The information in this post comes to you courtesy of Jackie Martin of Vocational Steps. She’s always on the lookout for ways to provide atypical young people with job training and opportunities, and had sent me a list of several programs already in place around the US.
As Jackie told me in an email, “…the different programs/companies [in the list] actually came from different people who would email and say, ‘I found this link and it sounds interesting’ and then I researched each one to get their information. I wanted to be able to show people here in CA that there are programs for our young people – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to duplicate it! …[T]he more people know about successful employment models, the quicker we can start duplicating them in our own cities and be able to have more of our young people employed.”
Jackie is now “working with a new company called ‘CoNNect’ (connectproductsandpeople.com). It is based in Murrieta CA with the main warehouse there, a small one in Colton and now one in Corona. The oversimplified description is that the CEO–Jonathon Mills–wants to help people with disabilities (and veterans) get some work experience and then help them find a job out in the community.” The jobs have included things like office work and sorting recycled plastics, with more possibilities on the horizon.
What follows is the list of particular programs in California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. If you live near one of them, you might want to check it out. For the rest of us, learning about these programs may help us figure out what can be done in our own communities.
EXCEPTIONAL MINDS – Sherman Oaks, CA
A non-profit vocational center, animation and working studio for young adults on the Autism Spectrum.
- Accredited certificate from Adobe Flash Systems (Programs taught: Flash, Photoshop, Dream Weaver or Mocha Pro)
- 3 year Program (10 months per year, 5 days per week)
- Vocational center and working studio
- Visually-gifted ASD individuals
- Graphic Arts
- Web Design
- Visual Effects
- Full-Time Program: 3 yrs., 5 days per week, 10 months per year
- Private Lessons: To prepare individuals for the Accredited Program
- Summer Workshops: 6 weeks, 3 sessions available:
- Video Game Creation
- Movie Magic-Visual Effects
Exceptional Minds – 13400 Riverside Drive, Suite 211, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
EXTRAORDINARY VENTURES – Chapel Hill, NC
Non-profit organization that creates and nurtures self-sustaining small businesses designed around the skills of the young adults with autism and developmental disabilities that serve as its workforce. They currently employ 40 people. Some work 2 hours per, 2 days per week and others work 30—40 hours per week. “EV” operates six (6) ‘ventures’:
- A full laundry service (laundry and dry cleaning)
- Office services (collating, stapling, stuffing envelopes, etc.)
- Candles and gifts, sold in their gift shop (they make their own candles and scents)
- Cleaning and maintenance service for city buses
- An event center that rents space for meetings and conferences, and they staff the event
- Parking at football games for the University of North Carolina
Extraordinary Ventures – 200 South Elliot Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27514
PATHFINDER REGIONAL VOCATIONAL—TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL – Palmer, MA
Vocationally-based, hands-on high school offering academics and vocational training to students who qualify.
- Serves students in grades 9-12 who, if they qualify, attend from nine surrounding cities
- Information night for potential candidates is offered to 5th—8th graders at their respective schools
- Offer 14 “shops”:
- Collision Repair
- Automotive Technician
- Health Assisting
- Food Management
- Business Technology
- Programming & Web Design
- HVAC-R (Heat, Vent, A/C & Refr)
- CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting)
- Each “shop” is a total hands-on learning experience (e.g. Students build a house every year)
- Co-op program: Second semester of junior and senior years, students alternate working at a business for one week and studying at school the next week. They are paid by the employer.
- Very strict selection criteria
- They provide for students with special needs and have had Life Skills students in their program
Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School – 240 Sykes Street Palmer, MA 01069
MINDSPARK – Santa Monica, CA
Socially Responsible Outsourcing
Many U.S. companies outsource their software testing to offshore companies in India or China, which has many drawbacks due to the time zone and cultural differences. This leads to communication inefficiencies that may increase the effective cost of these services. The software industry is already entrenched in a model where the software testing services are not performed at the customer’s location. In effect, MindSpark will also be an outsourced IT company, but instead of customers outsourcing to companies in India or China, they can outsource to a socially conscious company in America offering high quality services at competitive rates. Any company that chooses to outsource their software testing work to MindSpark can feel satisfaction that they are employing people in America and providing opportunities for individuals with specialized abilities to be gainfully employed.
