Unemployed to Empowered: Self-Employment Offers the Path Back to Work

Susan Hughes is the founder and CEO of Opportunity Plus; a not-for-profit organisation supporting individuals who are facing challenges in finding employment, helping them to explore the potential for self-employment through SFEDI Awards qualifications. This month we chatted to Susan about supporting grassroots businesses, flexible learning, and the importance of community. 

Susan had been working in the Welfare to Work sector on a government contract for several years before setting up Opportunity Plus. Her role included supporting individuals who may be disadvantaged due to all sorts of complex issues in their lives, to make self-employment a positive, achievable and realistic route back into the working world. However, through her role there, Susan found her inspiration for Opportunity Plus:

“The work we were doing was wonderful, but nobody seemed to be offering that sort of support for real grassroots businesses – for the simplest businesses, such as a dog walking company, or perhaps a mobile cleaner. So, I started researching, collecting information, and interviewing various people that I’d been working with to build up a bigger picture, and then started the process of applying for funding from the Big Lottery – and set up Opportunity Plus to put forward the application. They granted us funding for six years so we could start providing innovative flexible support for people who couldn’t get work any other way.”

In 2011, Opportunity Plus was launched and people began to come through its doors. Most of its customers who are receiving benefits find out about the services through the Job Centre, but Opportunity Plus has also formed strong relationships within the community, such as with children’s centres and mental health support groups, as well as offering virtual support through its website. Susan says:

“It’s incredibly inspiring and rewarding supporting people on their journey back to work. Talking about business ideas and self-employment is incredibly motivating. Even with people who aren’t necessarily wanting to set up a company, talking through business ideas is exciting – everybody’s got that one secret business idea they think about getting off the ground. People come to us feeling that they can’t get back into work and we can show them an achievable route that is meaningful, and they are able to think about their lives and goals again, that’s incredibly inspiring.”

Opportunity Plus gives customers the opportunity to gain qualifications through SFEDI Awards, offering a broad range of courses that can be adapted to an individual’s needs:

“What’s fantastic about using SFEDI Awards qualifications is that it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’. Everyone comes to us at different stages of their journey with different challenges, and we work together to find what suits them best. We deliver our learning through a variety of methods, including master classes, workshops, expert sessions, one-to-one mentoring – some courses are even tailored specifically for people working at home. And we’re with customers right through their journey, from the very initial stage of exploring the idea, through the business planning and market research, to launching their product or service, right the way up to registering with HMRC.

“Another great thing about the SFEDI Awards training is that we can adapt straight away – so if a customer realises that self-employment may not be right for them, we can be instantly flexible and start helping them look for employment and preparing for work instead.”

Throughout their time with Opportunity Plus, Susan says that you see customers develop and grow in many other ways, as well as in their professional skills development. Customers have all the motivation, but not necessarily the confidence or the self-belief to take that next step, and Susan says that helping it is heart-melting to watch this transformation, especially with lone parents who have been out of work for a long time:

“I see some of the most significant changes in mothers who have been unable to get a job because they haven’t been able to find anything that is flexible enough to work around motherhood. These women have often lost a lot of confidence in themselves from being isolated from the working world for some time, and you’ll help them set up, say, a cleaning business that works with their lives – and it gets off the ground, their confidence grows, and suddenly they’ve transformed into a businesswoman. It’s not about just getting a qualification – our customers are learning skills for life that they’ll take with them and use long after we’ve finished working with them.”

Nic Preston, SFEDI Group Head of Quality, says:

“It’s great to see how Opportunity Plus has grown over their time working with SFEDI Awards, supporting so many deserving people to build both their own self-awareness and belief – but also the behaviours, knowledge and skills to get the full potential from their futures.

“Enterprise behaviours, knowledge and skills don’t just support people into self-employment, but also help improve their personal and working lives, whether that’s starting their own business or working for others. It’s great to see how Susan and the team at Opportunity Plus have been able to adapt their offering to provide a truly individualised enterprise learning journey.”

Opportunity Plus has thrived since its inception, but the next year looks set to grow and expand even further. Whilst up until this point its offering has focused specifically on taking people from unemployment to employment, customers will soon be able to get support after they have started working too. Susan says:

“We have recognised that what is lacking is the support system through the transition – when the safety net of benefits has gone and you’re suddenly ‘going it alone’. We’re now expanding to build a support hub right up until the end of their first year of employment, to make sure that they have everything that they’re entitled to, and that they have access to the right tools, advice and information – everything they could need throughout the transition to ensure that they succeed.”

For more information on Opportunity Plus, please visit www.opsw.co.uk