A GEM of a scheme
The GEM programme provides training and internships for passionate, values-driven graduates around the country. Since its launch in 2009, the programme has taken on more than eighty graduates – one of them, Natasha Jarratt, tells CIH more about the scheme and the positive impact it’s had on her, both professionally and personally.
Hi Natasha. Let’s start with the basics – can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m 25 and I live in Yorkshire – I moved for the GEM programme. It’s a good place for hobbies. I like running (probably more like jogging), bike riding, circus (juggling, spinning, etc) and I just started playing tag rugby, although I’m not really a natural. I also like going for wholesome Sunday hikes with my housemates. I’m into learning about people and languages - I’m still working on German and have just started Spanish. I think pubs are the best classrooms and so go to language exchange meet ups and use couch-surfing to practice. I’m not sure if it’s a hobby but I like thinking (daydreaming), and researching and writing.
How did you find out about the GEM programme?
I was searching for jobs on housing association websites and an ad for one of the GEM placements led me to the GEM website where I saw all the different placements available as well as information about the programme. I was really excited about it since it asked for competencies and values, and not previous experience. I had tried applying to housing associations at entry level positions before (and was told this was the best way to start out!) but I was rejected for lack of experience. When I read about GEM I couldn’t believe my luck and I put a lot of effort into my application. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do but I believed strongly in the importance of housing in society and was definitely attracted to the fact that there are so many different areas to get into in housing. The programme seemed to offer a really broad look into the sector.
How was the application process for you?
Great – I was happy that my previous volunteer work and experiences and my degree were relevant.
The second stage of recruitment was an assessment centre – this was my favourite part. I was still a bit unsure about the programme before the assessment centre, as I had just moved back to England and wasn’t convinced I wanted to stay. It was such a good experience to meet all the applicants, and to talk about issues that I cared about with people who also wanted to talk about them.
What happened next?
Following that we had a placement interview and then an induction at the first ‘residential academy’. It was my first time in Bradford and the building where we were staying was impressive; I found a load of pictures I had taken of it the other day. It’s a pretty unique experience to be able to go and hole up in a huge old building to work and learn and socialise for two solid days.
Did you have a particular interest in the housing sector beforehand?
Yes, although I didn’t hear about it properly until after I finished university. I met a great uncle at the funeral of another great uncle, and my dad thought I would be interested in what he did and so introduced us – he worked as a housing manager and told me all about his job. I thought it sounded brilliant. I went home and researched the sector and decided I wanted to work in it. Having volunteered with Women’s Aid I had seen the role refuges play in supporting women fleeing domestic abuse and with blind and disabled adults I saw the way that adapted homes allow people to live with greater independence. While I was in school I wanted to be a town planner and arranged work experience in this area.
What kind of roles were you able to get involved with as part of the GEM programme, and where were you based?
My internship was divided into two placements. This wasn’t the plan initially but they were unable to choose between another candidate and I. It ended up being a valuable experience. For six months I worked in the policy, performance and involvement department as a policy and research assistant and was able to lead on a piece of research into the experiences of tenants aged 18-21, complete the organisation’s Stonewall submission and work on policy and the policy review process. The other six months I spent working as a PA to the group chief executive, Geraldine Howley, and was able to be involved in organising a conference session for the International Housing Partnership as well as ongoing work such as researching national policy.
Do you feel like your involvement with the GEM programme has strengthened your career prospects and CV?
Yes! The programme isn’t only the internship and CIH qualification; there are also experiences such as a visit to Westminster and research projects, and presenting at conferences. These were definitely a step out of my comfort zone but they broadened my perspectives. The scheme offers a lot of opportunities for you to develop the kind of skills that employers look for, for example public speaking and team working.
The Centre for Partnership team offers support when looking for a job afterwards, including help with applications which I found really useful when applying for my job. My mentors gave me loads of support, pushed me, and helped me to understand how to use my experience to fit job specifications.
What has been your favourite aspect of the GEM experience?
The experiences I mentioned above, definitely – I never imagined I’d get to do those things. The people are a really important part of it for me. The other GEM graduates, tutors, the Centre for Partnership and the people I’ve worked with – for example my mentor – have all been incredible.
The GEM students are in placements all over England, so it’s an effort to get us all together in terms of travel but it’s well worth it. Just from talking at the residentials you’d get an insight into the different housing issues across the UK, as well how different housing associations (and councils) operate and what various departments do. We’d bring different perspectives. We try to stay in touch – last week I met up with someone from my programme who was visiting another GEM graduate for work.
I like the flexibility of the programme. It’s constantly moving and you’re given opportunities to get involved and be a part of this.
You’re now an ambassador for the GEMs and speak out about your positive experiences as a GEM. This must prove how passionately you feel about the scheme…
Of course! The programme has given me so much, and each year it is getting better. I think so many people can gain from it. I also believe that housing can gain from it, especially with all the challenges the sector faces while the demand for suitable, affordable housing remains.
You can have any degree and the placements can be in any department – the thread is the sector and social values and I think this is one of its strengths because it means participants get a really broad perspective.