Q&A with Jigsaw CEO and Co-founder, Paul Brown

Apr 14, 2021 | General

What first attracted you to the disability sector?

“The pivotal point for me of knowing that I wanted to do something in this space was working in a specialist school in the UK. Its focus was to support boys who had significant behavioural challenges to be educated. My job was as a key worker with one boy whose behaviour was incredibly challenging, and we struggled even to get him to one lesson a week. What really jumped out to me, and this is representative of the employment space here, is that we were trying to force a boy that clearly had incredible emotional and behavioural issues through the same structure that everyone goes through. At the same time, friends I grew up with had founded Fighting Chance to incubate social enterprises that address the failings of the sector. I went out to Australia to find out more and didn’t make it back. I was never laser-focused from a young age on what I wanted to do in life, but as soon as we built Jigsaw, that focus became clear.”


How did you build Jigsaw? How did it start?

We knew we wanted to give people a better pathway to employment and think differently about the way that you set someone up for success in mainstream employment. To do that, we first wanted to understand what the challenges really were, so we found a customer and started employing people with disability. As we brought on more contracts we would slowly increase the number of people we employed, but we had a lot of people with disability reaching out and asking to come and learn in our working environment or come on work experience. We realised there was a real need and it talked to our ambition for the business – that if you can give someone an experience and a training program within the workforce you’re going to have a better result. We started back in 2014, and have employed 86 people with disability and provided over 240 traineeships since then.


What makes Jigsaw stand out from other disability employment services?

We take a practical view of how to prepare someone for work. When you look at the sector as a whole, there’s a lot of classroom-based activity and placement-only activity. I think we forget that people with disability do need support to prepare themselves for the workplace, and it’s OK to need that support. Whilst it seems efficient just to be placing people into jobs, we know that 70% of people lose those jobs within three months, so it’s not efficient. What’s efficient is actually spending time with an individual in a work environment to get them the skills and experience they need. Think about all the different situations that you handle in work – the corridor conversations, turning up late because you got stuck in traffic, doing something really well and how you communicate that, working with your peers. If you can experience all of that in a timeframe that works for you before being tasked with getting and holding a mainstream job, you’re in a much better position.

The Jigsaw model of preparing for work through work is proof that in the right environment and with the right support, people with disability can work. We deliver results to customers and we continue to sell contracts. We can do that, and it’s all done by people with disability. 


What are your ambitions for Jigsaw in the future?

We have an ambition to expand nationally and create 1,000 traineeships and 600 award wage jobs by the end of 2023. In 2020, we opened our second hub in Brisbane, and we’ll be opening a further four hubs over the next two years in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra. Creating a national presence will increase our ability to impact as many lives as possible, and demonstrate to government and the disability sector that our model is scalable. It will also allow us to build a broader group of business customers across the country and develop local partnerships with like-minded organisations.  I will be focusing strongly on Jigsaw Connect which links job-ready Jigsaw graduates with employers to accelerate the movement of people from Jigsaw to mainstream employment at scale, and to make sure the connection is long-term and sustainable. And finally, we’ll be strengthening our online offering. The reality is, going forward from what’s happened in 2020, people are going to have to do more work remotely and people with disability can’t be excluded from that. It gives employers comfort to know that people can work from home effectively, and have done so as part of their training.


What’s been a special moment for you in your time with Jigsaw?

A big moment for me was a day when I had meetings in the City and I was walking around Kent Street near Westpac HQ. We had a lot of Jigsaw graduates placed with Westpac at the time, and I saw them, with Westpac badges on, alongside Westpac employees, just walking out to lunch. And when I think back to them joining Jigsaw and all of the things they needed to work on, and the hard yards they’ve put into training, it was affirming to see them step out, be independent and blend into everyday workers. The thought that, as we grow the business, this could be happening fifty or sixty times a year is really quite a driver for me, and for all of us at Jigsaw.


What’s the biggest challenge still to overcome in order to see Jigsaw’s vision of an Australia in which people with disability are fully included in the workforce?

I think the typical answer to this is that employers need to be more inclusive. I actually don’t think that’s the case any more. More and more employers want a diverse workforce and they’re looking to us as a sector to tell them how. The biggest challenge is to develop a really efficient and well supported transition into the workforce for someone who we believe has the skills to work. It’s a challenge because it’s a really complex area where people with disability have different strengths, weaknesses and ways of working and communicating. We’ve got to be able to do it so that it’s efficient enough that it can work at scale but also tailored enough to be specific to individual need. I can’t put my finger to anything in our sector that has absolutely nailed that. 


What advice would you give Jigsaw graduates making their way in their mainstream roles for the first time?

Experience is so important – it’s amazing what experience gives you. When you experience different industries, different work and different people, your true passions come out. You should be able to change your career path and do something different based on that, and that will probably continue to happen throughout your life and career. You’ll know when you’ve landed on something you really want to do. But ensure that you have foundational employment skills and try to work hard on these so that you’re set up to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise. My path to where I am now was unconventional and a bit rogue. I didn’t learn well at school and didn’t leave with a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I certainly took my time in finding my way to my end goal and I promote letting things happen over time because it ensures you’re on the right pathway and doing what you want to do.

About Jigsaw

Jigsaw is a social enterprise that provides an innovative pathway to open employment for people with disability. By embedding a comprehensive skill-based training program within our commercial document and data management business, Jigsaw enables people with disability to achieve their employment goals at their own pace. Jigsaw’s holistic approach starts from the very basics of core work skills and supports trainees all the way through to transition to open employment with ongoing support and coaching once they have transitioned. 

Jigsaw is located in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, with Canberra and Perth locations coming soon.