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What is Project SEARCH? 

Project SEARCH began in 1996 while Erin Riehle was working as the Director of the Emergency Department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Erin was frustrated with a high turnover rate in entry-level jobs, such as materials management posts that involved restocking supplies in examination rooms.  She was also interested in expanding the hospital’s diversity initiative and wondered if people with disabilities could fill these entry-level posts. She turned to Great Oaks Vocational Training College and the local authority to ask if her idea was feasible. In partnership with these organisations, the idea of filling a handful of jobs in Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department evolved into a comprehensive internship and employment model—Project SEARCH.

Project SEARCH has grown from one site at Cincinnati Children’s to over 225 sites across 40 states and four countries. Project SEARCH business partners include Fifth Third Bank, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, University of Aberdeen, GSK, the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, Bristol and Bath and North East Somerset Councils, and many others. Project SEARCH’s primary objective is to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities.

Project SEARCH is driven by collaboration among the following community partners:

v  Hospital or Business: hosts the programme and supplies internships

v  Local School or College: supplies the on site teacher and interns

v  Access to Work: funds job coaching, job development, and ongoing support

v  Supported Employment Agency: provides on site job coaching and external job development

v  Families: support the intern through the process and assist with the job search

What kind of jobs/task and departments can the interns perform?

Our experience tells us that intern interns can perform well in many support roles in a variety of departments and settings. They often excel at complex yet systematic tasks that are time intensive, equipment intensive, or paper/computer intensive.  Some examples include organising surgical trays that have between 20 and 150 instruments; cleaning and sterilising incubators with multiple parts; stocking supplies in clinics, emergency departments, and on patient floors; transporting patients; preparing clinic examination rooms between visits (this can include retrieving patient files); greeting families and escorting the patient to his or her examination room; electronic filing and scanning; delivering supplies or specimens (courier); performing a variety of laboratory tasks; working in nutrition services or customer service; operating a switchboard; etc.   With training and minimal adjustments the interns can learn and perform complex tasks that lead to jobs in the community or at the host business. 

Where do the interns come from?

Project SEARCH interns are special education interns in their last year of education. Interns must interview and be accepted into Project SEARCH.  Each program site has as one of its partners a local school or college that identifies interns to apply for the programme. Interns have to meet certain eligibility criteria based on their interests and prior experiences and skills.  Applicants participate in a selection process, which includes hands-on assessments and an interview with representatives from the school and host business, and a final selection is made based on their performance and overall aptitude, and their desire to work in the community at the end of the program.

Who will train the interns?

Each Project SEARCH programme has an instructor and job coach on site.  These professionals work together to train the interns with input from staff in the department where the internship takes place.  Before the programme begins, the job coach and instructor will develop a job description for each intern by identifying core tasks at each internship site. The Project SEARCH job coach and instructor are on site at the business each day to work with the interns, visit all of the internship sites, and give guidance and support where needed.  If there are any problems with the interns during the rotations, the manager or mentor can contact the tinstructor or job coach for immediate assistance.

How do the roles of the instructor and job coach compare?

The instructorr typically acts as the programme coordinator and case manager for the interns.  S/he also plans and delivers the employability skills curriculum, which consists of 12 different units that teach skills necessary to succeed on the job.  The instructor is appointed by the partner school or college.  The job coach is usually appointed by a supported employment agency.  The job coach will have primary responsibility for training the interns at the internship sites so that the intern acquires marketable skills.  However, the two work as a team and there is some overlap in their responsibilities so that the intern can be successful in reaching the goal of employment.

What is the process for matching one of the interns to a department? 

The Project SEARCH instructor, job coach, and department managers will discuss strengths and interests of the interns, and compare them to the skills to be learned in each possible internship rotation.  In addition, each intern will develop a career goal and a training plan.  Based on the goal, the team will identify possible internship rotations that develop relevant marketable job skills. With this information, the instructor and job coach will make preliminary matches during the first few weeks of the programme (the induction period).  Managers will interview individuals to give them an opportunity to screen potential interns and make a final selection. If the manager accepts the intern based on the interview and information from the team, s/he will call and confirm the internship appointment with the intern. 

How does the manager get information about working with the intern? Can the manager ask about the intern’s disability?

Before the intern begins their internship, the Project SEARCH instructor and job coach will share helpful information about interacting with and supervising the intern.  Individual training strategies and tools can be shared. Sometimes an intern may wish to talk directly to the department staff about how he or she best learns information and acquires skills.  This can be a dynamic engagement activity and provides a forum for people to get to know the intern better. It also gives the intern an opportunity to practice his presentation skills.

What if an intern needs a special piece of equipment to perform his/her duties?

If an intern needs a special piece of equipment or a simple adaptation to perform his or her job duties, it can be purchased by one of the partners or applied for through Access to Work. The manager will be consulted, and approval of the business must be obtained before any such equipment is acquired for use at the internship site. Implementation of equipment or adaptive technology, such as special voice-recognition software for someone with a visual impairment or a simple app for an iPad, will be facilitated by the job coach and practiced at the internship site so that the intern can become proficient at the task with this Reasonable Adjustment.

Once the intern masters the core skills, can they be trained for additional skills and tasks?

The goal for Project SEARCH intern interns is to gain employment using the skills they learn through their internships. Therefore, it is beneficial for interns to become more marketable by learning as many complex and varied skills as possible.  As the interns become proficient at a given set of tasks, they work to increase their productivity, quality, and accuracy. It is also valuable for interns to be cross trained in other areas.

Are the interns employees of the business?

