“It can give women back their confidence, it can give them more security. It can provide money to spend on essentials and hopefully, nice things to do with their kids or family. It gives them choices.”
This is the powerful message from a Newcastle charity helping hundreds of women into work at a time when many female-dominated industries have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Smart Works Newcastle is an organisation with a unique approach to supporting women looking for employment.
By providing them with an interview outfit and one-to-one mentoring ahead of their job interview, the charity gives women the confidence boost they need to succeed – and the results speak for themselves.
Since launching in Newcastle in 2018, the organisation has helped more than 900 women, with over 70% going on to get the job.
Smart Works Newcastle chair, Sophie Milliken, said the impact of having such support is “life-changing.”
“Think how it might feel if you been unemployed for 10 years or even longer,” she said.
“Perhaps you have been in a challenging relationship or bringing up kids and your confidence has gone.
“Things have changed a lot and just going for a job these days is really different.
“When I was first on the jobs market you would hand in your CV, but it’s so different now.
“Now you might have to do an online application, tests, or a video interview.
“That in itself is really daunting and putting yourself out there is scary.
“Going from being unemployed and not having that confidence, to managing to get an interview and land a job offer, that can really change someone’s life. It’s amazing.”
Women, who must be referred to the charity by an organisation such as the Job Centre, are invited to visit the charity’s base at MEA House in the city centre to select a free outfit that makes them feel confident for their upcoming interview.
They then spend an hour with an interview coach who will help them prepare and navigate tricky questions.
For 25-year-old Amira Mahomed having that support made all the difference after moving to South Shields from Africa.
She landed a job in customer service at Sainsbury’s thanks to the mentoring of Smart Works coaches.
“I loved being there, they were so welcoming kind and understanding,” she said.
“I loved the environment, it wasn’t like a charity, it was like walking into a boutique and so well organised.
“The help from the mentoring coach made a big difference.
“It was my second interview in the UK because I am originally from Africa [and] things on this side of the world are very different compared to where I come from.
“So it was nice to have people that have a lot of experience of working in the UK to mentor you.”
The charity helps women of all ages and backgrounds, but says many are those who been out of work for a long time whilst caring for their family and those who have had hardship in life or been in violent or controlling relationships.
This was the case for Wallsend mum-of-five Claire Guthrie, who credits Smart Works with rebuilding her confidence after suffering domestic abuse.
The 36-year-old visited the charity in August and was offered a job as a carer just 20 minutes after her interview.
“It was amazing how much they picked me up and made me feel that I could do it and I think that’s what contributed to me getting the job,” she said.
“They made everything so positive and me feel so confident.
“When I walked out I had a big smile on my face.”
Over the last two years, Smart Works has seen that women needed more support than ever as many sectors which typically employ more women are hit hard by the effects of the pandemic.
The service continued to operate during the lockdowns, offering virtual and phone appointments and sending clothes out to women at home.
“The industries that typically employ women have been the hardest hit [during the pandemic],” Smart Works chair Sophie said.
“Retail, hospitality, travel – they are all places that typically employ more women than men.”
Over 50% of the women Smart Works see have been unemployed for more than a year, while a third had applied for 50 jobs or more before they came to the charity.
But thanks to their support, 95% of women feel more confident and many go on to get jobs in HR, cleaning, care and retail.
When clients are offered the job the charity invites them back to choose a few more outfits to wear in their first weeks of work until they get paid.
The charity is aiming to double the number of women they support at the Newcastle branch each year to help around 600 clients across the North East in 2022.
“I think it is life-changing,” charity chair Sophie said.
“It can give women back their confidence, it can give them more security. It can provide money to spend on essentials and hopefully, nice things to do with their kids or family. It gives them choices.
“It is an important service and it’s brilliant that we can offer it and can offer it more widely across the region.
“Meeting the women, hearing their stories and seeing them go on to do really cool things is incredible.
“It is so special and it has the potential to transform lives.”
The charity is looking to take on more volunteers as it expands in 2022 and is also looking for donations of black flat shoes and plus-size clothing. Anyone interested should contact the charity via its website or social media.
Those who would like the support of Smart Works must be referred to the charity by one of its 200 referral partners which include Moving on Tyne and Wear, Changing Lives and Job Centre Plus.