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Berkshire charity helping women get back into the workplace

PUBLISHED: 15:56 18 July 2016 | UPDATED: 15:56 18 July 2016

Interview volunteer Deborah Kingley guides clients through those tricky questions (Photo by Maureen McLean)

Interview volunteer Deborah Kingley guides clients through those tricky questions (Photo by Maureen McLean)

MAUREEN MCLEAN

Suits you! How a Berkshire charity is helping women of all ages get back into the workplace with clothes and confidence

Preparing for a job interview can set the heart fluttering and brain racing for even those of us with a sparkly CV and experience of dealing with the intricacies of professional life day after to day.

For those who have a hole in their work history or struggle with answers when every question seems a tricky one ready to trip us, what should be an opportunity to change their life for the better is starting to seem a tough mountain to climb. Add in anxiety over not having anything decent in the wardrobe and the confidence has dipped in favour of ‘failure’ even before leaving home for that interview.

And yet, in the past nine months or so, a stream of women have passed through the doors of a Reading-based charity and smartly set off ready to tackle whatever the interviewers throw at them – with remarkable results.

It’s called Smart Works and has just one big focus – helping unemployed women on low incomes get back into the workforce. That support is provided in quite an amazing package – as we discovered on a visit to the offices. The women who go through the Smart Works experience receive interview coaching, styling advice and something to treasure – an interview outfit and ‘capsule wardrobe’ to see them through the early days of their new job before the first pay comes in.

“It’s a really wonderful moment when we get an excited ‘I got it, I got!’ phone call from a woman we’ve helped,” says Sarah Burns, the co-chair and founder of Smart Works Reading, who is now spreading the message and support across Berkshire and the Thames Valley. “Having a job, getting that confidence back – plus those lovely clothes – completely changes life and how we feel about our future.”

And the feel-good factor reaches others as well. Sometimes the word ‘empowered’ can seem a little clichéd, but these now financially-secure women often go on to have a positive impact on their community and home life. For those with children there is the feeling of being a ‘new and improved role model’.

Since October last year the local Smart Works has helped 158 women, and 78 have so far gone on to find employment. Lone parents, long-term unemployed, those with a learning difficulties, a woman who arrived after transgendering have all found support. It is perhaps their stories we should tell, and we will, but firstly a little more on how Smart Works operates and survives.

Sarah takes us away from the smallish office to the adjoining rooms where rail upon rail of stylish clothes in all sizes hang, ready to be selected by the hopeful job-seekers. Where does it all come from?

“We have several national and local sponsors who support us through regular clothing donations from sales, seconds or stock, plus all the necessary accessories such as handbags, tights and make up. Some hold clothing drives or raise money through promotions or a percentage of sales,” says Sarah. “I’ve seen a woman cry because she’s never had a decent handbag of her own before, and now she feels so different.””

National supporters include Hobbs, Bobbi Brown and Evans, while locally there’s a long and proud list including Verizon, Oracle, IBM, SAP and Cisco, Towry, 02, Accelerator Solutions and Pareto Lae, Knomo Bags and Winser London, Fluidity and My Boudoir.

Sarah is undoubtedly resourceful. She has no qualms about popping into stores going through a refit or season change to see if they have any stock that could find its way to Smart Works rather than be disposed of in other ways.

But it’s not just about those lovely clothes. Volunteer experts come in to help with dressing and styling advice and, crucially, enhancing interview skills through practice in a small back room. Others help with the admin or constant fundraising needed to keep the charity going.

And you’ll find some Smart Works ‘ladies’ in the likes of job centres – the charity catches the eye by placing smartly dressed dummies in employment centres to point women in the right direction. What a smart move. 


About Sarah Burns

Sarah became a volunteer for Dress for Success and then Smart Works UK in 2012 and, impressed by how it could change lives, spent two years learning about the charities and qualifying as an executive coach.

Prior to that she was Training Manager at SAS Marlow and had previous training experience with Northgate Arinso, Microsoft Business Solutions, Great Plains and PWA.


How you can help

The generosity of individuals, corporations and grants organisations keeps Smart Works successful.

• Become a supporter of Smart Works Thames Valley.

• See www.smartworks.org.uk/reading.

• Make a monthly donation of £5, £10 or £20 at bit.ly/VirginMoneySmartWorksRdg
Contact Smart Works Reading, 94 London Street, Reading, RG1 4SJ, tel: 01189 594245, email: reading@smartworks.org.uk

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