Rebecca Chaplin gets stuck in at a workshop owned and run by the First Step Trust – a charity that offers work experience to disadvantaged people and those suffering with psychological issues.
WHEN it comes to the workshop industry, it would be fair to say we’re familiar with the stereotypes.
People often think mechanics chose their profession because they were unable to turn their hand to anything else, but as we all know, wielding a spanner professionally is a skilled role that takes serious training and a lot of hard work.
As with many walks of life, the service and repair industry boasts thousands of people who are physically capable of doing the job and have the necessary skills in their armoury – but some of those people might struggle with psychological issues, be they learning difficulties, mental health problems, or traumas in their life that are on their mind a lot.
Many people in such circumstances might find it hard to access the training they require, let alone hold down a demanding job in a busy workshop, but in many cases it’s not the ability that’s lacking – it’s the support.
That’s where the First Step Trust charity comes in. The organisation was set up in 1992 to offer work experience to disadvantaged people and those struggling with psychological challenges or problems in their home life. Since then, it’s grown into a whole social movement, improving people’s lives on a daily basis.
You might be wondering how a garage could improve the quality of someone’s life – maybe you’re in one right now and thinking it’s not made your day much better by coming into work!
Now imagine that you can’t work, for one reason or another, and haven’t been able to do so for years. In some cases, those people who come to First Step Trust have never been able to work, but for all of them this is absolutely the first step on a journey to full-time employment.
You might remember Bob Barringer who won our Outstanding Achievement Award at the inaugural Workshop Magazine Awards back in December. He’s worked in the First Step Trust SMaRT – which stands for Socially Minded and Responsible Trading – Garage in Woolwich for seven years, but he overcame some huge challenges in his personal life to get to this point.
Barringer hit rock bottom after years of substance and alcohol abuse, losing everything in his life, but today he will be giving me the opportunity to work in the trust’s garage and showing me the ropes.
Having chatted with the company’s chief executive, Ronnie Wilson, at the awards, my boss Andy had told me to be in Woolwich for a feature, and that was about all I knew. I’d soon learn that once you’d spoken to Wilson, you were in his mental database and would be enlisted to help the charity in any way possible – a phenomenon known as ‘being Ronnied’.
It’s a worthy cause, but there was no doubt I was apprehensive about being thrown in at the deep end. In the fullness of time, however, I came to appreciate that those who work here throughout the week had to overcome more than the congestion on the M25 to be able to step through the door.
I arrived and was told to put overalls and boots on then head for the shop floor, as I’d be helping to service cars today. My first thought? God help the owners! These are, after all, not practice cars and belong to real customers.
After the usual health and safety briefing, where I learn not to fall down holes and watch out for things on the floor and at head height, I’m thrown right into the mix. Today we’ll be starting with an interim service on a BMW X5.
I’m not the first to take on this challenge, which the company calls Trading Places, and previous participants have included The Apprentice’s Nick Hewer and NHS England’s national director for mental health Claire Murdoch.
Those in the workshop are divided into two groups, and I’m placed with a member of the team who takes me under her wing. She’s been in and out of work here but is building up to more days in the garage.
Bob explains to me: ‘We start them off with one morning a week and build them up to more days. They have to understand that this is a job and if they turn up late I don’t let them stay.’
Part of why this works so well is the structure of the job. Suited, booted and with gloves on, I hoist the BMW into the air – yes, I was actually allowed to man the machinery having just stepped into the workshop. I’m not the observational journalist today, this is hands-on!
We remove the engine undertray between us and inspect for any oil leaks, but all is good. With the waste oil drain tank in place, the sump plug is removed and so is the oil. While the car is in the air it gives us an opportunity to check the condition of the tyres, brakes and wheel bearings. Barringer talks me through the process, explaining how this is something that can be difficult for someone who can’t read or write.
Everything is within the allowed limits and we record that. We then check the tyre pressures and, again, this can be challenging if you can’t read the numbers.
