Teenager with autism secures engineering apprenticeship

A former Abbot’s Lea School student is about to start training to save lives and property, as an emergency gas engineer. 

Niall Potter, 18, is the first graduate to land an apprenticeship in an engineering role from a scheme that supports Liverpool people with special educational needs and disabilities. 

Local gas network Cadent is one of 20 employers to back Liverpool City Council’s ‘Intern to Work’ supported internship programme, which helps 16 to 24 year olds gain experience to secure a job. 

Now, after completing his year-long internship, Niall, from Speke, has accepted an offer to start an apprenticeship which will see him train to be a Cadent first-call operative (FCO). 

He’ll join a team of engineers ready day and night, 365 days a year, to deal with reports of gas leaks. Once fully trained, Niall will deal with incidents across Cadent’s Merseyside patch. 

Niall, whose autism mainly manifests with communication and social anxiety issues, is over the moon. He hopes his achievement can be a catalyst to helping others find their dream job, as well as to encourage more local employers to have confidence to offer similar opportunities. 

“I would love it if this steered more companies to employ more people like me,” he said. 

“The scale [of autism] is so wide. An apprenticeship like this is perfect for me but won’t be right for everyone. But there will be a right fit, and the right jobs, if we’re just given the chance.” 

Martin Wilbysupported employment officer, Intern to Work, Liverpool City Council, described Niall’s story as “immense”. 

He said: “Most of our supported interns go on to find work in hospitality, which are also great opportunities and well-suited to their needs. Niall is the first to land an engineering role, which is perfect for him and his skills: his attention to detail and his academic, problem-solving mindset.” 

Cadent’s offices in the Midlands have long supported a local ‘EmployAbility’ scheme, working with two specialist schools to provide year-long placements. More than 70% of Cadent interns have gone on to gain paid employment, against a national average in this demographic of less than 7%. 

Last year, Cadent extended this support to the North West. Elliott Nelson, head of customer operations for the Merseyside area at Cadent, was adamant from the start that he wanted to focus the Cadent offer on the core discipline of the gas network – engineering. 

Elliott said: “Setting out on this journey, I was keen for this to be a first – to provide an engineering internship, because that’s what we do here. We knew that would be something new for Intern to Work, and new for Cadent too, but we wanted to push the boundaries. 

“The reason why Niall joined us on the internship can be traced to his autism, but I can say hand-on-heart that that’s had no influence on the offer of an apprenticeship. He’s earned that, by proving to us and proving to himself that he’s got what we’re looking for. 

He added: “We’ve seen a massive difference from the young man who first walked through the door, at the start of the internship, to what we see in Niall now. He’s shown that he can do the job and that he’ll be a great asset to the company and our customers.” 

Also incredibly proud is his mum, Sharon, 51, who burst into tears when she heard about the apprenticeship offer.  

Sharon said: “The opportunity he has been given is amazing, it really is. Niall deserves this. He has had a hard life and went through school with so many people saying there’s nothing wrong with him. When Niall was younger he just couldn’t verbalise things, and he would get very angry about it. I was always told it was down to my ‘bad parenting’. 

“Then a family member showed me the National Autistic Society website and, as I started to read about it, what autism is, I realised I was reading about my son. I just started crying, right there and then, not because I was sad but because I realised at last there was an answer.” 

Niall eventually joined Abbot’s Lea, a specialist SEND school, and one of five such specialist schools and colleges in Liverpool that Intern to Work supports. 

Sharon said: “One man there, Anthony McVerry, took Niall under his wing. We owe so much to him. He gave Niall and me unconditional support, no matter what, and he helped shape Niall into the young man he is today. And I really don’t know what to say to Cadent, except I am so grateful.” 

Niall added: “The one thing that stands out prominently over the internship is that I have come a long way with my communication skills. I know that’s my main weak point, but I have grown better at talking to customers and I know I will keep improving on that.” 

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