Cleaning upA car cleaning service in Gloucestershire is helping young people with learning disabilities develop vital job skills in paid employment. Editor Dan Parton reports

For young people with learning disabilities, getting a job is often a major priority when they leave school or college, but for many their ambition remains out of reach as employers remain reluctant to give them a chance. But a car cleaning service is helping to give young people the experience and confidence they need to go out and get jobs in the community.

Charity Hft runs two environmentally friendly car cleaning services in Gloucester and Stroud, which give local young people with learning disabilities the opportunity to learn a range of work skills that they can then use with any future employer in a paid job.

Future Clean is a social franchise purchased by Hft. The project uses an industry accredited eco-friendly and portable commercial car valeting system. The green car washing process ensures no water or chemicals reach the floor, dispensing with drainage concerns. It also uses harvested and filtered rainwater to further boost its eco-credentials.

It was created as a social franchise in Plymouth by disability employment organisation Pluss, which has won awards in the UK and Europe for the work it does. Future Clean franchises have been sold across the country, and Hft is Pluss’ partner in Gloucestershire.

Hft’s franchise in Gloucester is based in the multi-storey car park in Longsmith Street in the city centre, having relocated from Robinswood Country Park in September 2014. The move allowed the service to be open six days per week all year round and in all weathers. It also created three more employment opportunities for young people.

The move was facilitated by Gloucester City Council, which provided a number of spaces for Future Clean to use within one of its main city centre car parks. Council officers also helped the Future Clean team to ensure that a number of improvements including improved lighting and an upgraded local electrical supply were made to the car park.

Hft’s franchise in Stroud is also based in a multi-storey car park – Brunel Mall Car Park, in London Road – which Stroud District Council has allowed Future Clean to use the spaces rent-free, so the business just pays for the electricity and water it uses. This site employs seven people with learning and physical disabilities.

The multi-storey car park venues are a boon for Future Clean because of the volume of potential customers it gives the service, which in turn helps to create more employment opportunities. The central locations also make it easy for Future Clean’s employees, who don’t always have their own transport, to get to where they work.

Important service

Currently less than 10% of people with a learning disability have a job – a statistic that has remained relatively constant in recent years. While the majority of people with learning disabilities want to work, they still find chances to get a job limited, and opportunities to gain practical experience – rather than college-based employability courses – are also relatively scarce, which is why Future Clean is so important, says Alan Pope, Hft supported employment coordinator.

“Supported employment opportunities, such as Future Clean, give people with learning disabilities more opportunities to develop their skills and earn an income,” says Pope. “It’s also offers a chance to meet new people, build self-esteem and be involved in the community.”

Councillor Kathy Williams, Gloucestershire County Council cabinet member for long-term care, is a supporter of Future Clean: “It’s fantastic to watch Future Clean grow as a business. These jobs are vital and help to build the confidence and independence of people with a disability in Gloucestershire.”

Building skills

Future Clean initially offers people with learning disabilities work experience for up to 12 weeks for one day a week, unpaid, but Hft sources a job coach to work alongside the person for that time, according to Pope.

“This initial 12 weeks is to see if the person likes the job and is able to do it,” he says. “That has worked well as some people have decided they didn’t want to continue to clean cars at Future Clean but because it was their first opportunity to experience work they were then able to go on and get paid work in other types of jobs.

“After those 12 weeks are up, when vacancies come up people can then apply for our paid posts. We intend people to be here at Future Clean for about a year but it can be longer if need be and they learn a lot of employability skills during their time here.”

Pope adds that the jobs at Future Clean are split out in systematic instruction – so employees learn how to do complex tasks with the job coach. Systematic instruction works on the principle that people learn best in real environments where the task is to be performed, where they are expected to be successful by the employer and have access to natural motivation and supports. “They have learnt a lot of skills they can take on elsewhere,” he adds.

Indeed, Future Clean is not just about cleaning cars; employees learn about customer services, sales, booking in cars and handling cash, among other things – all skills that stand them in good stead when they go on to look for other jobs in the future, which are not necessarily in the car valeting sector.

Pope adds that a long-term goal is to offer NVQs in customer service skills and other qualifications to Future Clean employees.

Future Clean offers practical work experience chances to young people that they struggle to get elsewhere, but that can be vital if they are to achieve their goal of paid employment – full or part‑time.

“None of the people that we employ have ever had jobs that have lasted more than a couple of months – they were just taken on short-term and then laid off very quickly without having had the chance to learn skills so they can carry on,” Pope says.

Growing confidence

While Future Clean has only been operating in Gloucestershire since April 2013, it is already bringing positive results for the young people who work there. Pope notes that one person who works 24 hours a week with Future Clean is now looking for employment outside of the service. “This person wants to move up to full-time and is very capable of doing that,” he says.

But there has been a noticeable change in all those who are working at Future Clean. “There has definitely been a change in their personalities; they are very confident people now,” he says.

“I would say that more than 99% of our customers don’t know that our employees have disabilities and learning disabilities because they come across so confident and they just see the quality of the cleaning, rather than people’s disability.”

This also once again demonstrates that people with learning and/or physical disabilities can do just as good as job as those without, provided they are given the chance and the right support. “Future Clean is a showcase for them – people really don’t realise that people with learning disabilities are doing the work,” Pope adds.

And, with the skills they have learnt at Future Clean, the employees will be able to do high quality work for anyone, says Pope. “We also never know what employers are coming through and seeing what we do. Hopefully it is changing other employers’ preconceived ideas about what people with disabilities can do.”

For more information on Hft go to www.hft.org.uk