Business Essentials: Where cars and spirits are mended

A repair workshop in Cambridge makes a point of hiring people with special needs, finds Kate Hilpern. But can it get funding to help with the extra costs?
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The Independent Online

"I have tried to find out if I'm entitled to anything from the local Business Link [the government-backed advice and support network], but they don't seem to want to know," says Andy Kent.

"I only found out two weeks ago that the individuals who have the special needs can get funding for specialist equipment. I've been paying for that myself all these years."

Mr Kent's motivation for taking on these young people comes from personal experience. "I left school not really able to read or write," he explains. "I was lucky enough to have a service manager, at the garage where I did my apprenticeship, who recognised the reasons for it and got me some assistance. I always swore I would pay back the kindness."

It didn't happen as soon as he would have liked. "Twenty-one years ago, I had a cerebral haemorrhage, which paralysed me down one side for a period. So it's only more recently I've been able to give back," he adds.

It all started when Mr Kent noticed a young man who used to stand across the road from his garage, watching the workers. He had previously come in with his father to put the family car through an MOT and said he would like to work in a garage when he was old enough. Having been born with cerebral palsy, he had some mobility problems, but Mr Kent took him on.

"I admit I didn't expect much, but after his first year it became clear he was hungry to succeed," he says. "We put in a lot of effort and this year he passed his NVQ level two, which qualifies him as a motor mechanic."

That experience has inspired Mr Kent to take on other young people who are what he describes as "disadvantaged".

"They can be disadvantaged in many ways - usually in attention span or with a physical disability," he says, explaining that he works closely with a local school and college.

Recently, Andy's Kars was nominated for the Edge Award for its focus on employing, training and developing the careers of such people.

Mr Kent explains: "We don't just take them on and send them off to college once a week. We have in-house training sessions on Wednesday evenings to enhance what they are learning at college and improve what they can achieve in the working day."

After all, he points out, this is a business, not a charity. " Ultimately, that's why I'd like to know if I'm entitled to any funding or if there is any way we could attract sponsorship - perhaps from someone in the motor industry or an oil company.

"Ideally, I'd like at least one person who is disadvantaged here all the time. It's so nice to see them smile and enjoy life again."

www.andys-kars.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Agnes Fletcher, assistant director, communications and policy, Disability Rights Commission

"Mr Kent has recognised that life's challenges can bring useful qualities, such as determination, loyalty and a drive for excellence. He deserves applause for recruiting people whom others might write off as a liability or unemployable.

"He could benefit from the Access to Work scheme, which, for example, meets the extra cost of specialist equipment - induction loops for people with hearing impairments, voice-activated software for those with visual impairments or arthritis - and provides travel support where public transport can't be used. The individuals themselves need to apply, and can do so through a job centre.

"Mr Kent has discovered the benefits of employing disabled people; let's hope others follow his lead. Further information can be found at www.drc-gb.org."

Nigel Currie, director, GEM Group (marketing agency)

"A lot of people think finding a sponsor will be the solution to their problems. These days, however, sponsorship is a sophisticated commercial activity, and no longer seen as some sort of philanthropic act provided by a kind benefactor.

"That said, Andy's Kars has, in effect, become a sponsor itself - of disadvantaged young people. What it needs to do now is use this to generate a positive profile for the company.

"So attract attention. The local media - press, TV and radio - are very keen on this type of human-interest story, which involves local people and will reflect very well on the company. It will make potential customers aware of Andy's Kars and give them a good feeling about using it in the future.

"The increased business that results should more than cover the extra costs he now incurs."

Laura White, information and policy officer, Employers' Forum on Disability

"This is a great initiative and it is important Mr Kent gets the right information and support to ensure long-term success.

"I recommend he contacts his local Jobcentre Plus, which can provide information about the Access to Work scheme and identify agencies able to assist with on-the-job support.

"He may also find the forum's briefing papers useful for guidance on practical and cost-effective adjustments.

"There are considerable benefits to Mr Kent's approach. Businesses that get it right in taking on disabled people tend to get it right for everyone. The employment of disabled staff can lead to better retention rates, higher workforce morale and an enhanced reputation with customers. I believe that the business rewards for this investment will more than offset Mr Kent's initial expenditure."

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