SMaRT Garages (First Step Trust)


What do they do?

First Step Trust is an employment charity providing opportunities for people excluded from working life because of mental health conditions, learning disabilities, drug or alcohol and other disadvantages. They do this predominately through a number of Socially Minded and Responsible Trading (SMaRT) social enterprises which offer the most vulnerable and socially excluded people in communities real life work experience in a safe, understanding and empathic environment.

First Step Trust run five SMaRT enterprises; four garages and a restaurant, with one garage located in Salford.

What is the aim of the project?

The project gives people with complex obstacles to employment the opportunity to gain skills and experience in a fully operational ‘real world’ environment as part of their rehabilitation.

SMaRT Garages are an empathic employer that provides a stepping stone to those who want to move into employment.

How did they identify the need for the project?

The people First Step Trust work with are very early in their journey to rehabilitation, with many only recently discharged from secure units. They still need a safe and secure environment to recover in, but equally need exposure to real world situations if they are to develop the skills required to be independent. First Step knew that work placements in a regular commercial setting would not be appropriate, so developed the idea of creating real life situations where people can gain soft skills, practical skills, confidence and experience.

How did it begin?

The organisation established the first SMaRT Garage in 2006 as a pilot scheme with a two-year Big Lottery grant. Having proven to be a successful concept, First Step Trust went on to set up a further three SMaRT Garages and a restaurant.

The Salford garage began trading in 2008 and in that time has grown from working on 5 vehicles a day to 15 vehicles per day thanks to informal contracts with local businesses to maintain their fleets and a growing number of people taking up placements.

Who are the beneficiaries?

SMaRT Garage Salford work with people 18 and over with mental health issues, learning or physical disabilities, and those with drug and alcohol problems. They are still receiving professional care and support and are very vulnerable.

The majority of referrals come from the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust (NHS), although they also accept referrals from VCSE organisations that they have built relationships with.

Why is it different / special?

The project offers these vulnerable people the opportunity to dip into real life at a pace that works for them. They are able to contribute to something real with appropriate supervision rather than just practicing, and are surrounded by an empathic team who understand their unique challenges.

Work placements are voluntary, with hours and days worked to suit individual situations. The standard period of placements is 6 to 12 months, but people are welcome to stay longer if they want to.

The garage is run by a core of paid staff who supervise the individuals in all aspects of the running of the business, from administration and finance to motor mechanics. The core staff work closely with their support workers, therapists and/or doctors to ensure that their progress is positive.

As a social enterprise, the project is majority self-funded and is growing at a healthy rate.

What challenges have they faced? How did they overcome them?

The biggest challenge is balancing the ethos of supporting people back into work while being a trading organisation with targets and customer expectations to meet. They have had to learn to stay focused on what needs to be done without losing the impact of their purpose.

Although SMaRT Garages Salford have informal contracts with local businesses, these are at discounted rates and they now want to grow their private customer base in order to become more profitable. They are now looking at ways to market themselves to new audiences.

They would like to be able to offer formal qualifications but would require additional funds to do this. This is an area they plan to investigate further.

What successes / outcomes have they had?

The biggest success is that they are able to be person-centred. As a self-funded enterprise they do not have to move beneficiaries through a process in order to meet funding outcomes, and can allow people to develop at their own pace.

Following a work placement at SMaRT Garages Salford, many individuals have been able to be referred to external agencies so that they can move onto the next steps towards employment - some have even moved onto the payroll at SMaRT Garages and are now supporting others on their journey!

Because they are not driven by outcomes, the staff and support teams are able to celebrate all individual achievements - which may sometimes just be personal achievements like becoming more reliable, attending for more hours or days a week, or even being confident enough to support new placements.

“I think about myself differently now. I’ve found something I’m good at and that’s a new feeling, a buzz.” Workforce member

Find out more

If you are interested in experiencing life on the shop floor of a SMaRT Garage, the team at Salford offer a ‘trading places’ style visit where you can meet the staff and volunteers and see what they do contact Craig Haworth.

You can visit the First Step Trust website here.


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