AI technology to improve the delivery of employability programmes

November 28, 2023

Maryam Bello-Tukur, Programme Manager from Imperial Health Charity discusses a new NHS employability programme, prioritising a person-centred approach to employability support, AI and tech integration for more impactful programmes, and why there should be greater focus on achieving sustained employment outcomes. 

The digital transformation is not coming. It's already here.

Welcome to “Employability Chats” Maryam. You've recently started as Programme Manager at Imperial Health Charity in London. Can you tell us more about the charity and the employability programmes they are delivering?

Imperial Health Charity is the dedicated charity for Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and its five hospitals in north west London. Now, the support we provide comes in different forms. Our main goal is to support the NHS to stretch those services, provide better services for the patients and better services for the people within the community. The  charity also focuses on supporting people within the community to narrow the health inequality gap and improve the quality of life.

We have a quite robust volunteering programme with various opportunities across the Trust. We have an adult Volunteering Programme, the Youth Volunteering Programme, the Responder Scheme and now the Volunteer Employability Programme. Some of the people that volunteer with at trust have been volunteering for years and they absolutely enjoy it. What they do adds value and contributes immensely to the patient experience. 

The Volunteer Employability Programme is the next step in our commitment to support our community and the NHS. The objective of the programme is to support disadvantaged members of North West London into work or apprenticeships within the NHS. The programme educates people on the opportunities available within the NHS, debunks any myths that people might have about what it's like to work in the sector - because it really is a wonderful place to work - and equips them with tools to make informed decisions about where to work and how to work. When people register to Volunteer Employability Programme, they receive one to one employability coaching alongside volunteering. So executing simple volunteering tasks on the wards becomes more intentional as they are gaining experience, building transferable skills and making those connections – learnings that are embedded into the employability programme itself, which makes it quite unique.

In terms of the employability support that they get, we have all kinds of interventions. But first, we start by looking at where the person is, understanding what their needs are, what their barriers are, what their strengths are, and what their job interests are and their goals are. Then we look at how we can get them from where they are to where they want to be. And it's not just about employability, it's looking at their key life areas, because employability does affect every aspect of one's life. It affects one’s family life, social life,  physical and mental well-being and of course financial circumstances and self-image. So we try to provide well-rounded support. Some NHS staff have been very generous with their time, offering training and mentoring sessions which have been invaluable to our programme participants.

We only started the employability programme in September and so far eight of our programme participants have received job offers within the NHS. If you think about it, that's a very short time. And we have five people lined up for interviews. Some of those individuals have been long term unemployed, but we've been able to knock down those barriers and move the needle in terms of their employability. It's an exciting time and a lot of work.

What about your own journey in the employability sector? Can you share how that started and has evolved to now?

Absolutely. I fell into the employability sector and when I fell, I fell pretty hard. I didn't even know employability was a sector, I didn't know it existed. I thought it was a skill. And now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

I was running a successful event planning business when I realised I enjoyed organising workshops on personal development more than I did organising parties. So I enrolled myself into coaching courses and psychotherapy courses to see how I can provide something that creates more of an impact. When I began volunteering as a coach, I realised I was pretty good at managing a caseload and providing that kind of support. This led me to join my first job in the employability sector with Shaw Trust, working on the JETS (Job Entry Targeted Support) contract. During that time, I had a great introduction to the sector. I joined the IEP (Institute of Employability Professionals) and learned quite a lot from there. Since then, I’ve worked on Aim 4 Work, supporting people with mental health issues back into work. And then I worked on the Independent Placement and Support (IPS) contract, supporting people with mild to severe disabilities into work. Now I’m an Employability Programme Manager with Imperial Health Charity.

What I love about the employability sector is it's a combination of two things. I love numbers, hitting targets and I also love providing personal impact. When you put those things together, that's my happy space. I was insatiably curious when I started out. I was constantly on the IEP platform, watching every webinar, connecting with people, learning more about the sector, upskilling, taking courses and just progressing and developing. I'll say a big part of my growth was when I had the opportunity to be mentored and that changed everything. It gave me a broader perspective. And doing what I do now, creating this employability programme from scratch and seeing the impact that it's creating, I'd say, it’s great how my career has evolved.

You’ve spent time as a frontline adviser. What are 3 biggest challenges for frontline teams delivering employability programmes?

In terms of the biggest challenges, I would say the first thing is remaining person centred, providing that person centred approach. The reason why it's a challenge is because employability is mostly based on numbers, isn't it? As an employment adviser, you have to hit those targets. That's just the reality of it. And I do understand that.  Yes, hitting those targets means that the contracts get renewed and with that comes the opportunity to continue to impact lives. So the targets are good. But sometimes when an advisor gets too caught up in hitting those targets and looking for those quick wins, what ends up happening is they lose that person centred approach which is really important. Providing that centred approach means not rushing people but progressing them at a pace that they're comfortable with. It sounds simple but being empathetic and understanding can be extremely challenging. Imagine, you get someone into work and the person says, you know what, this is not right for me, can we look at something else? As a frontline worker, it's difficult. You have to do what's best for the person that you're supporting. And sometimes it's easy to lose sight of that when you have targets that you have to meet.

