A pioneering charity is helping autistic and neurodiverse people break down barriers to finding employment. PETER BARRON looks at the success of the Employment Futures programme run by the North East Autism Society

THERE was a time when James Kordbarlag feared he would never get a job, and the future looked bleak.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he found it difficult to talk to people. “I was struggling and demotivated,” he admits.

The contrast between that gloomy outlook of a few years ago, and how he now perceives the world, could not be starker: “I’m very excited for the future and where it might take me,” he says.

And the optimistic new outlook is thanks to the North East Autism Society (NEAS), where he is held up as a shining example of the of the ground-breaking work of the charity’s Employment Futures department.

The Northern Echo: North East Autism Society's Employment Futures department is undertaking ground-breaking workNorth East Autism Society's Employment Futures department is undertaking ground-breaking work

James’s path to employment opened up after he was referred to Employment Futures and, through the department’s partnership with an organisation called Moving On Tyne and Wear, he was sent on a course to build his confidence.

Leading online bingo provider, Tombola, was introduced to Employment Futures at a jobs fair in Sunderland and that led to James being given a four-week work placement, followed by an internship, and then paid employment.

Staff at Tombola discovered that James had a particular interest in animation and, after just one day, his “unbelievable” speed at grasping the software had made a big impression. The message from the company’s lead animator was unequivocal: “Employ him.”

“That was something we couldn’t have found anywhere else,” recalls Neil Guy, who was Tombola’s Head of Operations (International) at the time.

“The prejudices you have, the way you don’t actually think about it, but we unearthed a star in James. The stigma attached to autism is quite bad but when you get involved with it, they just need a bit of quiet now and again, or something explaining in a different way.”

And Neil is happy to encourage other companies to follow Tombola’s example: “There’s a lot of talent out there so I would say to other employers, if you get the opportunity to do this, take it because you’ll find a diamond in the rough – someone you might not of thought of but is really committed.”

James, who was given a position as a junior animator, says: “The staff are really friendly. I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a bunch of new software which has helped my confidence. I’m hoping to work on bigger projects, learn new skills and, hopefully, move up the career ladder.”

James’s experience is the kind of story that makes life so rewarding for Employment Futures manager, Derek Groves, and his team. “It’s what it’s all about,” says Derek. “I love the small wins and the big wins – it’s just a fantastic feeling.”

The Northern Echo: Employment Futures manager, Derek Groves.Employment Futures manager, Derek Groves.

Derek came to England from Australia seven years ago, having studied computer programming and worked as the manager and franchisee of a computer goods retailer in Sydney, before moving into IT services and then employment services.

When he settled in the North-East, he found work with a software development company but wanted a job where he could “make a real difference” and joined the North East Autism Society in September 2015.

He was initially on a short-term contract looking at social enterprise activities for the charity but quickly identified a gap in employment services and was given the opportunity to lay the foundations of a new department with colleague Nathan Bruce. It started small – with 10 service-users in Sunderland and Durham being given pre-employment skills, support with CVs, and guidance on interview techniques.

“It went really well,” recalls Derek. “We saw people building their confidence and able to communicate their own skills and talents, and we developed a better understanding of getting the right fit for the right job.”

By September 2016, enough progress had been made to formally launch Employment Futures at an event attended by around 200 people at The Sage, Gateshead. Some of the relationships forged at the gathering – including partnerships with Move On Tyne and Wear and DurhamWorks, based in Crook – are still bearing fruit today.

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The Government’s Department of Work and Pensions has become another important supporter, with awareness training being rolled out to all jobcentres in Tyne and Wear, and nearly all jobcentres in Durham, Darlington and Tees Valley. Programmes have also been delivered directly to the DWP itself, with 34 per cent of service-users finding paid employment, which is significantly higher success rate than the national average.

Durham Constabulary is another major organisation to endorse Employment Futures, having worked with Derek on bringing a young autistic person into the force as an apprentice.

Durham Police HR officer Sarah Jones says: “Derek met with our apprentice, myself and our Occupational Health Team to conduct an assessment from which he produced a comprehensive report. The report massively assisted us to not only identify a suitable role for our apprentice but also to any training needs that we could undertake. We couldn’t have asked for a better service.”

The quality of that service is underlined by the fact that NEAS is recognised as a Disability Confident Leader Organisation and is therefore qualified to assist businesses in their inclusive employment strategies. At the time the status was awarded, NEAS was only the second Leader Organisation in the North-East.

“This is particularly relevant now because, as we focus on a regional economic recovery, it is vital that it is inclusive and no segment of the community is left behind,” says Derek.

“Autistic and neurodiverse people have a lot to offer, with skills and qualities that can enhance organisations. The difficulty for some employers is understanding how that individual might think differently, and how best to support them, but that’s why we’re here to help.

“This is not about charity, it’s about an equal relationship between the employee and the employer, with meaningful benefits to both sides.”

For NEAS chief executive John Phillipson, helping service-users into employment is one of the charity’s priorities, and he believes Employment Futures has exceeded expectations.

The Northern Echo: NEAS chief executive John PhillipsonNEAS chief executive John Phillipson

“We knew there was a huge gap – a need for more training and support to prepare autistic and neurodiverse people for work, but I didn’t anticipate how successful Employment Futures would be,” says Mr Phillipson.

“What the team has done is work very closely with autistic people and their families and learn from them about what was needed. The result is that the service has grown much bigger than we expected.

“The number of people who have been supported into employment, further education and volunteering is much greater than I ever hoped for. The team has done an amazing job and we have achieved the best set of results in the country.”

For people like James Kordbarlag, who might otherwise face a bleak future, those results are truly life-changing.