When Sunderland-based poultry producer Challenger Foods approached Remploy Interwork -- an organisation that provides employment for disabled people -- to help it recruit staff, it wasn't just doing so as part of its scheme to employ local people with disabilities. Challenger turned to Remploy after finding it hard to fill the vacant positions and because it knew it could provide it with the staff it needed.
While Remploy's relationship with Challenger is not unique, the government-funded organisation says it still does not have as close a relationship with the food industry as it would like. It believes it has the potential to help many more food and drink companies that are short staffed -- and not just those looking to specifically employ people with disabilities.
Key account manager Howard Nelson says that Remploy should be viewed in the same way as any other recruitment consultant, as being able to supply companies with suitable job candidates. What's more, while the services of recruitment consultants come at a price, what Remploy offers is absolutely free.
Despite this benefit, Nelson says many companies still don't think of using Remploy to fulfil their recruitment needs, even if they are struggling with staff shortages. "Employers in all sectors are finding it harder and harder to find the people they want through their usual recruitment channels," he says. "They need to look further afield."
Some companies are reluctant to employ staff with disabilities because of the misconception that they won't be up to the job, says Nelson. However, Remploy only puts forward candidates it believes are suitable.
"We don't expect any of our candidates to go straight in to a job," says Nelson. "Positive discrimination can be just as destructive as negative discrimination. Our candidates go through the same assessment process as anyone else and the best person gets the job. The disability is completely irrelevant for the job."
Nelson also wants to dispel the myth commonly held by some companies that absenteeism will be high among disabled workers. According to research conducted by Remploy, 80% of businesses with disabled workers said that these employees had the same attendance record as their non-disabled colleagues, or better.
To increase the benefits that disabled workers can bring to a company, as well as undergoing a pre-selection process to check for suitability, Remploy also places candidates on specific training programmes tailored for particular jobs. For example, candidates can get training in food hygiene so they are suitable for a job in a food plant.
Not only does this mean that only the right candidates will be put forward, in many cases they will be the best person for the position. Says Nelson: "The long-term aim is that for anybody we put forward the company will know they are well-suited for the job."
Companies don't have to make expensive changes to their workplace to accommodate a disabled person either -- another misconception Nelson is keen to set straight. While some adjustments may be necessary, Remploy says 80% of disabled people do not require any adaptations to be made. If they are required, the average cost will be only £80.
To help with any costs, Remploy carries out what it calls an adjustment assessment for each company and even provides companies with access to government grants to make these adjustments.
Challenger Foods, for example, which employs six staff with disabilities, hasn't had to make any major changes to accommodate them. It says that its disabled staff, who are employed in a number of functions, including production, cleaning, despatch and in the warehouse, participate fully with the daily life of the company.
Carole Colby, human resource administrator at Challenger, supports Remploy's affirmation that workers with disabilities are as valuable to companies as any other member of staff. "These staff are highly-valued members of our team. Their attendance and punctuality is exemplary," she says.
And, while Challenger has had to make certain considerations for these staff, these are no more onerous than the support it provides all of its staff. "You have to be aware that some disabled people may need something explained a few more times," says Colby. "But then we have a number of staff who also need telling a few times, so there is no real difference."
Should companies require additional support for their workers, Remploy can also help. It monitors each of its worker's performance for the first 12 weeks of employment, and provides support where necessary. "We try to see things from the perspective of the employer and help them with any problems," says Nelson.
Remploy would like to see other food companies following Challenger's lead as, according to Nelson, the food and drink industry is a particularly good place to employ people with disabilities because of the wide diversity of jobs it has to offer.
"Production jobs in food companies are well-suited to some of our people," he says. "We've had people who have in the past had high-flying jobs but because of stress now want a straight forward and less demanding job. Preparation jobs in food manufacture are ideally suited."
However, Remploy fills many job roles. "We have people who want management and administrative jobs and supervisory roles. There are a whole range of jobs available in the food and drink industry for these people," says Nelson.
Food and drink manufacturers actively working with Remploy include chicken products manufacturer Dove Valley, ready meals producer Solway Foods and Hazlewood Foods. In the case of Hazlewood, Remploy took a tour of its plants to get an insight into the type of jobs that the company requires to fill and to discuss with Hazlewood how it could prepare its candidates for these jobs. It also advertises for jobs among its network on Hazlewood's behalf.
Nelson is keen to get more food and drink companies involved with Remploy. He believes that this can be achieved if companies stop regarding the organisation as purely supplying disabled employees, and see it as another source of well-trained employees they can tap into. With over 1m disabled people available for work in the UK, there is a widely under-utilised potential workforce available to companies, he says.
"We are an excellent source of recruitment that people haven't thought of looking at before. We are a recruitment agency that doesn't charge." That should sound good to some manufacturers.
For more information on Remploy call Howard Nelson on 07958 142032 or visit: http://www.remploy.co.uk.FM