Supported internships are revolutionising inclusion in the workplace, but we need more

Dec 20, 2023

When it comes to helping young people with a learning disability or autism spectrum condition into good jobs, we believe supported internships are a key part of the solution. They offer a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of young people who may not envisage meaningful employment and independence in their future. At the same time, they allow employers to access an overlooked pool of talent for their recruitment. By adopting inclusive recruitment practices, organisations can not only contribute to reducing rates of those not in education, employment or training (NEET) but also unlock the potential of a diverse and untapped workforce.  Successfully delivering supported internships changes lives, improves businesses and builds better communities – it’s a win-win for everyone. The problem is, if we are genuinely to tackle the shockingly low 4.8% employment figure for the SEND community, we need many more of them.

The most recent research from NDTi shows that over 86% of people with a learning disability who do not have a paid job would like one, so it is not for the lack of ambition and drive that employment figures are so low for this group. High-quality evidence from the US highlights that supported internships are an excellent tool for young people who are transitioning from education to employment and who need extra support and exposure to employers.  Youth Futures are keen to undertake further evaluation of supported internship models in the UK. The internships are run during the course of an academic year, taking place both in school or college and at the employer site, giving young people an opportunity to learn valuable skills on the ground while also continuing their education.

We have seen first-hand how the thousands of former DFN Project SEARCH interns have found their voice and place in society. Supported internships are the foundation for incredible stories of success, like that of Jonathan from Dundee who tackled his selective mutism to speak in public for the first time during his internship. In the 12 years since the Project SEARCH model has been implemented in the UK, DFN has supported 2,200 young people, over 60% of whom have gone on to paid employment, allowing many to live independently and follow their dreams, such as purchasing their first home or going on their first holiday.


So how can we make sure more people with a learning disability or autism have access to a supported internship or a transition-to-employment programme that works for them?

We need to make sure long-term continuous support is available to students, interns, graduates and new employees as they go on their employment journey. A job coach, a mentor, a case-worker – these are the true enablers of the supported internship scheme and their impact cannot be underestimated. When we hear graduation speeches from interns, it is the job coach they always want to thank first. Research shows that support workers are critical for the success of supported employment programmes. Coaches should be lauded for their amazing contributions and their time protected so they can support young people without being overwhelmed.

We were glad to see the government starting to open supported internships to people with complex SEND but without an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCPs). Many more people with a learning disability out there could benefit from an internship but are unable to get an EHCP. The number of young people given EHCPs is also growing fast – indicating just how much need there is for them. The £3 million funding announced by the government is a welcome start, but the system remains complex and scaling it will not be easy. What we want to achieve is a system where there is a supported internship offer in every locality, so those young people who can benefit from it can select to do so.

And of course, we need more employer engagement – without them, no transition programme can succeed. It’s been amazing to see larger, well-known employers like Amazon and Asda growing their supported internship offer this year, while public sector employers like the NHS are doubling and tripling their own supported internship offers across the UK. There were 989,000 open job vacancies in the last rolling quarter across the UK. And yet, more than a million young people with a learning disability remain out of employment and we need more employers to sign up, large and small, public and private.

Finally, and most importantly, there should be continuous and in-depth collaboration between sectors. Supported internships can only work when every partner involved in delivering them, whether that is the education provider or college, the employer or the local authority, all are working closely and consistently together, with the young person’s best interests at heart. One of the main issues with supported internship provision currently that availability varies vastly depending on geographical area, meaning that some young people have much better access to an internship than others. Deeper collaboration between delivery partners is the best way to even out this postcode lottery.

When we meet this week at DFN Project SEARCH Inclusion Revolution Conference in Blackpool, we will be bringing together hundreds of delivery partners, young people, inclusive employers and organisations playing a key role in improving employment prospects for people with SEND. What we do together, as a team of teams, will define success not only for our Inclusion Revolution, but for a whole generation of capable and ambitious young people who deserve to succeed.

Barry Fletcher is the CEO of Youth Futures Foundation, the What Works Centre for youth employment. Youth Futures is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established to improve employment outcomes for young people from marginalised backgrounds. 

Claire Cookson is CEO of DFN Project SEARCH, a charity helping young people with a learning disability and/or autism into employment through supported internships.

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