Project SEARCH

There are 11.6 million disabled people in the UK alone*. That equates to a fifth of the UK population. Working age adults (16-64 year olds) account for around half of this figure but sadly a significant proportion of this population are unemployed. As one of the largest companies in the UK, and a healthcare company at that, we feel very strongly about this issue and are committed to doing what we can to bridge this employment gap.

One  programme we are particularly proud of is Project SEARCH, a year-long (term time) placement programme that we run for 12 young people aged between 17-24 with learning disabilities, at our global headquarters in Brentford, UK.  

The premise of Project SEARCH, an initiative which was originally developed by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in the USA, is to provide practical work experience and prepare young people with learning disabilities for the world of work.

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We were the first private sector company to introduce the scheme in 2011 and our programme typically consists of three work placements per year for each person.

We were the first private sector company to introduce the scheme in 2011 and our programme typically consists of three work placements per year for each person. These placements could range from working in IT, catering, facilities and/or a retailer located within our offices.  The hands-on work experience is supplemented by classroom-based learning, which we host at our offices in conjunction with a local college partner.

Towards the end of the Project SEARCH programme each academic year, we work closely with Action on Disability, a not-for-profit, who are ultimately responsible for assisting the individuals to find meaningful work. We have also identified employment opportunities (where appropriate) for a number of our Project SEARCH alumni, most notably with our on-site third part suppliers. Which is great for the students involved with Project SEARCH, but how do we as a business benefit from the scheme?

Project SEARCH has brought a number of benefits to the company. Operating out of our global headquarters, which is home to around 3,000 employees, the visibility of students on the programme (and their regular interactions with employees) has helped to create a more inclusive and disability-friendly culture.

A natural consequence of the programme has been that we have made adjustments within the building to accommodate students, including our accessible facilities. This has helped us think about how we design new facilities across the world in the future. Liz Burton, Director, Global Inclusion and Diversity, was involved in the formation of the initiative and is proud of what it has achieved:

“We initially launched Project SEARCH as a pilot in 2011, however the response from employees and management has been fantastic and the programme is now a key part of our inclusion and diversity strategy in the UK, both from an internal and external perspective. The fresh thinking that the students have brought have really shifted the dial of how we operate our business; so much so that we are looking at ways of expanding the programme to other UK sites.”

* Business Disability Forum, 2014