Core Commitment to Social Purpose
Consistent with its socially responsible mission, MindSpark Inc. was incorporated as a benefit corporation in the state of California in May 2013. A benefit corporation, legal in California since January 1, 2012, allows entrepreneurs and investors to organize corporations that can pursue economic and social objectives simultaneously. The benefit corporation has a core commitment to social purpose embedded in its organizational structure, with an additional commitment to full transparency and accurate assessment and reporting of its social, environmental, and financial performance and impact.
The MindSpark Training Academy (MTA) was incorporated as a non-profit organization in June 2013. In late 2014, MTA will attain 501(c)(3) status and will become eligible for funding from foundations that support organizations with tax-exempt status. A higher level of funding will allow MTA to offer more deserving young adults the opportunity to obtain the training required for employment as software testers.
The principal owners of MindSpark Inc. are working without compensation to launch and manage the enterprise. Growing the business will enable MindSpark to train and hire increasing numbers of qualified and deserving employees. As a vital and socially conscious benefit corporation, MindSpark will provide profits to be distributed to its employees in the future.
MindSpark Training Academy
The MindSpark Training Academy was created to provide vocational training to talented and qualified individuals with specialized abilities, particularly young adults on the autism spectrum. The customized training will enable these individuals to use their interest in technology, keen eye for detail, and sustained focus to earn a living. Attention to detail and sustained focus are highly valued in the field of software testing, which can be enjoyable for people with an aptitude for finding patterns and irregularities, and highly satisfying when problems are identified in the software that is being tested.
Candidates who are interested in the training program will be asked to fill out an application form and an assessment checklist prior to being invited for an interview and further assessment. Only those candidates with a high likelihood of completing the program will be accepted for training.
The MindSpark Training Academy plans to offer four 11-week training sessions per year, and may also offer accelerated 6-week training sessions. Training is offered free of charge. After completing a training session, qualified trainees will be offered a 3-month paid apprenticeship with MindSpark Inc., which subsequently leads to employment as a paid software testing analyst. In collaboration with Square One and MindSpark, we have a team of trainers and experienced test leads who will provide a supportive, safe and respectful environment.
Our MTA Manager of Training and Development, Judy Metz, has a doctorate in Psychology, a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and twenty years of experience developing and implementing software solutions. Our trainees will have an understanding teacher with real-world experience to guide them towards their new careers.
Interview and Assessment
11-Week Classroom Training with Certificate of Completion
3-Month Paid Apprenticeship
MindSpark – 2525 Main Street Ste. 214, Santa Monica, CA 90405
GREEN BRIDGE GROWERS – South Bend, IN
What We Do
We provide skill-matched employment to underserved young adults on the autism spectrum using an innovative highly-productive agricultural method, aquaponics.
Skill-Matched Employment for the Autism Spectrum
Green Bridge Growers is a venture with a strong social mission, and sustainable practices are at our core. With 90% of adults with autism experiencing unemployment, Green Bridges leverages new jobs for those with autism in our community – using aquaponics to grow vegetables productively throughout the year.
The Other 90% Problem
Unbelievably, 90% of the food we eat in Indiana is grown out-of-state, despite the skyrocketing demand for locally grown food. We thought, why not connect this 90% problem with the lack of employment for those on the autism spectrum and develop a solution that also contributes to our local community? Green Bridge Growers was created from this solution-oriented way of thinking.
Our growing practices are the very best. We use organic growing methods and materials, grow year-round, and employ the innovative new farming method, aquaponics, into our system. Within this system, fish and plants grow in harmony, producing faster growing rates and much less waste. Our customers include high-end restaurants and grocery stores, and we’ve begun exploring a future relationship with Notre Dame Food Services.
As part of our professional development goals, we’ll further engage our workforce through leadership training, active participation, and team building, allowing our autistic employees to accumulate integral new skills and competencies.
