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In March 2020, we did our part to protect others and shut our doors to our community – staff, members, and regretfully – our Employment Academy participants and graduates. Despite the challenges a national lockdown posed, our team did not stop working to support our participants and graduates, adapting their working lives to ensure that people felt seen and heard in a period where they needed it most.

The ability for us to open our doors is not only impactful in terms of bringing our diverse community of members back together again and engaging in a larger cultural programme of events. Crucially, it enables us to provide critical emotional relationships with our Employment Academy participants, delivering on a stable routine in order to facilitate a pathway back into secure, good work.

Last week we opened the doors to our Employment Academy for the first time this year, welcoming 10 new participants to our 18th Employment Preparation Programme! We caught up with our Mentor Coordinator and Trainer, Jennie Carr, and Employment Academy Manager, Brian Beaton, as they discussed their experiences of the first week of Employment Preparation Programme 18, and why training our participants in-House is so crucial.

Jennie talks us through the participant’s experience on Day 1…

We start the day by welcoming the ten new participants into the Drawing Room to kickstart this Spring’s training Programme. We whip through introductions and discussions about keeping safe in the House during Covid, and what’s on the menu for lunch! It’s vital to keep everyone fed and energized, Brian stresses. Importantly, Brian and I take the opportunity to ask our participants why they are here with us today. The answers are fascinating: high on the list is “to interact with people”, which is understandable given the past fifteen months. Others mention – “to get my bearings”, which reflects how off-course many of the participants are feeling, and “to reflect” – dedicating time to their inner selves. It’s amazing that we can provide a supportive space for our participants, and the House is vital in facilitating this.

After lunch, we create our Group Contract – a written statement of intent that covers behaviour on the Programme to be followed by both participants and staff. Respect, honesty and integrity feature at the top of the list – great qualities when working as a team. We then round off the first day with a quiz in the House’s chapel – with Employment Academy staff members participating too. This provides an excellent opportunity for our participants to bond with the wider team, whilst having a bit of fun. As we pass through the Garden Room there are lots of positive comments about the newly refurbished décor by Liberty London (note to self: never take this stunning environment for granted)! My favourite quiz team name this year was ‘Barnaboss’ – and they won too! Rounding off a relaxed half an hour with a keen competitive streak. We’re looking forward to the weeks ahead, and getting to know our creative, diverse and engaged group of new participants!

Brian explains why conducting the programme face-to-face is vital for the wellbeing and development of all our participants…

We saw the power of face-to-face connection during the pandemic on Employment Preparation Programme 17 – held for six-weeks in Autumn 2020. The significance of this is just as crucial to our current Programme, which started on May 10th. With all the issues that have occurred in the world over the last fifteen months, most of us have been more isolated than we have ever been before. As we know, extended spells of isolation are not good for our wellbeing, and the feedback we received from the Graduates of our last Programme signposted that the Covid risk work we did to ensure we could hold a safe Programme in the House was crucial in counteracting this.

We are currently in the third week of this Programme and still have all ten participants. We were going to begin with eleven, but one person found employment just before the start. It didn’t take long for this group to bond and from very early on, our participants remarked how fantastic it is to be around other people – to share their stories, to laugh along with them, and to be motivated by them.  We can already see people’s confidence rising and the camaraderie between the participants is a joy to see.

Online training has its pros and cons, but you cannot beat face-to-face interaction when it comes to reflecting on and sharing life experiences.  Also, what a great pleasure it is to be in the House! We carried out our first two days of the Programme in the Drawing Room and participants thoroughly enjoyed being in such a beautiful space.  Even though we have had successful online training experiences this year with the five-week Wellbeing Wednesday’s collaboration and our first ever two-week Graduate Refresher Programme, we are so happy to be back in Soho – back in the House, and back going up and down those stairs.

I have found it extremely exciting to have both our Recruitment Days and the start of a new Employment Preparation Programme at the House. It’s excellent that most of our facilitators are happy to come in and present face-to-face.  For me, it is a relief to feel the enchanting energy of the House: the Participants, colleagues, and members – and it is also a relief to not be working from home and having my cat jumping onto my laptop every twenty minutes!

For more information about the Employment Academy, click here.