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Customized Workforce Solutions: Transitioning into Employment

By Darcie Gore

“I was anxious about what the outcome would be,” said Peter Evans. “My son has many strengths, and I knew those strengths would stand him in good stead. But I remember thinking ‘now we have to find the next thing.’ That was difficult.”

The process of preparing students for adult life after high school is daunting. Questions about career, housing, college and money loom even closer as a student approaches graduation. Critical questions to a young adult’s sense of self: “What am I passionate about?” “What am I good at?”

The same is true for young adults with disabilities.

In 2022, 21.3 percent of persons with a disability were employed, up from 19.1 percent in 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported. However, on average, people with disabilities accounted for only 4% of employed Americans in 2022.

“This is the biggest gray area for parents and educators – what’s next for a child with special needs after graduation,” says Evans.

Peter Evans and his son, Jamie, who has Intellectual Disability (ID), live in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania. When he was five and half years old, Jamie’s parents enrolled him at The Vanguard School, an approved private school in Malvern. Now at 26, Jamie has two jobs, one of which he refers to as his “dream job.”

“It’s true that people with disabilities often face significant barriers to finding employment, both in learning applicable job skills and employers’ awareness of their capabilities,” says Christine Coughenour. “But that doesn’t have to stop them.”

Coughenour leads Customized Workforce Solutions (CWS), a service offered by Valley Forge Educational Services, the parent organization of The Vanguard School. CWS’ purpose is to connect people with disabilities to meaningful employment, so they can bring their diverse talents to the workforce.

“We’ve found,” says Coughenour, “that most people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed despite an ability and a desire to work. And they are quite capable of doing so given the right supports.”

CWS prepares working-age adults for all types of job settings. There are currently 65 neurodiverse adults taking advantage of the service. Some are seeking jobs and others are receiving help to maintain employment. CWS works with adults with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities, autism, and those needing help with communication and independence.

How is this done? CWS employment specialists, professionals who help those with disabilities gain and maintain employment, put a special focus on the job-seeker. They go through a personalized evaluation that helps people with disabilities understand and cultivate their strengths, discover their career interests, define goals and understand workplace dynamics.

“Pre-employment services were really important to our process because [of] this assessment,” says Evans. “We [the parents] got to express how we felt Jamie would do, where his strengths were, what motivated him, things he wouldn’t consider exciting, or things that could make for a rough experience – what not to do. We teased apart all the possibilities.”

Once assessed, the employment specialist goes to work, digging for and matching employment opportunities to the person seeking work. The second phase centers on prepping individuals for interviews, helping with resume writing, and arranging for transportation.

“Our employment specialist, Summer… she was really great. She would bring in six job options at once and we would all go through them, checking boxes. It was interesting to me that Jamie would occasionally check different boxes. It was really beneficial to everyone.”

After researching several possibilities, Jamie landed an interview with Wilkie Lexus – an automotive dealership in Haverford, Pa. He received a job offer that same day about a year and a half ago. The job opportunity came partially through a connection at Vanguard and required a high degree of focus, speed and attention to detail, some of Jamie best qualities.

“I scan service documents for their customer and loaner cars,” says Jamie. “There are these 3-digit numbers that need to be scanned. If anything’s missing, I find it and type it down.” Dad chimes in, “Once he said, ‘Dad, today I entered 375 documents.’ I thought, wow, that’s a new record!”

“But Audi Devon is my true dream job,” Jamie chimes in proudly. I’ve been there for six years. I work with cars. Whenever they’re stain covered, like by dirt or mud, we [use solutions to] easily remove grease and dirt. I’m getting pretty fast at detailing. It’s like being in NASCAR or something.”

Despite success stories like Jamie’s, many students with disabilities and their families don’t know about employment services or have difficulty accessing them. Perhaps this is why people with disabilities, who make up the largest minority in the United States, are disproportionately underrepresented in the workforce. In Pennsylvania alone, only 31% of people with disabilities are employed while 80% of neurotypical/nondisabled people have jobs.

Generally speaking, most major life transitions require an early start to planning for successful outcomes. “We get most of our CWS participants though referrals from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR),” says Coughenour. “And most of them are over the working age of 18.”

Coughenour and her team of 6 employment specialists are seeing more and more interested participants for the first time between the ages of 22 and 25, with most learning about CWS through OVR. Summer Headley is among these specialists and has been working with Jamie for two years.

“Some people just aren’t ready for work after high school,” says Headley. “But I think there’s a bigger issue. Many families don’t know we exist or what we do. I mean, CWS is a major asset to families in the special needs community whose adult children are facing that cliff after aging out. But that ‘cliff’ doesn’t have to be there.”

At The Vanguard School, the process of transition, moving a student from school to work and life, as established under Federal Guidelines, starts at age 14 and continues to age 22. Between the ages of 14 and 17, the focus begins with mostly on-campus activities and some community-based training. Between the ages of 18 and 22, students start to experience more off-site, real work activities in partnership with companies or community organizations.

If a student desires to work, and is between the ages of 18 and 22, employment services can begin. These services are funded through OVR or Waiver Services. Both OVR and Waivers are funding streams for the participant who want to enter CWS and should be applied for early on – before age 18.

 To better ensure timely access to services after high school, families should work with their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team earlier. “Develop a detailed plan while your student is in their sophomore or junior year,” says Headley. “Don’t wait. Starting with OVR can be a long process and some families get lost in it. I think we have to educate people about CWS so students and their families start the funding process with OVR much earlier.” National research suggests the best way to support students with special needs is to create a strong network of communication and data sharing between all agencies, educators and employers who work with them.

“We must commit to spreading the word about CWS and the employment services out there,” says Headley. “It’s important for awareness and connecting young adults to a ladder of support.”

Peter agreed. When asked what advice he’d give parents starting the employment journey, Peter sat back. “Lean on your child’s strengths because there are more than you know. As parents and educators, we spend all this time and energy. We don’t want our son or daughter to turn 21 and be sitting around watching TV. Be a productive member of society. If we miss that step, what a loss, because there’s all this potential waiting. Let’s figure out how to enable it.”

Valley Forge Educational Services (VFES) offers a continuum of educational, recreational and employment-related services for people with disabilities. VFES is committed to helping students and participants develop a strong sense of self-worth to realize their value as contributing members of the community through its signature programs: The Vanguard School and Adult and Recreation Services (ARS) and the VFES employment service, Customized Workforce Solutions (CWS).