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Project Skills: Building Abilities Instead of Focusing on Disability

January 30, 2020

The South Dakota Retailers Association (SDRA) has been and continues to be a strong partner of the South Dakota Vocational Rehabilitation (VR's) programs. In fact, SDRA recently completed an article on VR's Project Skills program in which a career exploration opportunity for high school students with disabilities in South Dakota. Project Skills is a collaborative effort between VR, businesses, and local school districts throughout the state offering opporunities for youth to explore their career interests and also develop skills. With full credit given to SDRA, please read the following article.

Project Skills:
Building Abilities Instead of Focusing on Disability
From three to five days a week, a high school student with disabilities can be found facing shelves and doing other work to help keep product displays and aisles in order at Ken’s SuperFair Foods in Aberdeen. A job coach from the Aberdeen School District stands nearby, providing training and work tips.
The student is gaining work experience as part of the Project Skills program, at no cost to the store.
Unique to South Dakota, Project Skills offers career exploration or paid work experience opportunities for high school students with disabilities. To be eligible, a student must be 16 or older and have a permanent disability that results in barriers to employment.
Two state vocational rehabilitation programs – the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) and Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBVI) – head up the program in cooperation with local school districts throughout the state.
Once a student’s career interests have been identified through an application and interview process, a school district representative will reach out to a local business that matches those interests to determine if there’s a potential for a work experience that will last up to 250 hours.
“The school representative will work with the business to identify potential work tasks the student can complete,” DRS business specialist Kimberly Ludwig tells SDRA. “They also want to acquire a better understanding of the work environment so they will know if there’s a need for job coaching services or individualized support, especially when the student is getting started.”
The school representative handles some or all of the training and onboarding process on behalf of the employer, provides job coaching, ongoing monitoring, and maintains contact with the employer. Supports provided by schools depend on an individual student’s needs.
Costs associated with the work experience - including wages, FICA payroll deductions and workers’ comp – are handled by DRS and SBVI.
Some long-term benefits for students include a higher rate of education and competitive employment beyond high school.
 “High school students with disabilities may not be provided opportunities to explore their career interests, especially if individuals have significant disabilities that may require more on-the-job support,” Ludwig noted. “It’s a benefit for them to explore their career interests and develop transferable work skills that can be continued throughout their lives beyond high school.”
She says businesses benefit by gaining access to an untapped labor pool, and by learning how to work with employees with disabilities.
Several of the Ken’s SuperFair Foods stores have participated in Project Skills. This year, their Aberdeen and Ipswich stores are participating.
Aberdeen store manager Paul Vetch says once a student is trained, the amount of time the coach spends at the store varies depending on the student. The coach may remain with the student each time they’re at work, or may spend a few minutes with the student at the start of each shift then leave. Vetch said some Project Skills students have learned the job quickly and thrived with just a weekly check by the job coach.
Vetch believes it’s a great experience for students to gain an understanding of what a job really entails, and to learn important skills. Working in a grocery store, he notes, gives them a chance to develop good organizational skills, as well as crucial customer service skills.
“We stress nothing is more important than customer service in our store,” he told SDRA. “Being able to say hello and greet customers isn’t always easy for all employees, no matter if they’re in Project Skills or not. Some people are just naturally bubbly, but not everyone is. That’s a skill that can be learned.”
Not all of the student/business pairings work out for various reasons. But as Vetch points out, he’s hired many other employees over the years who haven’t worked out either. One of the advantages of Project Skills is that the job coach from the school district will work with the student and the business to try to resolve any issues.
In some cases, what starts out as a temporary work experience turns into a long-term position. Several of Vetch’s current employees started out at the store as Project Skills students, including one individual who has worked for the store for over 15 years.
Vetch says the program has proven to be good for the students, the business and the community.

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