How We Do It
The innovative aquaponic method of farming that we use in our venture has the unique ability to grow fish and vegetables in tandem. Fish grow in tanks in a closed-loop ecosystem, where fish effluent is filtered and fertilizes the plants we grow. The plants then cleanse the water for the fish. Aquaponics uses 90% less water than conventional farming, and has the additional benefit of reducing time to harvest by one-third. Plant growth is greatly accelerated by aquaponics!
When we learned of aquaponics several years ago, we began attending intensive training sessions to learn hands-on practical skills and concepts. Aquaponics is such a phenomenal outlet for our own interests and skill sets, but it also is an outstanding match for the skills of those with autism. We’ve learned from the best in the field, and maintain membership to the US Aquaponics Association.
We manage other installations, such as the Century Center Skywalk in Sound Bend, that feature year-round growing using soil enriched by organic materials like worm castings and coconut coir. Incorporating great organic nutrients into our soil and our aquaponic system helps us raise plants that are productive, healthy, and of the highest taste and quality for our customers. We take tremendous pride in providing jobs for the underserved of our community, while keeping our products fresh, organic, and as close to the customers as possible!
Green Bridge Growers
Innovation Park Notre Dame – 1400 E. Angela Blvd. #148, South Bend, IN 46617
Young people finishing school and entering adulthood need a source of income. Unless they’ve inherited a fortune or have turned to a life of crime, that means getting a job. Looking for employment is often a slog, but the seeker has to be persistent. Beyond that, the processes of landing a job and holding onto it can also have unpleasant challenges – especially for someone with hidden or obvious disabilities.
As I shared in the previous post, our son Nathan has submitted a half dozen online applications to supermarkets over the last several months, with no response so far. Disappointing, but not too surprising given his lack of experience. However, the job-seeking experiences of our son Alan over the last year really have us struggling to remain undaunted. He’s had training in a few fields and gotten certifications; he’s been getting help from two government-sponsored employment assistance agencies; and has applied to many, many places. The result? The loss of one job, another job eight months later that lasted one day, and several close calls for employment.
Probably other atypical young job seekers have these kind of setbacks – but do they have this many? Here’s the rollercoaster we’ve been on:
- The security guard firm he was working for (they had just given him a raise!) transferred him to a different slot that, it turned out, was already promised to a different employee. The firm said they would try to find another placement for him – but never got back to him and wouldn’t return his calls.
- An acquaintance of his wanted Alan to help with his start-up supply business. It was sure to be lucrative because demand was high and the fellow already had signed contracts with clients. But after weeks of waiting for pieces of machinery to arrive so they could get production rolling, the acquaintance used Alan’s help sporadically, then found someone else who already had experience with the product. Suddenly Alan was frozen out, and never got paid for the times he had helped with set up and production.
- Alan passed the written and physical tests for becoming a deputy sheriff, but decided not to pursue the application further once he learned a successful applicant needs to have at least one year of steady job experience.
- A staffing agency found a position for him in a warehouse. On his first day, a pile of boxes fell on him (not his fault). The agency required him to get checked out by a physician the following day. Alan was ready to go back to work on the third day, but the agency said they don’t usually send workers back to the same place after an incident like that. They were going to try to place him in another warehouse, but that never happened.
- Alan interviewed well for a door-to-door solar energy sales job, but didn’t get an offer.
- He next attended a company-sponsored trucking school where he learned to drive big rigs – and he found to his surprise that he liked it! He got his CDL A permit and was doing well, until: the day before he was to test for his license, the company decided that his solo motorcycle accident 3 1/2 years ago was a dealbreaker. (By the way, Alan had disclosed the accident the first day he enrolled.)
- He jumped through all the hoops for becoming a ride-share driver. The only problem was, the company doesn’t allow drivers to have licenses that are a mismatch with the official record at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, and Alan’s physical license card didn’t reflect the CDL A permit (which he wanted to keep active until he could manage to get his license).
- Alan tried another company-sponsored trucking school, where the accident was not a factor. Again he did well – the company even sent him to orientation before he tested for his CDL license. Unfortunately, when it was time for the road test, Alan developed a bad case of test anxiety. He was allowed three tries, each on a different day, but was so jittery that he failed each time.
