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Digital Inc. The new Supported Internship for the digital economy.

How an innovative new initiative could transform the lives of SEND students and has started to close the digital skills gap. #EmpDay20

As a parent of an 11 year old child with ASD I remain appalled at the criminally high unemployment rate for autistic young people. But also, as someone who has worked in the creative and digital sector for 25 years, I recognise that many of the strengths and capabilities of people with ASD often align with the increasing skills gaps in the digital economy.

Over the past 3 years Digital Advantage has been working with SEND schools in Greater Manchester and Lancashire to develop students’ digital employability skills and we have uncovered an incredible pool of talented young people. Brilliant, professional quality designers, coders, illustrators, animators, marketeers and analysts who just need the right support to be able to get some of the great jobs available in the sector.

So, in partnership with The Manchester College, and PURE Innovations, Digital Advantage has created the UK’s first Supported Internship for the Digital Economy and it starts in September this year at our central Manchester base. Based on a digital agency model, the students will work with industry professionals and clients to gain real experience of the creative and digital workplace. Through ‘digital making’ they will learn creative, technical and business skills and develop life skills to help them into successful employment.

Bridging the gap

Our experience and other research has shown that there is a direct correlation between many of the skills and talent of SEND young people (especially those on the ASD spectrum) with the skills required by an expanding digital economy. An economy that that is demonstrating huge skills shortages and that expects to recruit over 30,000 people for new jobs in the sector during the next 5 years.

Until now there has been a lack of appropriate support available to SEND young people to enable them to fulfil their potential and secure some of the higher level jobs available. This lack of support is contributing to unreasonably high unemployment rates for SEND students (86%), and a waste of a valuable pool of talent.

The untapped talent pipeline

As part of the development of a talent pipeline from the SEND community into higher level jobs in the digital economy, we have created Digital Inc., an innovative and effective programme of digital skills and employability development in schools. The project has developed close links with GM Autism Employment Group, BASE, PURE Innovations, Coop Foundation, BBC, Prince’s Trust and GCHQ - all organisations working to improve neurodiversity in Manchester’s digital workplace. Digital Inc. has been independently evaluated; it worked really well, and has had a profound effect on the schools, young people and parents of SEND students.

We found a direct relationship between the skills and talents of our SEND students and the skills needs of the digital economy. There are natural abilities and a propensity towards highly technical and creative work; skills that are in high demand in the digital economy. But we needed to do more.

The Digital Supported Internship model

The programme has been designed for and by young people working with industry professionals. It is targeted at students who find mainstream FE provision a challenge and who will respond better to experiential, strengths-based learning. It will be based at the Digital Inc. agency located in the city centre. It will refine interventions that have worked well in the development stage but with more focus on employer engagement, as it is targeted at achieving positive outcomes into apprenticeships, work or Higher Education.

  • We will recruit no more than 15 students in the first year and they will attend for up to 4 days each week depending upon their needs.

  • Other places will be available as alternative work experience to students on mainstream courses.

  • Students will all go through the Digital Inc. induction that will see them work on shared digital business propositions or social action projects that students continue to work on for the duration of the supported internship.

  • They will also develop their own business proposition or freelance operation: this may be a website, an app, e-commerce venture or e-portfolio for their freelance work.

  • Students will work in small teams to respond to employer briefs from our partners.

  • Students will receive customised technical skills development depending on their requirements. This may be delivered by industry mentors and sector specialists.

  • Students will receive one 2 one job coaching

  • We will work with employers to develop capacity and relationships, including paid work placements and internships, apprenticeships and eventual employment.

  • We expect positive outcomes for all our participants and will continue to support them through ongoing industry mentoring once they have left the project.

Going Forward

Having launched the recruitment during lockdown we are recruiting steadily over the summer months and still have a few places to fill. Employers are offering their support in a number of ways including live briefs, mentoring, extended work experiences and interviews to become apprentices. They include GCHQ, CISCO, Manchester City Council, Autotrader, Push Doctor, Numbers and Lines, The Manchester College, Princes Trust, BBC and ITV.

As a society, we need to do more to bridge the gap between education and employment to make sure that the skills and talents of SEND young people are being fully realised.  With Digital Inc. we’re doing things differently; we’re trying new ways of working and taking some measured risks. We think what we’ve developed will work really well for anyone wanting to get a great job in the digital economy, but as ever, we need more support from employers and anyone else who thinks that an 86% unemployment rate is not OK.

For more information on our Digital Supported Internship recruitment process and how you can get involved visit Digital Inc.or contact Rav Gehlon -

Andy Lovatt is MD of Digital Advantage.

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