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Friday interview | Smart Works Newcastle on supporting women through the interview process and back into employment

Whatever your story, stepping back into the world of employment and interviews can be a challenging and intimidating thought. Smart Works Newcastle supports women during this time. We find out more...

By Helen Bowman

Helen Boyd and Nathalie Bouleau-Chabot are the passionate team behind the North East office of the national Smart Works charity. Working in the centre of Newcastle, their office doubles as an impressive dressing room of interview-appropriate clothing, shoes, handbags, scarves and even underwear and hosiery, should it be required.

Smart Works Newcastle provides a dressing and coaching service to make sure women who are getting back into employment are dressed to impress for an interview and are ready for any questions. 

Nathalie and Helen, tell us about yourselves…

I’m Nathalie and together, Helen and I make up Smart Works’ staff team. My role is Business Development Lead.

That involves fundraising, outreach, marketing communications, working with both corporate and individual supporters and planning events. Basically, to keep our service running and develop it so we can support as many women across the North East as we can.

I use my background in fashion retail management and recruitment to work alongside Helen to run and develop Smart Works’ services.

I’m Helen, and I’m the Service Delivery Lead. My background is working with charities and social enterprises for several years in London.

When we relocated back to the North East, I volunteered for Smart Works, organising stock and sorting donations. It worked well around my young family and put my experience in retail merchandising to good use. I loved the fact that it was a quick and practical service to help women in the region.

When the role came up, I jumped at the chance to apply. I now manage the service, look after referral partner relationships, take care of stock and donations and look after our team of fantastic styling and coaching volunteers.

It sounds like you make a formidable team. Tell us more about Smart Works?

Smart Works is a national charity, and we run the Newcastle branch (which is a charity in its own right) alongside a full board of trustees and our amazing volunteers. Since opening our doors in April 2018, we’ve supported 467 women across the North East.

We support women from all walks of life to look and perform to their very best in interviews for paid employment. We offer two-hour appointments when our clients come to our offices and select an entire outfit for their interview. They then sit down with one of our highly qualified coaches to run through interview techniques, ask questions and gain advice about the whole process. Our coaches have done hundreds of hours of interview training and are highly experienced in helping clients to talk about their skills, tease out their confidence and help them to positively sell themselves.

Whether our clients have been made redundant and haven’t done an interview for a few years, or they’ve been unemployed for a while and are nervous about stepping back into the world of work, we can help them look and feel great in preparation for their interview.

Worrying about what to wear for an interview is one of the most significant stresses in the whole process – even more so if you’re struggling to find anything appropriate in your wardrobe, or you can’t afford to buy anything new. Our service gives our clients comfort and confidence that they are wearing appropriate clothing, relieving that side of their nerves. The clothes they choose are theirs to keep too.

And does your service stop there?

Absolutely not. To date, around two-thirds of our clients have been successful in landing the job they interviewed for, which is a fantastic success rate and one of which we’re very proud. If a client gets a job within six months of their original appointment, we offer the opportunity to come back to us for a second dressing, to choose a working wardrobe. They can choose up to another five pieces to take away and keep, to help them through what can often be a challenging first month in a new job.

Our small team of stylists work hard to help our clients as much as possible. They meet and greet them when they first arrive and set to work, planning the perfect interview outfit. They find out a bit more about the job role the client is going for so they can find the perfect outfit for every interview.

This is not a makeover – they are already great as they are. It’s all about the client and what makes them feel comfortable and confident for their interview. We aim to empower our clients to turn up and do their absolute best in the interview situation.

Who is your typical client for Smart Works?

We see a range of women – from those who have been unemployed for a long time due to health issues, those who have been made redundant, have been caring for family members or have lost their confidence. We support women from all walks of life into the workplace – from 16-year olds to ladies nearing retirement.

In terms of the industries we support, we’ve helped women find work as carers, in the hospitality industry, retail, management roles, administration, HR, and jobs within corporate organisations as well.

Providing a client has a confirmed job interview for a paid role, whether temporary, part-time or full time, a year-long apprenticeship position and they identify as a woman, Smart Works can help.

What’s the best part of the job?

That’s an easy one. It’s incredible when we get a call or a text saying a client has landed a job. Everyone here is rooting for them, and the volunteers are always delighted by every success story. Hands down that is the very best thing about Smart Works.

And we are working with an incredible team of volunteers and supporters. They’re all massively dedicated and passionate about the charity, and they’re long-term volunteers who get to know the service. They’re fantastic at thinking on their feet and providing the very best service to our clients.

So, how can HLN readers get involved and help with Smart Works?

While we do have quite a waiting list to volunteer on the dressing and coaching side of things, we also work alongside a fantastic pool of ‘Smart Works Supporters’. They are people who might work full time and can’t dedicate large chunks of time, but they do step up and support with things like event volunteering, spreading the word on social media and taking part in fundraisers. We’re building up quite a community of women who are interested in, and passionate about, supporting other women.

If anyone would be interested in helping Smart Works in future events and fundraising activities, we’d welcome more supporters to the team any time.

In addition to that, we’re always looking for donations of clothing for our dressing service. We need excellent quality, lightly worn and interview-appropriate clothing. We need jackets, blouses, trousers, shoes, scarves, dresses, suits, handbags, jewellery – if you’d wear it to an interview, we’ll gladly receive it at our offices in Newcastle.

What’s the best way to contact you?

Our website is https://smartworks.org.uk/newcastle-smart-works/, and we’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@smartworksncl) too.

If you’re interested in getting involved in some fundraising, here are the details of our next fun challenge:

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, we are challenging our friends, families, colleagues and community to take part in the ultimate team challenge – Spin for Smart Works – to help us raise funds for our service.

From Friday 28 February to Sunday 8 March, teams of five will join forces to collectively cycle the 500-mile target, the distance between our eight UK centres. Individual teams can choose to take part in a road bike, gym bike or in a spin class – any bike you like. Sign-ups open on 15 January.

For more information, contact newcastle@smartworks.org.uk

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