The second challenge is finding the right balance between being supportive and not enabling bad practices. What I mean about that is sometimes you need to be able to push back and challenge the person that you're supporting. In this industry, the customer is not always right, that's just not the case. So our job when we're supporting someone is to provide the information and support. And sometimes that means saying no to certain things or being more assertive and ensuring that the people that you're supporting are being accountable for the things they need to be accountable for. Finding that balance is a challenge for a lot of employability practitioners. There ought to be more training on this.

The third challenge I would say, is quality referrals. A lot of times you will find people who aren't put onto the right provision and frankly, it's a waste of resources for the service provider and demoralising for the recipient of that service. Quality referrals are really important. And to determine quality referral, one needs to understand, first of all, the needs of the people that we want to support. And then two, looking at the provision that's being provided. Is it suitable? Does it work? And then educating the DWP, or whoever's referring the customers to you to refer people who are a right fit for that provision. And that's something that constantly has to be reviewed. 

What’s your most memorable story of supporting someone with barriers into work?

Okay, so this one's a bit of a tear jerker, so fair warning there. I was supporting someone who was on the JETS programme. Let's call her Molly. Molly had left school at the age of 13 to care for her father, who had a disability. That means she had very little no education and no qualifications. Because she lived in a remote area and couldn't go into town a lot. Her interaction with people was very limited. Now, this  also means that she’d never worked or volunteered before. There was also a lot of work to be done in terms of building her interpersonal skills.

Molly didn’t think she would ever get a job. She was well aware that she didn't have any education and she didn't have any work experience, and she didn't know where to start. And it was quite sad, really. I thought to myself, how do I move this person? How do I change that mindset? Because it was clear to me that Molly was really keen to work and should be given the opportunity to work despite those barriers. How do we overcome the barriers? So I shifted my focus to what she did have. And she had a smartphone. Her uncle gave it to her for Christmas and taught her how to use it. She started using the smartphone to look up recipes and cook and doing little tutorials with her nieces on it. So we put together a list of tasks she did when she was supporting her father and when she was doing a tutorial with her nieces on the phone. 

Then I pulled out a job description for a care role and another job for a catering assistant role. Without showing her, I just read a few of the skills that a person needs to perform those duties. I asked her, is this something similar to what you do around the house? And she said yes. Then I showed it to her and I said, okay, you see, these are job descriptions. There are employers out there who are looking for people like you who have those skills and they're willing to pay money. Molly burst into tears. I could see that this was a defining moment for her. She went from thinking I don't have any qualifications, I don't have any skills, no one's going to hire me, to realising her potential, to realising that all those years that she wasn't in school and wasn't in training, she has actually found a way to develop skills, skills that are marketable. That experience stayed with me. 

Sometimes as frontline employability practitioners, we need to think outside the box to provide solution space. And that begins with changing that mindset, doing a mindset reset with the people that we support. For ourselves as well.

The sector is talking more now about embracing AI tools and technology to improve the delivery of programmes. What benefits do you see for frontline workers and also for the participants being supported?

Well, you know what, that's a great question. AI and tech in employability is an area that I am particularly interested in. Now, we talk a lot about the changing labour, changing labour landscape, but we can't talk about that without talking about technology. Technology has dramatically changed how we think, learn, live and of course how we work. The reality is our job impacts every area of our lives. So you can't talk about one without talking about the other. When I think about the benefits of tech, I see a lot of benefits.

The benefits are endless. But you know what? I will stick to two points for now.  In terms of employability practitioners and how AI and Tech supports us, I think Tech provides us with an efficient and effective way to do what we do. I can't imagine doing what we do without tech and AI is just a step up. The digital transformation is not coming. It's already here. We're living it and it makes our job easier, it makes it faster, it gives us access to all kinds of learning resources and platforms and ways of collecting important data and making sense of it. You and I connect like this, that's an example of that. And that makes us better at our job, which means that that enables us to create more impact and you can't put a price tag on that.

Secondly, how does it benefit the people that we support? That's a big one. Now if we've learned anything from the JETS contract, it’s that technology has a big pull and creates a lot of impact in how we support people. Now we have seen on the JETS contract, how people who had very limited digital skills got the support that they needed and were able to attend meetings online, take courses online to improve their employability and progress into work at some point. That is huge. If we consider our role as employability support systems, we're not just here to help people progress into work, we want to give them tools so they can have the information they need to make informed decisions. And if we're thinking about sustainable employment, those individuals have to be able to live in today's world and function in today's world so they can hold down a job. If an employer is using AI and tech, then the employees would have to adapt, if they're going to be able to work for that employer. They need to get an understanding of that. 

Like I said earlier, AI and tech doesn't just affect the workplace, it affects every part of our lives. Banks are using AI and tech, they're using chat bots, that's becoming a thing. Banks are closing down branches because now a lot of things that you want to do, you can't go into the bank to do. You have to do it on an app, they're directing you to the app. So to function in today's society, you need to have an understanding of that and to be able to use those platforms.

