An initiative supporting 65 people from rural communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 has helped three young adults into full-time work and a further 13 into professional development placements.
The Virtual Inclusion Programme was launched last year by youth and community training specialists GoConnect in a bid to reach those furthest from the jobs market and those struggling with poor mental health.
The project targeted the rural areas of Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent and worked with young people and adults to build their confidence and self-esteem, with a focus on digital literacy, creativity and employability. A series of activities and taster sessions ran throughout early 2021 to allow isolated individuals to interact with peers, improve their wellbeing and gain insights into the world of work, followed by outreach delivery once lockdown restrictions had been lifted.
Many of the sessions tapped into gaming as a key activity to engage participants and boost their opportunities for social interaction, especially during periods of lockdown where the programme could only run digitally.
GoConnect’s founder and director, Alun Prosser, said that the gaming element sparked huge enthusiasm: “A lot of the demographic we try to reach are more comfortable in an online environment or doing activities they’re familiar with and confident in, and the gaming sessions were extremely popular throughout the project.
“Not only do participants have a lot of fun, but the potential to hone teamwork, communication and problem solving skills means they come out of it a lot more employable too. Many of those taking part even stay on with us to volunteer or gain experience working on other projects, amongst numerous others who go on to pursue work opportunities in other places, which is a promising sign that we’re achieving our objectives.”
GoConnect is a part of the wide network of SMEs based at community business hub Welsh ICE in Caerphilly Business Park. The company’s links to the hub meant that a number of young adults from the Rural Development Programme’s target areas were referred to its inclusive business support programme, the 5-9 Club, which supports startup entrepreneurs to grow an enterprise alongside day-to-day commitments.
Alun said that the project offered a safe and informal space for young and vulnerable people to participate: “Many young job seekers with low self-esteem feel really anxious about going to their local job centre or putting themselves out there in social settings. We aim to act as a stepping stone so no one feels they have to make a giant leap into the wider world if they’re not ready for it – it can make a huge difference knowing that there’s somewhere informal and welcoming for people to come and feel supported, and it makes people much more likely to get involved.
“Support from the Cwm a Mynydd Rural Development Programme’s Implementation Fund allowed us to keep a number of young adults visible and engaged throughout lockdown and helped inform our outreach delivery for when restrictions were lifted. It has left a positive legacy in enabling us to develop our current programmes which are proving to be hugely successful and continuing to add a great deal of value for less advantaged groups.
“Many members of these rural communities have felt somewhat isolated over the past few years with multiple lockdown periods, and having the chance to socialise and build relationships with peers has proven to make a big difference for the people we’ve worked with. We’ve been proud to see some fantastic development in the participants we supported and to be sending a number of them off on to new opportunities they’re embarking on as a result of the project.”
Caitlyn Morgan took part in the programme and said it was key to her development: “I started my first work placement during the pandemic after two years out of work and my confidence around people was the lowest it’s ever been. The workshops and sessions I took part in massively helped me with this and I picked up skills that made me a better team member.
“I had lots of one-on-one support from GoConnect and, when my initial six-month work contract ended, I was offered an apprenticeship. This is testament to my improved self-confidence and skill set gained from the Virtual Inclusion Programme, which made me such a valued member of staff that my employer chose to keep me on for longer.”
The project was supported by the Cwm a Mynydd Local Action Group’s Rural Development Programme, an initiative delivered as part of the Welsh Government’s Rural Communities: Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, and funded through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development by the European Union and Welsh Government.