Getting O-School Students Job Ready
“Employment levels of people with disabilities are low, and those who are employed tend to be in low-paying occupations,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Economic Picture of the Disability Community Project (2012, p. 1). Employment-population ratio data (proportion of the population that is employed) collected by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2018 found that 19.1% of people with disabilities are employed as opposed to 65.9% of those without a disability. Further, only 40% of adults with disabilities between the ages of 25 and 54 are employed, compared to 79% of their non-disabled counterparts (Ross & Bateman, 2018). Employment is at the core of the goals articulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those goals are equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.
There are a host of complex reasons why the unemployment rate is much higher for the disabled population, such as the severity of a person’s disability and/or stigmas that may result in unfair biases. Thus, those with disabilities are often at a disadvantage in a competitive workforce. Not only does our society demand that workers have technical or hard skills to compete in today’s job market but soft skills as well. It is important that young people preparing to enter the job market exhibit skills such as effective communication and teamwork. For students with disabilities such as those on the Autism Spectrum, the acquisition of these skills may prove more challenging; and the absence of such interpersonal skills may negatively impact their ability to secure and retain employment. Further, due to both the nature of the disability and being in treatment, many students are unable to build these skills through extracurricular and vocational experiences. Thus, teaching them the skills they need to be job-ready can be empowering and have great implications on their ability to access the world of work and experience success in the workplace.
To this end, the O-School has a Student Work Program, which allows students the opportunity to hold a variety of jobs within the building. Jobs are available in a number of areas intended to appeal to students’ interests and skills and introduce them to a host of career paths. Examples of positions are classroom assistants/tutors, food service attendants, special events decorators, front desk receptionists, and tour guides. Because the program is designed to loosely mimic a competitive work experience, students must meet basic qualifications regarding personal safety and show willing engagement in all parts of the program to be considered for employment. They complete and submit job applications, interview for positions, and turn in timecards for each work period in order to be paid hourly wages. Students receive performance evaluations at the end of each quarter, which serves as the basis for deciding wage increases. Further, students who do not show improvement after receiving unsatisfactory evaluations may be terminated or offered the chance to reapply for a more suitable position.
For many years, the Student Work Program has served as a source of motivation for students to strive for employment. Internal vocational opportunities allow students to build skills in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment among staff and peers, which is often crucial for those suffering from depression, social anxiety, and poor self-concept. Thus, once students show readiness for increased levels of independence and responsibility, external job opportunities in the community are helpful. The O-School has a partnership with a retail franchise to provide supported employment internships. This model consists of a small group of students being accompanied by one staff member to each work shift. Once at work, students are assigned tasks alongside regular store employees. The school staff member remains on-site and is available to model tasks and provide emotional support as needed but otherwise remains out of sight. As students successfully progress through both the Student Work and Internship Programs, occasionally some are ready for a less supportive work experience and are placed into internships where they report to work independently.
More recently, the O-School’s Transition Department created a Job Readiness Training Program (JRT) to help students enhance their employability skills to aid them in them becoming job-ready. The six-week program runs every fall and spring and is taught by the Director of Transitional Services and Programs and the Director of Compliance and Special Programs. The curriculum is designed to take into account a variety of learning styles, to be interactive and engaging to students, and to be delivered in a hands-on manner. Each session addresses basic but important aspects of job readiness. Each week, students are provided the resources and tools they need to self-assess for the purpose of identifying their strengths and communication styles as well as constructing elevator speeches and resumes.
While the O-School JRT Program is still in its infancy stages, the initial results and responses from both students and employers have been positive and promising. The JRT Program was developed and launched by Carmen Roberts, Director of Transitional Services and programs, and Ellie Badesch, Director of Compliance and Special Projects.
Ross, M. & Bateman, N. (2018) Only four out of ten working-age adults with disabilities are employed. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/07/25/only-four-out-of-ten-working-age-adults-with-disabilities-are-employed/
U.S. Department of Labor (2012). Economic picture of the disability community project. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/odep/pdf/20141022-KeyPoints.pdf