- While regrouping from that letdown, he was contacted by a company he’d been trying to get in with for years. (A friend of ours who works for the company had a copy of Alan’s application and would pass it to the appropriate manager when entry-level positions became open.) The stars aligned; Alan was interviewed and offered the job right then! All he’d have to do is pass the background check, physical, and drug test. What could possibly go wrong this time?
Well, the physical exam included a grip strength test. Alan says the clinic staff member handed him a device and said “squeeze this.” Alan squeezed pretty hard, but not with 100% maximum effort. The staff member saw the first reading and said “next two times, squeeze with all your might,” which Alan did. You guessed it: the low first reading skewed the average of all three readings to below the acceptable measure of grip strength. He was not allowed to retake the physical. No job after all.
Is it really possible for someone to have this much bad luck?
Maybe. Or, maybe underlying fear of becoming an adult is leading to self-sabotage whenever he comes close to landing a job. Or maybe the hiccups in his brain’s executive function and information processing are contributing to these near-misses.
Whatever the reason, the disappointment after each fizzled opportunity is hard to bear, for him as well as his trying-to-be-patient parents. We bounce back as best we can and look forward to the “good fortune” that follows bad luck, as mentioned in the proverb. Meanwhile, we gotta give Alan lots of credit for trying different things, for seeking help from counselors, and for just plain hanging in there!
In his own way and at his own pace, our 24-year-old son Nathan has been applying online for part-time jobs. The search has been all his idea, which is a huge step forward from his previous attitude about working.
He is seeking after-hours or behind-the-scenes jobs where there’s no customer interaction. He’s probably completed five or six applications over the last few months. While they all seem to have been submitted successfully, no one has contacted Nathan for an interview. So far, he hasn’t become discouraged – but if he continues to get zero results, it’ll be no surprise if he gives up.
I’ve been pondering how we might improve his odds for getting an interview. I suggested it might help if he’d introduce himself to the store manager shortly after submitting an application. Nathan (who doesn’t like people) is against that idea. “I don’t want to talk to anyone unless I know they’re interested in hiring me.”
Having heard that Walgreens has a good reputation for hiring people with disabilities, not long ago I stopped in one of their stores early on a weekday morning and asked to speak to the manager. I was hoping he wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to tell me how a young fellow like Nathan might increase his chances of getting hired.
The manager didn’t mind. In fact, once I explained our general situation, Joe spoke with great empathy and conviction about Walgreens employees with disabilities.
First, here’s what he said about the nuts-and-bolts of applying. Although I’d heard that online applications are often screened (and maybe eliminated) by an Applicant Tracking System, Joe said he sees all the ones for his store. On the applications he looks for basic things, like correct spelling and capitalization, that indicate the applicant made an effort. He realizes some candidates don’t have much of a work history, and doesn’t necessarily hold that against them.
Applicants who seem promising are asked to come in for a computer-based skills assessment in a back room. He’ll interview applicants who get a decent score (although on occasion he has hired bright people who didn’t do well on the assessment). For the interview, it helps when the candidate has made an effort to look presentable. At the same time, Joe prefers not being misled about an applicant’s everyday appearance. For instance, taking out all visible piercings for the interview but expecting to wear them on the job? Not good.
As for Nathan’s particular circumstances, Walgreens stores don’t have entry level behind-the-scenes jobs. Employees work in the store during store hours, and are expected to staff the cash register and otherwise assist customers as part of the job. We then talked about other types of stores, like Walmarts and supermarkets, that usually have positions more suitable for someone like Nathan.
With that said, Joe suggested Nathan could fill out an application, then come in to take the skills assessment – just to gain the experience of doing that. I’d be allowed to accompany him and help clarify any questions he didn’t understand. (One question that many applicants answer incorrectly talks about establishing rapport with a customer; most of them don’t know what “rapport” means.) The manager went a step further and said he’d even interview Nathan, to give him some real-world interview experience. How great is that?
