Published January 18, 2011
Volume 19, Number 1

Project SEARCH Supported Employment Looking to Place Program Graduates 

East Bay Innovations empowers Alameda County individuals with developmental disabilities to live more independently.

Recognizing that having a job is one of the primary routes to this goal, the organization offers a time-tested supported employment program, Project SEARCH. During a year of training, offered in partnership with Children’s Hospital, the County of Alameda’s downtown Oakland offices, and, soon, Kaiser Permanente, Project SEARCH student interns get a chance to work in three different departments at one of the participating sites. The interns graduate with many administrative support skills valued in a variety of industries. Armed with their new skills, they are placed individually with outside employers, with Project SEARCH personnel on hand for coaching and support. Given the almost 70 percent unemployment rate for adults with disabilities, the program has an important role to play.

Cathy Nielsen is an Employment Consultant with the local nonprofit. “Our specialty is working with people with intellectual impairment, identifying their strengths and skills and what really motivates them. Then we find a work environment with tasks that are perfectly matched to bring out their strengths. The disability is minimized; it does not melt away, but it is no longer a factor.”

Since the aim of Project SEARCH is long-term stability, the program seeks genuine career opportunities that allow clients to become fully integrated in the work environment. In contrast to other services that might assign people with disabilities to a temporary post—for example, as a way to deal with seasonal business peaks—Nielsen concentrates on situations that hold out the promise for permanent life change. Lay-offs are disheartening to everyone, but in this case they can be seriously counter-productive. “If that’s the pattern, it becomes very hard to motivate people to try again,” she says.

The best fit in the workplace is in a job with consistent high-volume routine tasks, which the nonprofit helps potential employers identify. “Often, these tasks are the kinds of things that higher paid professional employees would like to delegate to someone else, to free them up to do their own work,” she points out. Sometimes the tasks need to be modified or adapted to the individual's capabilities, but the revisions are often a streamlining that benefits workflow through the entire business, in a process known as “universal design change.”

Each worker has a job coach who starts on the job simultaneously, working one-on-one for about 90 days, until competency is established. Once the individual is independent, the job coach's involvement fades over time, ultimately to about 20 percent of the work schedule. “We find this a really important strategic tool,” Nielsen comments. That extra assistance prevents problems, immediate and long-term. For example, “if an upcoming change in job tasks is foreseen, the coach can plan in advance to make more time available to teach new skills,” she notes.

While many Project SEARCH alumni are already deployed in companies throughout the county, Nielsen is looking to place the latest class of graduates. Reaching out to Hacienda employers, she issues an open invitation to meet and learn more about how this service can benefit their business. For more information, visit www.eastbayinnovations.com or contact Nielsen at (510) 521-4438.


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