We take a look at the brake pads to see how much wear there is, spin and wiggle the wheels to see if there’s excess movement, but with everything looking shipshape we can bring the car back down. With a team around me, and things going at a very acceptable pace for a novice such as me, everything is checked off and I don’t feel worried about missing anything any more!
Now to the computer, and another way to expand your skills. Using Autodata, we look up the type of oil that goes into the Beemer. Barringer shows me the paper slips they use to complete all of the information for the cars.
This means that the individuals can take down a car’s key details – registration and type – then sit at the computer and complete each section as they find it on the program.
We’ve got the information we need and Barringer shows me another difficulty that those who are illiterate can face – reading the type of oil on the barrel. He explains that it was easier previously, as fortunately the barrels were either red or green and as long as you knew which oil correlated to which colour you were sorted, but only this week a change in oil type for some cars means they now have two different greens and one red in the garage!
Even after only an hour in the workshop, it’s clear to see what a difference this makes to people, but it also becomes clear what a challenge every step of working here can present. Barringer picks up on the fact that I’ve done some work on cars before, but I explain that this is the newest car I’ve ever worked on – I’m not au fait with plastic-covered engines and cars with computers in them – but I’m assured that my next job will be much more up my street.
Undercover in the next bay in the workshop is a vehicle much more my era: a 1969 Renault Estafette van. Called Owen, it’s been in the First Step Trust family since 2015.
Its ongoing restoration is being undertaken by those at the garage and volunteers as part of the Trading Places scheme. The plan is to turn him into a top-notch working van with a coffee machine in the rear – available for hire to give the charity another source of income!
I’m introduced to Errol – Owen’s new best mate. He’s taken responsibility for sourcing or repairing and restoring every part on the classic van, pictured far right. It was stripped and dipped when the company first bought it, revealing all manner of rust and missing metal that was then carefully repaired before it was given its beautiful new cream paintwork.
Errol talks me through the array of parts on the shelves, each tagged. To raise more money for the social enterprise, it is offering sponsorship of almost each one – with many already taken.
My small role today will be helping to clean up some of the parts that can be saved, and Errol shows me the box he has of every small piece that was taken off the van, bagged and labelled for reassembly. Already he’s begun the reassembly of the inner workings of Owen, but it’s a slow process to source rare parts or find companies that can repair them.
I’m guided over to the basin for washing parts and begin scrubbing off decades of grime from a couple of brackets that will soon go back on to the van – a very small part to play but I’m pleased it’s one that’s vital!
Wilson brings Owen’s shell out of where he’s tucked away to pull back the protective sheet and show me the vehicle that he’s so proud of. There’s one piece that is currently evading them and he wonders if I – or our readers – can help.
The fine and delicate grille has deteriorated over the years but finding a replacement has proved difficult. Maybe someone reading this today can help the charity?
It’s not just about the workshop, though, First Step Trust gives people the opportunity to progress to real jobs. Barringer is a prime example of someone who struggled but who now gives back to the charity as an employee training new members. That’s why passing on skills is so important to him. As a working charity and garage, there’s more to be done than just fixing cars, as you’ll all well know. Behind the workshop is a finance team, those booking cars in and managing the day-to-day running of the company.
This works in the same way, and people can progress from working on the shop floor into the office. Others in the business tell me about working a couple of days in the garage and a couple in the office a week, giving them an opportunity to increase their skills in both areas.
It’s clear from everybody here that they want to learn and improve themselves for the working world, which is the first hurdle before the second one of actually getting to the training and doing it. The proof is in the people who have progressed all the way from not working to full-time employment. The charity’s star is Tegan, who came to it with many problems but gave the scheme everything she had and even gained her driving licence with them.
After a few years and lots of hard work, she was in a position to take a job working on buses for a salary well over the minimum wage or the benefits she would have received, taking her out of the welfare system. She still has her problems, but while becoming a fully qualified mechanic doesn’t fix everyone’s issues, it does give people a bright future with options to do more and the freedom to live their lives.