A recent event held at the South West College Omagh brought students, college staff and employers together to highlight the brilliant work being done through the STEP programme.
Attended by large numbers, the event maintained a small crowd atmosphere that highlighted the family feeling within the programme. Throughout a lively and interactive presentation which showed each student in their respective placement setting, Job coach Andy Gordon showed that he knew everything there was to know about the students - and anything he forgot to mention he was quickly reminded of by the students in the crowd.
As Andy talked through the video, students were seen doing everything from customer service to working with animals, and Andy was quick to emphasise that these were no mundane tasks, but the students in the front line of the work place, where they are allowed to explore their jobs and themselves. One clip showed a student putting together products that will end up being shipped off as far as Brazil, highlighting the wide reaching effects of the work being done; while skills learned elsewhere were evident at the event itself, as Francis, a student who has held two different jobs in the programme, including working within the colleges own marketing department, designed the flyers.
Employers were quick to praise the programme and the effect it has on students. Nuala, a teacher at St. Johns College, Dromore, described how student Colm Corry, ‘comes in on a Friday morning and helps set up the work areas and helps us make the dinners. He’s come on leaps and bounds. You don’t have to tell him anything anymore. You give him a job and he does it right away. It’s great the way he has improved. He gets on with all the staff and is just fantastic.’
The video footage of each student served as proof of the improvements they make. Andy described how in recording the video footage for the event over the years he has seen first-hand how their roles change. Having seen Edel work in the café in Dunnes Stores for three years, Andy explained how when he first visited he found her cleaning the tables, then a year later she was loading the dishwasher, and now she has the confidence and responsibility to serve customers. Only a short distance away, Amy, also working in Dunnes for two days a week for the last two years, could be found helping a customer, showing confidence and enthusiasm which would have been unimaginable two years ago.
Students themselves can feel the benefits of the programme. Paul Gordon, speaking after the event, explained how he originally worked at Homebase for several years through the STEP programme, before being recruited as a proper employee. Paul said, ‘I used to do work experience in Homebase. Now they don’t do any work experience, so I’m getting paid and I’m under contract with them. It’s brilliant.’
With this job development also comes the personal development that the college try to instil in the students, particularly when it comes to asserting their own independence. Responsibility is given to students to let employers and the college know when they’re not able to attend work.
With students working far and wide away from the college, in companies as big as Homebase and McDonalds, another moment that has stood out is closer to home. The STEP coffee morning, held in the college’s gallery restaurant each week, has proved a great success. Andy explained how the students ‘all found their niche with this venture, whether it was greeting people as they came in, taking payment, or waiting on tables. Everyone found what they were good at and they became a fantastic team. By the end nothing had to be said to them, everything ran like clockwork. It’s one of the best things we’ve done at the college, and they were even able to be shadowed by our other group of students, so the programme can be repeated next year by different students.’
The Benefits of the STEP programme are obvious to the parents involved with it. Des McLaughlin’s Mum said, ‘When we came in and met the staff, we were sold from the very first minute. We knew it was the place for him to be. The holistic approach from the staff within the college as well as Andy working out the work placement means it all seems so seamless, though I’m sure there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It’s went so well and as parents we’re kept very informed and involved, and we see the benefits with Des. Other family members have commented on his confidence and the enjoyment he has shown.’
From all angles of this event, the work done and the improvement from the students was evident. Final word, however, goes to the students themselves. For Des McLaughlin, who is working within the college, his new job transcends the programme. He says, ‘I feel like I’m a work colleague now, like I have something to go in and enjoy. I don’t actually feel like I’m a student anymore.’ For the STEP programme, this is the best feeling of all.