Helen Collins was working in the probation service when she was given the chance to make a real difference to the employment prospects of people in the place where she grew up. She jumped at the chance to become the programme manager of a new, innovative project, Step Forward Tees Valley. Here she writes about the project funded by The Big Lottery Fund and the European Social Fund, which aims to get 2,500 hard-to-reach residents into work in three years

STEP Forward Tees Valley represents a real investment in our area. I am so excited about its potential, not only in terms of the impact it will have on people, their families and communities, but also the wider opportunity for the Tees Valley to show what we can achieve.

I have lived and worked in the Tees Valley my whole life and I see the difficult economic and social challenges that people are facing every day. We live in an area with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. The situation has been made so much worse by the recent announcements of the closures of the Redcar steel works and the Boulby Pot Ash mine. The high levels of poverty and social isolation in our area are having devastating effects and are linked to a range of serious problems such as physical and mental ill health, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use and offending.

I do not buy into the notion that all people who are out of work are happy to sit at home and claim benefits. The majority want to find training and work and enjoy better opportunities for themselves and their loved ones. But people are complex with complex lives and needs. If you have a drug problem, conviction or low self esteem will an employer take you seriously? If you are too depressed to leave your house or struggled at school because of a learning difficulty can you find a training course that will really benefit you?

This is where Step Forward Tees Valley can help. We provide support to people to overcome the barriers they believe have stopped them finding work in the past. Once we have helped them address the issues they identify, we will continue to help them to make the best of themselves, building on their skills, strengths and knowledge to find meaningful training and work opportunities.

The one thing the Tees Valley is not short of is determination. I am proud to belong to such a diverse, passionate community and I believe the sheer bloody mindedness of the people to survive and prosper will ensure the future of this area. We have great potential and there are some real signs of economic improvement and new opportunities on the horizon. There has been an increase in the number of enterprises and start-ups, an increase in job vacancies, and an increase in predicted future job opportunities. Step Forward Tees Valley will exploit these opportunities and work with local businesses and our partners to help create a stronger and skilled workforce who want to stay in the area.

At the end of the day this is about so much more than getting people to earn a wage. Of course, that is important for individuals and the local economy, but training and work is about more than pounds and pence. We are not talking about just finding jobs for the unemployed, we want to find meaningful work that has a positive impact on people and their community. Why shouldn’t people who want a career have one? Having a job is about having a sense of purpose, a goal and hope for the future. I know from personal experience that just having someone believing in you can be enough to set you on a new, more productive path.

I know these are big aspirations and we can’t do it alone. We are part of The Northern Inclusion Consortium, made up of DISC, Groundwork, Mental Health Concern and Changing Lives, and we are working with 23 partners across the area who are all experts in their field. They are coming together in a unique way to help break down barriers and ensure the very best for the people of Tees Valley. I can’t wait to report back on our first success stories and watch how this programme transforms real people’s lives.

If you think you could benefit from our work, or you know someone who could, please visit our website at www.sfteevalley.co.uk, email info@niconsortium.org or call 01325 387713. We are also on twitter @SFTeesValley and on Facebook /stepforwardteesvalley.”