Joe mentioned that he has visited the closest Walgreens distribution center, where people with disabilities comprise 15% of the workforce. He says overall they are a definite asset to the company, with good work habits and an upbeat attitude. A setting like that would be a better fit for Nathan than a Walgreens store; unfortunately, it’s at least a half-hour drive and not accessible by bus from where we live.
Finally, Joe told me about a corporate event a few years ago where all the store managers were gathered. A highly placed executive addressed the crowd about his determination to find a way for including people with disabilities in the Walgreens workforce. The executive’s motive? He has a son with autism, and was concerned about the lack of work opportunities for people like him.
Joe said the speech received a standing ovation, with many of the managers wiping away tears. And so a corporate commitment was born.
It was time to get on with my day. I thanked Joe for talking with me, and he offered his sincere best wishes for Nathan and our family.
When I later told Nathan about the manager’s offer for interview experience, he declined. But my chat with Joe was not a waste. I came away with insight into hiring practices, appreciation for one corporation’s commitment – and material for this blog post! Oh, and gratitude for the kind people of this world. Not a bad haul for fifteen minutes.
Most of us like getting gifts; most of us have unwrapped at least one in this festive month. But I’ll venture that the best gift people in dire circumstances could get, other than having all their problems magically disappear, is hope – new hope for better times ahead, based on real happenings that make it more than wishful thinking.
From the things I’ve learned while maintaining this blog, it seems to me that real hope is out there for our atypical young people:
Researchers continue to make connections and discoveries;
Therapists are working inside and outside the box to help their clients manage life’s challenges;
Improved financial support mechanisms, like ABLE accounts, are becoming a reality;
Many educators are committed to guiding atypical students through the learning process;
Families can access online resources and in-person support groups;
The damage that bullying can cause is increasingly recognized;
Innovative programs for housing, higher education, and employment are popping up; and
Media coverage is increasing – for instance, here’s one hour of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR devoted to supports for young people on the autism spectrum.
With all of this, the stigma is starting to diminish, ever so slightly. It’s encouraging to read and hear more about (for instance) the visual strengths of people on the spectrum, the innovative thinking of those with ADHD, or the creativity of many who have emotional challenges.
While much remains to be done, and we’re still a long way from the ideal, it is heartening to see the issues increasingly addressed and reframed. In words and actions, there’s real reason for hope.
Our family has new reasons for hope too. Nathan, who a few years ago was so down on himself and so bitter about society’s failings that he was ready to end his life, this year has willingly filled out applications for part-time work. Not only that, but he is gently prodding me to help him find more places to apply. Meanwhile, Alan had several “aha” moments this year that have led to a more mature outlook. He is less of a victim with problems someone else should fix, and more of a “I’m responsible for my efforts and choices” kind of guy.
When I started this blog about four years ago, I really didn’t expect to write a paragraph like the one above, ever.
Readers, I hope that over time you’ve found some useful knowledge and hope in the paragraphs of this blog. May your gift in the new year be new hope at a personal level. And may we all see positive changes for the broader community of neurodiverse young people.
This post from last month shared some practical tips for job searching I learned from Jackie Martin, president of Vocational Steps. When we met, Jackie and I also discussed the broader picture of employment for our neurodiverse young people. If you’d like to learn about that, read on!
In Jackie’s experience, when most employers consider whether to hire people with disabilities, they have no trouble curbing their enthusiasm – because they’d really rather not. Jackie says that when she meets with executives and asks them about hiring our young people, even if their mouths say “we’re interested,” their body language often says “not gonna happen.”
Perhaps these employers aren’t aware of the evidence showing that businesses come out ahead when they include the disabled on their staff. Low absenteeism and loyal, hard workers are among the advantages gained.
You might think that the tax incentives the government offers for hiring the disabled would make businesses more receptive. Unfortunately, obtaining those incentives means a lot of extra paperwork for the employer, whose response to the hassle is frequently “Meh – I’ll pass.”
