Citizens Advice Partner with National Grid Corporate Volunteering Scheme

Taking a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity 

James Dean talks about his experience as a corporate volunteer from National Grid, spending a year training and advising with Citizens Advice East Berkshire. 

Married and father to two ‘very grown-up’ children, James has been an Infrastructure Operations Manager for National Grid for just over four years, primarily working for the ESO (Electricity System Operator) ‘They’re the guys that manage the supply and demand around the electricity grid to keep the lights on.’  

James told us about his background, his career and how he came to undertake the placement. 

I’ve always been in IT, I was in a technical role at an IT-Managed service company, then worked as a network engineer and then eventually started supervising and have been in a Management role probably for the last 25 years.
The National Grid has got a really great intranet system so I just was going through that as there is a lot of volunteering opportunities and a lot of great information. That’s where I saw this opportunity.

I’ve always wanted to volunteer but never really had the opportunity or any spare time.  I was quite young, 21, when my daughter was born and you know how any spare time you have, kids just take it up, so I never really had the opportunity to do it but when I saw this opportunity, I thought wow.

I didn’t really think that I would be allowed to leave, being a senior Manager and with major changes happening within our department. How many companies would give you 12 months to go and work somewhere else and still pay you the same, and back fill your role?

It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to leave your job for 12 months and then go and do something that you’ve always wanted to do. In the first couple of weeks, I was still in touch with my team as there were still some things that they needed to know, then I had to cut myself off otherwise I would never be able to make that break properly and concentrate on CAEB. 

Training with Citizens Advice 

I think it was about eight weeks before I completed the training, it was quite intense. Thanks to [CAEB] Tahira for the training programme and support.

The supervisors are amazing, so lateral thinking, you go to them with what you have thought about and you think it’s really comprehensive, then they say ‘What about this and have you looked at this?’ Amazing. The way that they think is something I would like to take away with me back to Grid.

The original plan was I would go to Maidenhead two days a week, Bracknell two days and then work from home on a Friday. My wife’s been quite ill during my secondment. She has had four operations from June through January so that’s hindered the original plan because, because she needs to go into hospital regularly. That is how I ended up doing the Slough project rather than Maidenhead and Bracknell.

James explained National Grid have got three main offices: Warwick, central London and Wokingham – where he is based. Twelve National Grid employees are participating in the programme, where they are volunteering in advice delivery roles on a full-time basis for 12 months, and join their Local Citizens Advice office.

He had anticipated the work and organisation would be different, though maybe not quite the extent.

‘It was a culture change from being a Manager to go back to training, but that was a really nice change. I’ve managed people for a long time so it was really nice to not have that responsibility for a while.

In terms of the content a lot of it is quite hard, with the cost of living issues. It’s a whole plethora of emotions. When you help someone it’s such a massively rewarding feeling, it’s been emotional sometimes. I’ve had a couple of safeguarding situations, which have been quite shocking and emotional to deal with. To help someone and see, or hear their reaction, to see their relief you can almost feel the weight lifting off the client’s shoulders and that’s the reason I got involved in this programme.

CA’s work is astonishing

The work that Citizens Advice do to support the most vulnerable is astonishing. When you live in an area and you’re in quite privileged position, you don’t realise the underlying issues or situations that are happening around you, this really opens your eyes to that massively and realise just how little some people have. However, they can be such proud people, so much so that they actually refuse food bank vouchers and other forms of help.
It’s been emotional rollercoaster, but so rewarding.

We asked James if he felt supported with the emotional side of the work and if any cases or issues particularly stood out for him.

Yes, I’ve always felt supported. From the offset my supervisor\training Manager has been really supportive. When we’ve had the safeguarding issues or big cases, you always get offered time out so you can reflect and gather yourself. I’ve always felt supported and you really need that sometimes as it can have an effect on you.

I think the situation in Slough is quite bad, there’s so little housing out there and so many people that need it, the housing situation is just crazy. It seems every other call is something to do with housing, someone getting evicted for no reason, or just cannot find anywhere to rent.

The energy crisis obviously is high on everyone’s agenda. I think one of the one of the big issues that we see is there simply isn’t enough local authority housing.

A reset

It’s a cliché, but it is life changing – every day it’s really humbling. It’s been is a big reset for me.

Sometimes it’s difficult emotionally but it’s great when somebody sends feedback in saying thank you. I spoke to someone this morning and you could tell that the guy hasn’t spoken to anybody for a long time.

My wife works in a childcare setting so we quite often talk about the same things – it has been quite good for us, because I can understand a bit more about where she’s coming from.

Further volunteering

I talked about not being able to volunteer before because of time but my wife and I have started volunteering for the Foodshare in Maidenhead. We do that on a Saturday morning for a few hours. We signed up just before Christmas and it is amazing. It really is such a respectful environment because some people are coming to a food bank for the first time ever, and they’re so nervous about it, but it is just so sympathetic to their feelings . The Foodshare is almost like a small supermarket, so the clients can go round and pick their items rather than being given things they might not even like or tolerate.  I probably would not have done it if I hadn’t joined CA.

James has ‘touch points’ with his manager and speaks regularly to staff, this will increase as the year with CAEB draws to a close.

I’ll need to transition back in because I’ve got quite a few staff and 12 direct reports that I need to get back in line. In the last two months I’ll go back to National Grid one day a week so I can ease myself back in. They backfill your role at National Grid and I still have access, so I can check my emails. I have touch points with my manager which is great.

And how would James sum up his experience with Citizens Advice?

Life changing. It’s been truly a pleasure to meet so many lovely genuine people. Thank you all for the opportunity it’s been brilliant!

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