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Could this organisation offer job lifeline to those put out of work by the coronavirus pandemic?

As 10,000 people lose their posts in a week here, one sector is actively recruiting for thousands of roles. Linda Stewart talks to social care workers about how making the switch into a different career path could be the best decision you ever make


Positive Futures chief executive Agnes Lunny

Positive Futures chief executive Agnes Lunny

Cliff Donaldson

Ex-policeman: Paul McConnell

Ex-policeman: Paul McConnell

Caring: Alison Robinson

Caring: Alison Robinson


Positive Futures chief executive Agnes Lunny

Agnes Lunny is the chief executive of Positive Futures, which supports people with learning disabilities, and the chair of the Association for Real Change, the umbrella organisation for social care bodies.

Even in the lockdown, Positive Futures is providing essential services, particularly supported living services for adults.

"It ranges from very intimate and personal care to enabling people to cook food and have a life. And to have a life is now the bit that's going to be significantly curbed," Agnes explains.

"Our staff are in those houses every hour, including sleeping over or staying awake at night.

"If you were to stop and ask yourself, 'What if, God forbid, I was run over by a bus and sustained a brain injury? What would I need?' That's what we do at Positive Futures."

For a long time there have been significant gaps in the social care workforce, but the coronavirus has thrown those vacancies into stark relief and the sector is one of the few that is actively recruiting.

Agnes estimates that before the outbreak about 35% of the jobs within the sector were vacant, translating to around 15,000 social care roles that urgently needed to be filled.

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"A situation that was precarious and really difficult a month ago is now absolutely critical. We're having to plan for when people have to self-isolate and become ill," she says.

What that means is an opportunity for people who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus outbreak to take up new positions in the social care sector.

Agnes explains: "Beannchor, Bill Wolsey's group, paid off 800 staff, so we contacted the HR department and we're working with Bill's group to encourage and facilitate people to apply for jobs within social care.

"Just this morning Horatio Todd has been on the phone. Again, we're engaged with the Horatio Todd group to encourage people to come forward."

Agnes is hoping to get new staff trained and have checks completed within a matter of weeks. Part of that process will involve switching to e-learning and asking the health authorities to lessen regulatory requirements in relation to checks.

The social care sector is recruiting urgently because it expects to see a surge in need within the coming weeks.

Agnes says: "We already have a very difficult situation with huge workforce gaps.

"Add to this the fact that day services are closing and people are going to go sick.

"We want to jump ahead. We don't want to wait until things become critical. We want to plan ahead and be masters of our own destiny as far as possible.

"If we could do it in a week, we would do it in a week, but I'd say we're probably talking more like two to three weeks, so we need people to apply to us now.

"We're not going to have an inexperienced worker alone. We're going to double those people up until they get confident.

"This would suit someone who wants to make a difference and wants to ensure that people with disabilities have the same chance as anybody else. People who have a really good heart, good values and want to do right by other people, people who are kind and caring and willing to learn how this job is done.

"This is not about young people or women. It's about anybody. Some of our best workers are our older people and men who genuinely care about the human race.

"In light of the Government's advice, children's group activities have been suspended, but staff are still on hand to offer advice.

"Where a child has more complex needs, services are being provided on a one-to-one basis, since this is considered essential.

"One-to-one support for people who need it in their own homes is continuing, so the majority of Positive Futures' work is continuing.

"While children will be disappointed by the loss of group activities, the safety of the children and staff is our top priority and we must follow the Government's guidelines."

‘I love it... you’ll never have two days the same’

Alison Robinson (49), from south Belfast, is a support worker with Positive Futures' Crescent Supported Living Service. She previously worked in the restaurant sector and has two children, Kirsty (30) and Joe (28), and one grandson, Barley (6).


Caring: Alison Robinson

Caring: Alison Robinson

Caring: Alison Robinson

Alison worked as a kitchen assistant before becoming a waitress and then worked behind the bar in a restaurant.

She says: "After that I had gallstones and it went into the liver and bile duct.

"I had to get my gallbladder removed. It took about nine months to be completely healthy, so I was on Jobseeker's after that.

"After being on that for a year I was doing Steps to Success and one day my advisor Tracy said that she had the perfect job for me.

"Positive Futures was having a recruitment day, so I went and spoke with them. I thought, 'I don't know if I could do this job' because I don't have the training and qualifications', but they said you get it all on the job.

