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Insights Supported Internships: Removing barriers for a brighter future, together

Caroline Norris | Senior Engineer


The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race or culture.
I am a Chartered Civil Engineer but I now specialise in Project Management. At the moment I’m part of a team working on a Climate Resilience Improvement Programme in Sri Lanka. I’m part of our Nuclear & Power business (N&P) and based at the Hub in Bristol – and that’s also where our Supported Internship programme runs from.

My passion for Special Education Needs (SEN)

My nephew Christopher was diagnosed with autism when he was just 18 months old. Both my brother and sister-in-law have done an awe-inspiring job of raising him, embracing his skills, and adapting their lives around his difficulties. Other than in descriptions like this, Christopher is just Christopher – he isn’t defined by his autism. He’s gentle and kind and could win a Nobel Prize for mathematics, however, the family’s concern has been the same for years. Once he is out of the education system, would he ever be able to sustain a job or live independently? The more I learn about individuals with special education needs and learning difficulties, the more it seems insane that people with so much to give are excluded from the workplace… There's a whole lot more that can be done to encourage diversity and inclusion in engineering.

How I got the idea to bring Supported Internships to Atkins

In November 2016 a colleague showed me an interesting article in a client’s magazine. It was all about their SEN programme. We already support people with Autism at Atkins, so my immediate thought was, “If they can do it, why can’t we?” One of our directors, David Cole had a contact at The National Star College.  

The National Star College is an independent specialist college that enables people with disabilities to realise their potential through education and personalised learning opportunities. The college offers programmes that are tailored to meet individual aspirations which can range from independently getting up after falling, to entering or re-entering the national workforce.  
In December 2016, I visited the National Star College site in Gloucester with a view to understanding more about what programme they ran and how, if at all, Atkins could engage with them. The site is an impressive demonstration of the magnitude of what be achieved when people work tenaciously and positively in support of others. 

How our Supported Internships work

We began a supported internships programme here in Bristol in Sept 2017 welcoming five interns for the course of the academic year. The programme involves supported work placements and study towards formal qualifications – such as English and Maths with the aim of helping the interns progress toward paid employment. 

Each intern has a Job Buddy (an Atkins employee) and the cohort of 5 interns has a single Job Coach (a National Star employee).
The role of a Job Buddy is to understand the Intern's disability and provide support if necessary. They are trained in the Learner’s specific disabilities and thus help to provide as supportive an environment as possible.  

Five roles on-site means that National Star can secure funding for a full-time Job Coach. The Job Coach is a teacher and a mentor, available in the Hub for the full working week to support both the Learner and the Job Buddy. Where necessary National Star have also provided 1-1 specialist support. All of our interns are here for an academic year, and generally work three to three and a half days a week. All mental and physical disabilities welcome. 

In 2018/2019 we have 5 interns, working in a wide range of roles and disciplines*. We have Jo doing Research and development with the Water and Environment team, Brook in the Creative Design Team researching Augmented Reality tools, Carl doing admin for the Nuclear and Power team and Greg and Prince working in the kitchens!

Here are two examples of interns’ journeys and what the 2017/2018 interns achieved with us:

Meet James…

James has a diagnosis of autism. This mainly affects his social communication skills and he finds it hard to socialise and converse. This means he can come across as quiet and withdrawn. When he visited Atkins he liked the idea of cooking breakfast, which he does at home. During his internship, he gained an NVQ qualification in Customer Services. He initially needed 1-1 support during busy periods of service but with this and the support of the catering team he was able to independently support the lunch service by the end of his placement! James has been offered a job with a local catering team.

Meet Sarah…

Sarah has a diagnosis of autism. Her previous employment broke down because the support she needed was not continued after her manager changed. Without work, she found being at home alone all day isolating. Sarah used her internship at Atkins as an opportunity to develop her skills and open up new opportunities. After spending four months with us as a Project Support Assistant, she has gained an NVQ qualification in Customer Services. Sarah is now working at a School after six months into the Placement with Atkins. 

When you reach out to different groups, you meet inspiring people

I’ve met so many really incredible people through Supported Internships; the volunteers who buddy the interns, and the interns themselves. Buddying is not part of anyone’s day to day job and there is no monetary reward for doing it. It involves dedication, patience and imagination. Each and every job buddy and intern is wonderful in my eyes, just for believing they can, and giving it a go!

If you would like to know more about the Supported Internships Programme, please contact Caroline Norris

Or if you're looking for more insight, check out our diversity content and find out why a diverse and inclusive workplace matters to us.

*Names have been changed to respect our interns’ privacy.