertaking real jobs that support the business to function effectively. All the interns have made huge improvements in terms of their social skills and how they interact with people around the business. When they’re scanning, and filing invoices it allows us to keep up to date with filing, which isn’t always easy on top of all the other work. Over in finance, our student is completing work within 40 minutes that usually takes a Yorkshire Water employee around 2 hours. This knowledge and speed of work means that work is getting completed at a much higher speed in this area.

The good work of the students has led to a massive increase in colleague engagement. Many of the employees have never had chance to work with people on autistic spectrum before, so seeing the students working smoothly along with the rest of the business has given our staff the confidence to approach them, and look at people with an autistic condition differently. It has also initiated more open discussions in the teams where colleagues feel ok to talk about the issues and difficulties they may have faced with a loved one who is also on autistic spectrum.

What sort of skills will students need to carry out their roles?

The students need a set routine to ensure they follow the processes to complete their jobs. The placements were matched after a careful three-way discussion between our placement manager, the student’s job coach and our HR team to ensure each student is working where their strength lies. For example, the intern in finance needs to be skilled in mathematics, so our current intern he has been matched to this department because we spotted that he had a natural flare with numbers. All the jobs are intended to improve their organisation skills, time management and literacy skills. As long as they follow these processes they will be able to competently complete the jobs.

How much of their time will be spent in the office and how much will be out in the field?

The students spend a full day (9am to 3pm) in the offices completing jobs within their placements. Any spare time they have or need is used to complete work within their base room. This may be work from their roles Yorkshire Water or work to contribute to their BTEC qualification.

What do your current staff members think about the scheme?

We have had some great feedback from our colleagues so far. Many employees express how proud they are to work for a company who are providing such amazing opportunities for people with such little chance of gaining employment. All colleagues take the time to sit, chat with and help the interns on a day to day basis and show a real interest in the scheme. Many employees have taken the time to talk to the Talent Team and share personal stories about their own experiences of friends or family with autism or learning difficulties, and how they would love them to have the opportunity to be a part of the scheme if we do it again in the future.

What training or qualifications will pupils earn during their time with you?

The students will gain a ‘Work Skills’ BTEC Leeds City College during their placement, where they spend part of their time. They will gain experience and knowledge of work skills that are essential to work within a business, allowing them to use real examples when they’re studying. Their qualification is all about training the students and giving them the basic skills to be able to work within a business environment and have a better chance of gaining employment.

What appealed about a partnership with Lighthouse School in the first place?

At Kelda, we have a dedicated Diversity & Inclusion group and one of the key streams is ‘ability’. We were looking for opportunities to make a difference in the Autism area as we felt some of our jobs could be completed by people on this spectrum.

We were approached by the Lighthouse School and were really impressed by the work they do with young adults. We started by introducing market stalls during the work day, providing students from the school a place to sell their merchandise and interact with our staff. The team at Lighthouse then suggested that we mirror an internship model which was successfully run at National Grid, to help promote employability. After careful discussion and planning we decided to continue our work together and take part in this supported internship scheme.

What adjustments did you have to make to provide the right environment for your students?

The main adjustment that had to be made was the training provided to our current staff members. Without this scheme running our colleagues wouldn’t have undertaken this training, it has also given the colleagues a huge development opportunity and really widened their experience. Practically speaking, the only physical change we needed was that we used a room for the interns to use as a base room, which can be used by interns if they need somewhere more quiet and familiar to retire to for a while.

For other potential employers considering internships, what advice would you give

The supported internship programme has been very successful and we can see the impact it has made on all the 7 interns involved. We will be very happy to support other businesses who may want to run a similar programme. We have already had visits from some of the national level businesses to see how the scheme works.