Interns participate in Project SEARCH as unpaid interns. Some are working towards qualifications as well as learning valuable work and employability skills. This is a unique opportunity for them to experience the workplace in a quality organisation, network with professionals, and gain marketable skills that will facilitate their employment in their community.  To that end, the interns have agreed to follow the dress code and code of conduct of the business, rather than the behaviour and dress codes of their school or college. This is a valuable piece of their learning, and the Project SEARCH instructor and job coach, along with internship managers, will implement the same disciplinary procedures that are used for employees in cases of attendance problems or inappropriate behaviour.  Any drastic measures, such as possible removal from the programme, needs to be handled by a team of people that includes the internship manager, the Project SEARCH instructor, the strategic education partner, and a member of the intern’s family.  Also, if a intern is doing very well in their internship, they can be nominated for typical workplace awards and other recognitions.  They should also be included in events such holiday lunches, community service, team-building activities, etc.  These are wonderful opportunities for interns to practice important employability skills such as appropriate workplace conversations, teamwork, and social skills.

How will the interns be evaluated and how is that evaluation communicated?

The instructor, job coach and department mentor will all use the same instrument to evaluate progress, document concerns, and add new skills. The intern will also use this tool for self-evaluation.  In this way, the team gets a 360-degree assessment with constructive feedback for improvement.  The department mentor will be selected by the manager as the single point of contact for the intern, job coach and instructor.  The department mentor will not interact with the family, guardian or other support personnel.  The teacher and job coach will have sole responsibility for communicating directly with the families.    

What if the intern isn’t a good match for a department? 

Interns will be encouraged to stay a minimum of two weeks at any internship, even if it doesn’t seem to be a good match at first.  If a significant problem develops in an internship, the Project SEARCH teacher and job coach will brainstorm a variety of solutions with the manager and the rest of the intern’s employment planning team. If the issue isn’t resolved in an appropriate amount of time, Project SEARCH staff can find an alternate site for the intern that meets everyone’s needs.

What are the interns’ daily, weekly, and annual schedules?

Project SEARCH usually follows the academic calendar.  Interns begin the programme in August/September (or whenever the education partner begins its academic year) and end in June/July. The year will begin with a three-week induction period in which the intern learns his or her way around the facility and is introduced to a variety of internships. During the induction period, interns participate in typical new employee activities and training sessions on issues such as safety, confidentiality, the code of conduct, etc.  During the remainder of the year, each intern participates in three unpaid internships, each for approximately ten weeks, learning marketable skills with the goal of employment at the end of the year at the host site or with another employer in their local communities. Interns are not paid during the internships, but they often earn accreditation in employability and business qualifications and gain experience for their CVs (much like a intern nursing programme). To maximise their opportunities for career exploration, interns will move to a new internship about every ten weeks. In this way, they will gain three separate experiences over the course of the year, which will allow them to learn a variety of new skills to add to their CVs and reach their career goals.  A department cannot be guaranteed a intern for each rotation period, as this will depend on the number of interns and their interests, and the number of internships developed within the host business.

The daily schedule also follows the academic schedule, but could vary according to transport schedules and/or the business’s needs.  If available, interns will use public transport to get to the host Project SEARCH site. A typical day might be:

8:50 am: Arrival at the host business

9:00 am – 10:00 am:  Employability Skills curriculum in the Project SEARCH training room

10:00 am – 3:00 pm:  Internship (with a 30 minute break for lunch)

3:00 pm – 3:30 pm:  Review of the day (especially any challenges or issues, additional employability skills curriculum, journaling)

3:40 pm   Adjournment and departure to return home via public transport

The desired outcome and final goal of Project SEARCH is competitive employment.  Many interns will reach that goal by the end of the year.  For those interns who have not achieved employment by the end of the academci year, the supported employment organisation and Local Authority will continue to work with each Project SEARCH graduate until they secure a job at the host site or with another employer in the community using the skills they learned in the programme.

What if the interns parent or guardian calls or wants to visit the internship?

Communication from the families should flow through the Project SEARCH instructor and job coach.  Except in special circumstances, it would not be appropriate for a family member to visit the intern on the job. A lunch visit could be arranged through the Project SEARCH staff. If a family member calls regarding skill development, progress, an issue or problem, please direct them to the Project SEARCH on-site staff. 

What will the interns wear? 

The interns will follow the same dress code as the employees in their internship department. If employees are wearing scrubs, the interns will also wear that attire. In departments where other workers wear business casual, the interns may wear Project SEARCH polo shirts and khaki or black trousers.

What happens if the employer want to recruit an intern during the academic year?

The goal of Project SEARCH is employment, so if an intern gains marketable skills that match labour market needs in your department or organisation, we encourage the host business to consider that Project SEARCH intern as a viable candidate.  Interns can be recruited at any time during the year and can continue to use the job coach and other supports that they used as interns, as needed, in the new employment situation. As a new employee, the Project SEARCH intern should receive market-value compensation if they are able to perform satisfactorily in the post.   

In what other Project SEARCH events might an employer participate?  

There will be many opportunities to assist in endorsing and communicating Project SEARCH internally throughout the business as well as to the community.  Managers will be encouraged to participate in Open Houses, tours, and information events about Project SEARCH to recruit the next class of interns and to promote awareness of the program to local schools, colleges and community organisations.  Managers might also be asked to reach out to colleagues at other businesses in the community to encourage the specific recruitment of an intern whose skill set is aligned with an available job.  The business will also consider establishing a Business Advisory Committee to encourage employment opportunities for the Project SEARCH interns. All managers and host business liaisons are invited to the annual Project SEARCH conferences. Department managers and mentors can be great assets to these action-oriented networking groups. All of these activities will help in achieving the goal of Project SEARCH: employment for each graduate.