"I started asking questions and I started to get interested. I went back the next day, applied for the job, had an interview in the same couple of hours and two weeks later got an email saying I got the job.

"It took a while to do the social work care certification, but as soon as I started working in Positive Futures I took to it like a duck to water."

Alison says the organisation turned her life around and gave her more confidence.

"You never have two days the same," she adds.

Allison works as a support worker, providing day work and sleepovers. "It's normal day-to-day stuff like cooking, cleaning and shopping. At the weekend we do fun things. You're in their home the whole day," she says.

"One of the girls loves shopping, so we go into town for her to buy a new top. She's non-verbal, so you give her a choice of tops. She likes to go into Kelly's Cellars for a drink. She likes the traditional music and she stays there for about an hour.

"One of the other girls likes to go to drama and ballet classes. They all love driving. They would go out driving in the countryside for a good two hours at a time. You have to support them with anything that they do."

Alison says it's a great job to be in and advises people to give it a go.

"It's not the kind of job I would ever have dreamed of applying for, only my advisor said to me, 'I see you working in that kind of job'. Give it a go, you might surprise yourself like I did and love the job," she says.

"I would have thought the job was not for me because I did not have all those qualifications, but I got all that on the job."

Alison says the role is suited to anyone who is caring.

"It's for somebody who doesn't want to do everything for them but supports them in being able to do what they can for themselves. Anybody with a caring nature (can apply). That is the basis of it and then it just comes to you," she says. "It's a privilege I feel to work in Positive Futures at the minute because we are in the front line. We are always looking for new people."

Positive Future supports people with a learning disability, acquired brain injury or autistic spectrum condition across Northern Ireland and in several locations in the Republic of Ireland. To find out more about applying, visit www.positives-futures.net. To find out more about sector-wide jobs, visit https://arcuk.org.uk/northern ireland/

‘Doing this fits my passion for helping people’

Paul McConnell (55), a service manager at Positive Futures' family service in Lisburn, used to be a PSNI officer before making the jump to social care work. He is married to teacher Elaine and has three children.


Ex-policeman: Paul McConnell

Ex-policeman: Paul McConnell

Ex-policeman: Paul McConnell

Paul worked in the PSNI's traffic branch before moving into the CARE unit (child abuse and rape), now known as public protection branch.

"The role I had there was working on the child abuse side of things, dealing with young people who had been abused or were suspected of being abused and also adults who had been abused when they were children," he says.

"It fitted my passion and compassion for people."

Paul says it was rewarding to support rape victims who were going through the traumatic process of the prosecution system, and when he retired he began looking for a role that would make use of the skills he had acquired.

He says: "I had worked a lot with social services and it was in that environment that I wanted to work with people.

"I suppose it was always one of those careers where you don't know what it's going to be like until you join it.

"My role is with families of people with autism, acquired brain injuries and learning difficulties. My role is to oversee activities that would run after school on a regular basis for people who fall into that category."

Mondays could involve swimming lessons to help clients get involved in physical activities, Tuesdays involve a range of projects such as cooking, music and gardening, while on Wednesdays he delivers a range of play-based activities, along with overseeing buddy groups for people aged 14 to 19 to engage them in social activities, such as taking them to the cinema, bowling or for a coffee.

"It's about trying to engage with the community as well and develop their interpersonal skills," Paul says.

"On top of that we would run Easter social activities and summer school activities such as visits to museums.

"We try and get them out as much as possible and give their families a bit of respite care, but because there is such a need we're trying to get more volunteers."

Paul only started in the role in January, but he loves it.

"The people I work with are so passionate about what they do and they enjoy going into work. The young people I meet as well, it's really good to see them getting so much out of what they do," he says.

"It's really rewarding and it can be very challenging. Some of the people we support have challenging behaviours and a lot of the work is one-on-one or two-on-one.

"People like myself, I believe, have transferable skills. I'm not from a social care background, but I feel what I can offer is very beneficial.

"Unfortunately, there is a very long waiting list of young people who want to use our services. With the lack of staff, we can't take anyone else on at the minute and we need more people to do that.

"This job is not for everybody, but if you have a caring nature and you want to help people, it's such a rewarding environment to be in and I couldn't recommend it highly enough."

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