Now if as employability practitioners, we're not preparing our participants to be able to use those platforms and to be ready to work for employers who expect them to have those skills, we are not doing them justice. If you think back to that person who was on the JETS contract who had limited digital skills, but had to attend courses online, online meetings and things like that, was it more difficult? Of course, it must have been more of a challenge. Would they have connected more with their employment adviser if he had been face to face? Chances are yes, we know that face to face interactions, people connect more. But the reality is now we're moving towards a more hybrid way of working and the participants who are able to learn and use technology will progress because of it.

Incorporating tech into the support we provide our participants gives them a taster of what would happen in the workplace, because most businesses are moving towards using AI, chatbots and more tech. They are embedding more tech into how they're delivering businesses. They have to if they want their doors to stay open. Sadly, the same applies to people. If you want to progress someone into work and help them stay in work, you have to give them a taste of what the workplace is going to be like in reality. By incorporating tech when providing employability support to others, you're actually building their employability skills, even by just getting them to use an app to take an online course to answer things on a chatbot.

Those are employability skills that they need to get into work and to thrive in the workplace. So, absolutely, I think there should be more conversations around that and more training on how to support people using AI and chatbots. And this is just the beginning I think.

The IEP are working hard to support those within the sector to help develop their careers. What’s your own career goal in employability and what can the sector do to help you achieve it?

My goal is to work in business development, growth and growth strategy within the employability services. Like I mentioned before, what appeals to me about this sector is the combination of numbers and positive impact. My background is in business so that's an area that I love and an area that I'm good at. But I'm also really interested in creating that positive impact and the employability sector does combine the two really well. So that's an area that I want to progress into and create that added value.

To answer your question, what can the IEP do to support me with achieving that goal? Well, they can continue doing what they're doing. The IEP has made a big difference in terms of my development as an employability practitioner. I came in not knowing the sector existed and now I'm building an employability programme from scratch. So a lot of it is attributed to the support that the IEP provides to employability practitioners. But since you asked the question, I will shamelessly put out a call to action - if anyone's listening and would like to connect for shared learning or mentoring, please reach out. I would love to connect with you.

It's all about learning, connecting with others and that's how the IEP can help me. 

If you could make 3 changes tomorrow to improve programmes that progress people with barriers into work what would those changes be?

That's a really hard question.

Firstly, I would say more engagement with DWP. Let's say if you're delivering a DWP contract and work coaches are the ones who are referring the participants, having that joined up approach really works because first of all, Job Centre Plus has access, and has information about local support services in the area, which can be key if you’re looking to build a local support network for the person you’re supporting. My experience with the DWP has always been positive.  When I work with benefits claimants, I like to have a client review with the JCP, just so they know this is what we've done, this is what we're doing. And a lot of times the work coach will come back and say, actually, we have this available, or come back with suggestions or tips or resources it would’ve taken me longer to stumble on. It’s not always easy and it has to be a two way street. Both parties- employability service providers and the JCP building that positive working relationship, increasing engagement and not just seeing each other as a pipeline for getting/sending referrals, but as a resource and getting feedback from them, what works, what doesn't work is something I would like to see more of.  

The second change is I want to see more training for employability practitioners, especially frontline employability practitioners, looking at things like motivation, interviewing, handling difficult conversations and recruitment procedures in different sectors and such. That is really important because the labour market is so dynamic and to be effective one has to keep upskilling because the alternative is unwittingly giving bad advice to those who trust you. I would like to see employers and advisors commit to more training, experiential and shared learning. Although the IEP has a large following and there are a lot of people on the IEP programme, I don't think they are nearly enough. There are a lot of employability practitioners that have not heard of the IEP before. I think there needs to be more awareness on the importance of resources and training available, so employability practitioners can stay relevant and provide that quality advice.

The third one thing I would like to see is stronger emphasis on the link between maintaining a support network and sustainable employment. Any employability practitioner worth their salt can get someone into work. Getting them to stay in-work is the hard part. From what I can see, I think we could do better. Sadly, we see it across different contracts or employability programmes. People get into work and six weeks later, they fall out and they're back to job searching. I think having a support network and effective in-work support plays a big part in this. There's a lot of emphasis in training frontline staff to get people into work. There's not a lot of emphasis on how you support them to stay in work. Yes, in work, support is usually six months in most employability programmes, but how many people make it to the 6 months mark? That needs to change.

Those are the 3 key areas that I would want to focus on.

Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life and why?

The biggest inspiration in my life is my cousin. She runs an NGO (non-governmental organisation) where she provides rehabilitation for people who have suffered trauma and integrates back into society. She started her PhD when I was about 7 and I remember asking my parents, what's a PhD? And they said, a PhD holder is an expert in a particular topic and some PhD holders can be world experts in a particular field. It was fascinating for me to see someone who looked like me and sounded like me become an expert. Watching documentaries, I noticed the PhD holders or the experts…they were usually older, wore thick glasses, and were usually men, white men. So seeing someone who was the complete opposite of that- she was 24 years old at the time- doing a PhD, I remember thinking, wow, if she can be an expert in a subject matter, then I can too. She's been the biggest inspiration for me because that was a defining moment in my life. So I guess representation matters.

Get valuable insights straight to your inbox
Sign up to our newsletter