Our family has had first-hand experience with businesses reluctant to hire atypical job-seekers. When our son Alan was getting help from the Dept. of Rehabilitation, he’d tell his employment specialist where he had applied, and she would phone the hiring manager as a follow-up to Alan’s application. The caseworker later told Alan (who had an ADHD diagnosis) that a lot of times when she’d call, the employer would ask whether his disability was physical or mental. When she’d start by saying “it falls more in the mental category,” before she could explain further they’d cut her off with, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any openings.”
There are some companies who are more proactive about hiring the disabled – and hooray for them! Some are really big; others are more local. I’ve heard from different sources that Home Depot, Walgreen’s, CVS and WalMart are among the businesses that are more inclusive of the disabled in their workforce. This link from DiversifyInc lists the top ten companies they find to be the best employers for the disabled.
The Vocational Steps website includes a link to Think Beyond the Label, which “creates opportunities for businesses and job-seekers with disabilities to connect.” The job-seeker can search for particular types of jobs in his or her area. To try it out, I searched for “sales associate” within 15 miles of my ZIP code and got 5 results: all at local Staples stores. We have many, many stores of all types in a 15-mile radius that are hiring in general; most of them must not be registered with TBTL.
An Internet search led me to a similar site called Getting Hired. In my brief test it didn’t locate too many opportunities where I live, but if you live in or near a major city, this might be another good place to start looking.
It occurs to me that businesses whose top executives are atypical (for instance, JetBlue founder David Neeleman has ADHD; Charles Schwab has dyslexia; many entrepreneurs have Asperger’s traits) might be more inclusive of atypical workers. The same would go for smaller businesses where the owner has a family member with challenges similar to those of our kiddos.
What if an employer is willing to hired the differently abled but isn’t sure how to make it work on a practical, efficient level? Consulting firms (such as Griffin-Hammis Associates) and some vocational rehabilitation counselors might be able to offer guidance. One strategy they might suggest is called “job carving.” First, the range of tasks performed in a company is reviewed. If an atypical worker could handle some of the tasks, those duties might be carved away from the workload of current employees and given to the eager new hire. This has the benefit of freeing up the existing employees to focus more of their time on higher-end tasks. Meanwhile the lower-end tasks are still getting done, without the employer paying higher-wage staff members to do them. It’s a win-win-win.
To become a successful employee, a job-seeker needs to either possess some useful skills or be trainable to acquire needed skills. For atypical young people who are wobbly on stamina and perseverance, making the time and monetary commitment for community college, trade school, or a four-year college may be out of reach. There just aren’t many low-cost, low-risk places where they can try their hand at a vocational skill to see if they like it, then get more training and practice with something they do like.
One such place Jackie told me about is Vocademy in Riverside, CA. It’s a “makerspace,” where anybody – teenager to senior citizen, neurodiverse or neurotypical – can come in and learn real-world, hands-on skills. The introductory classes are free, after which the participant might pay $45 – $130 for a 4-hour class plus the cost of materials. There are no grades, tests, or semesters; it’s possible to switch to another skill at any time. The participant can decide how much skill he or she wants to acquire in doing things like (among others) 3D Printing, Laser Engraving, Welding, Woodshop, Sewing, Home and Construction, Costumes and Prop Making, and Programming and Coding. Those wanting to practice what they’ve learned in class can buy a membership, which allows them to use the tools and space at the Vocademy facility in the afternoon and evening. Memberships generally run from $100 to $150 per month.
One of Jackie’s goals is to create another program, based on the Vocademy model, that would provide training and access to skills that commonly fall in the atypical young person’s wheelhouse, including culinary arts, video game design, and software testing.
Brainstorming further, I’m wondering whether some programs for at-risk youth could be adapted to our kiddos. For instance, I read about one program in Los Angeles for teens with a criminal record where they are trained to direct and monitor webcams recording activities of wildlife in Alaska. Something like that might appeal to lots of our young people who think differently!
It’s clear we need innovative thinking (and doing) to increase the opportunities for our young people. Their current job-seeking climate is mostly dismal. We need alternative ways to improve the skills sets of our young people, and we need more employers to get on board with giving them a chance. With that, we can change the dynamic for a growing atypical population that, because of limited opportunity, experiences repeated rejection when attempting to earn a paycheck and do something useful.