Catherine Isik from the DWP tells us about some great volunteering work she has been doing, how she was selected for our Academy and her recent experience of CS Live..........
"Becoming a Civil Servant was never my dream. Like others, I fell into it and had many preconceived ideas about what the job would entail. I imagined suits, endless paperwork and numbers to balance. Although people do wear suits and there certainly is paperwork and numbers, there is so much more to being a civil servant. My role as a DWP work coach in Brecon, mid Wales, is on the front line of the biggest change in the benefit system since its conception. A time when we are focusing on being the centre of our communities, providing support and guidance to all. The paperwork and numbers are attached to real people, people who are often lost, scared and in need of support.
I began working in a small, rural Job Centre, away from the city smoke of London, in June 2016. You would think opportunities would be few and far between. From the start of my career, I made it clear I wanted to support the future vision of the Civil Service and help to change the public view of 'suits and numbers'. I was fortunate enough to be contacted by my Grade 7 who told me if I wanted to change the world, I should get started with my own community. She introduced me to a colleague from CS Local SWAW who talked me through the A World of Work project. The programme brings together cross departmental volunteers who go into primary and secondary schools and run workshops aimed at raising aspirations and the benefits of working. With seven years experience teaching abroad, this was the opportunity I was looking for. A chance to excite the next generation with positive thoughts of careers and instil the benefits the world of work can bring.
Starting with primary schools, I set to work on a project in my area. It took a lot of hard work and perseverance to make contact with the schools. Finally reaching the right person at the initial school, I was met with many questions and concerns: do primary school pupils need to think about this yet? How does this fit in with the curriculum? Fortunately, I had prepared well and addressed each question, enough to book our first workshop. The next big challenge was to source volunteers. Using connections from CS Local and my own team in the Job Centre, I signed up five people from three departments looking for a new challenge. Meeting before the first workshop, they had a chance to share their nerves and excitement while receiving training on how to present the workshop. Unknown to them, I was just as nervous training them. A million thoughts were running through my head: would the children understand? What happens if they asked a question we couldn't answer? I shouldn't have worried. Throughout the workshop, the children were engaged, interested and enthusiastic, and the volunteers left the classroom on cloud nine eager to be involved again.
All it took was that first school to give it a try and the other schools followed. We delivered the programme to twelve schools in total (some for multiple year groups) and even delivered it in Welsh to two first-language Welsh schools. Our popularity in the community became evident when I was approach by an additional learning needs school, wondering if we would deliver to their students. Eager to uphold the standards of being an inclusive profession, I worked with their teachers to adapt the programme to suit the needs of their students. This lead me to arrange a Future Jobs Fair, where students who had taken part in the workshop could attend a day to meet both local and national employers and have a go at a variety of professions from construction to policing. Over the day, 450 primary students engaged with 12 employers and 25 volunteers assisted. It was an opportunity to meet people from other departments and role model the values we stand for. It also had the added bonus of connecting us with businesses and people in the local community. Parents even attended the job centre, asking for advice on their current employment situation, after their children returned home singing our praises.
The connections I made opened the door to another vulnerable group in our society: students attending the local Pupil Referral Unit. As these students were older, I agreed with their teacher to deliver a modular programme over a few months, giving me time to build trust. Not having attended a PRU before, I wasn't certain what to expect. I was met by four young people who come from chaotic backgrounds and who don’t trust people in authority. One young man sticks in my mind, as when I asked what he wanted to do after school, his answer was to go on benefits. He wasn't being flippant. After talking to him over a few sessions, I realised that the benefit system was all he knew and his self-worth didn't allow him to believe he could achieve anything more. By volunteering our time and taking an interest, we showed him that he was worth more than he thought. Seeing his engagement and confidence grow after every session, was worth all the hard work. Hearing he has now secured an apprenticeship in motor mechanics was one of my proudest moments. A great example of teams coming together to support people who need it. When asked to trial the new Money Advice material with these students, I jumped at the chance. Over two weeks we built on their knowledge of money and the finer details of how to be smart with it.
Earlier this year, I applied to be a delegate at CS Local ‘s Future Leaders Academy - a chance to spend a week with like-minded people building my capability and making connections. I was shocked and overjoyed when the email came to say I had been selected. Approaching the gates of RAF St. Athan on the first morning, that joy turned into worry. What had I got myself into! A week with people I didn't know. Would I be good enough and would I cope with staying on an active RAF base? From the moment I met my 'family' we bonded over how long it took to do a hospital corner on our army beds. It was a roller coaster of a week. Workshops and activities that stretched even the most confident of delegates. I've always considered myself a good presenter but I found myself frantically writing down tips from Rob Neil from MOJ - an expert in the field. As a family we were charged with the task to design, plan and present a project to Senior Civil Servant 'Dragons'. We laughed, we argued, we were pushed to our limits and we all came out charged with the enthusiasm of people who can change the world. Our project: to increase volunteering uptake across the civil service, is a challenge that we will pursue over the next year. Talks from senior leaders reinforced the fact that, although we work for different departments, we are one. The only way to create a brilliant Civil Service is by sharing our skills and helping each other to grow. Derek Thomas, the DWP dragon's advice still echoes in my ears, If you're presented with an opportunity, say yes and then work it out.
I attended the Civil Service Live event in Cardiff on 5 July to promote our Academy project. Although, only two years into service, I was surprised how many people I knew. Opportunities like the schools' project and Academy meant I had made connects in many departments. It was through one of these connections in HMRC that I was offered an amazing opportunity. A colleague who had volunteered with me several times through the schools' project, was escorting Sir Tom Scholar, the Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury. When an opportunity arose for someone to have a 30 minute mentor session with him, she thought of me. Running to the Academy stand, she sprung the opportunity on me, but I had to go there and then. My new motto of 'Say yes, then work it out' served me well, as I spent an amazing thirty minutes discussing the world of Civil Service and how I could progress within it, with one of the leading civil servants. He advised me to keep trying every opportunity and not be downhearted if things didn't work out as planned. Learn and grow from it. The Civil Service may include suits and numbers but it will also include people welcoming new ideas and working together to deliver the best possible service for our country. I am part of that vision now, skilled people improving outcomes for citizens.
I look forward to taking more opportunities CS Local SWAW can offer and a long and productive career in the Civil Service".