As Helen Sykes – the chief executive of Helm – is named winner of the IOD Tayside Regional Director of the Year award, Michael Alexander hears how close collaboration in Dundee is improving prospects for hundreds of young people each year.
It’s been a significant few months for Helm – a specialist grassroots youth work charity which works to raise the aspirations of young people who have “not thrived” in Dundee’s mainstream schools.
Records have been broken with 73.6% of the young people it works with progressing into jobs and college places over the last 12 months.
Statistics show that 100% of school age students leaving Helm in May will be progressing into either a college place, training opportunity or a job of their choice.
After 30 years of working in the city, Helm has also been celebrating the award of the largest employability contract for young people in Dundee, launched at the start of this financial year.
But while figures are an important measure of progress, Helm chief executive Helen Sykes – who was “absolutely overwhelmed” to be recently named the Institute of Directors’ Tayside Regional Director of the Year – is keen to stress that Helm is about people whether that be the team itself or the youngsters and community that supports it.
“One thing I’d really like to get across to people is that it doesn’t matter what their background is or how well they’ve done at school or what their family circumstances are – all young people want a good job, a safe home and a stable family,” says Helen in an interview with The Courier.
“That’s what all our young people tell us – every single young person that comes through our door at Helm.
“Once they spend time, once they work with us and establish a relationship, that’s what they work towards.
“It’s good for society as well because the more of that we do, then the less of an impact there is on the health budget, the welfare budget, the justice budget – all of these things are connected.”
Helm, which works with 200 Dundee young people aged 15 and over every year, specialises in supporting its students to make the “best possible transition into adult life” whether that be college, jobs or apprenticeships.
It visualises a Scotland “where all young people dare to dream and are empowered to have their hopes and dreams become a reality”.
Being at the helm of Helm, which costs £750,000 per year to run, is a “dream job” for Helen Sykes.
The Northern Ireland-raised Aberdeen University graduate who trained as a chartered accountant and moved back to Scotland from England six years ago, has worked in the public, private and voluntary sector.
Her personal interest in social justice brought her closer to the social impact sector as her career progressed and, almost three years after taking up the Helm reins, she is “so proud” of all the students and their achievements.
“Basically everything we do is relationship based,” explains Helen, who is full of praise for the “long standing very successful partnership” Helm has with Dundee City Council and their other principle partner Skills Development Scotland.
“We work really hard within that to get young people to believe in themselves, to see their own strengths.
“Once they’ve identified their own goals we support them towards those.
“Broadly speaking all of our youngsters are aiming to get into a job, get into college or find an apprenticeship.”
Helm works with its referral partners to identify youngsters who might benefit.
She says it’s a “really good question” why an average of 30% of participants do not succeed on the programme.
She emphasises that for those who don’t it’s “not because they can’t, it’s because they have more significant needs to be addressed than their peers” whether that be learning, health or mental health issues.
However, she is confident there are a “lot of opportunities” coming to Dundee with the Tay Cities Deal.
Helm is subsequently leading a collaboration between youth work, education and business which aims to ensure that as the region grows, those who haven’t thrived in mainstream education don’t get “left at the bottom of the pile”.
“There’s a real will in Dundee to close the attainment gap, to close the social inequality gap and to make this a fair place for everybody to live and work in – and that’s great,” she says.
“There’s really good strong connections in our community and that’s what makes me most optimistic for young people here.
“What we just have to make sure is that from a structure point of view and a system point of view, kids that have the greatest needs are prioritised when they need to be.”
Helen would also like to use her IOD award to lead on the launch of a new regional business award later this year linked to the Year of the Young Person 2018.
Working closely with one of their large corporate partners, Dover Fueling Solutions (formerly Tokheim) in Dundee, the aim is to recognise the role businesses in the community play in enabling aspiring young people to have meaningful work placements.
“Helm already has terrific support from over 50 businesses in Dundee, large and small and I want to use the award to both recognise their contribution and encourage others in the city and throughout the region to follow their example,” she says.
Anyone interested in finding out more is asked to contact Helen on 01382 224464 or via www.helmtraining.co.uk