This March, College of the Canyons will begin its partnership with the Uniquely Abled Project to train individuals with high-functioning autism to operate Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines and begin independent careers at well-known Santa Clarita companies.
The partnership aims to place the Uniquely Abled Academy’s graduates into well-paid jobs while also filling a shortage in the manufacturing industry and changing the public perception of those with disabilities.
“Besides the skills aspect… We hope to do away with some of the myths and stigmas and misinformation about this workforce that has all this potential and has been basically untapped in the right way,” said Mike Bastine, director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies (CACT) at COC who will be heading the college’s Uniquely Abled Academy.
COC’s 12-week program will include on-the-job training, soft skills lessons and job readiness training and will work with local businesses to place graduates in high-performing positions.
The academy is expected to follow the Uniquely Abled Academy’s pilot program that launched at Glendale Community College in June 2016.
“A lot of the development work took place at Glendale and COC is building on that,” said Ivan Rosenberg, a management consultant who founded the Uniquely Abled Project in 2013. “There has been absolutely no resistance to collaboration, it’s been extraordinary. They all are focused on the same thing: having these people have productive lives and jobs.”
Creating the Uniquely Abled Academy
The idea for the Uniquely Abled Academy was conceived nearly five years ago, in 2013, when Rosenberg, a father of two children on the autism spectrum, began working with Exceptional Minds and the Exceptional Children’s Foundation.
“One of the things I saw is the parents that created that didn’t look at what their kids couldn’t do, they looked at what their kids do and what they enjoyed doing and where there were potential jobs,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg saw the potential to expand this idea to other industries in positions that are well-suited for those with high-functioning autism, or positions where employees followed objective orders as they completed repetitive work alone.
“I started thinking that there are all these jobs out there that are a fit for this population,” Rosenberg said. “I realized the word ‘disabled’ was an obstacle… We have to have a word that has people look at the unique talents because everyone who has a diagnosis has a compensating strength… So I coined the term ‘uniquely abled’ so we can look at the unique abilities of people with autism.”
And thus began the Uniquely Abled Project, a collaboration between machine technology educators, specialists in education for those with autism, representatives from state and local service agencies and non-profit and for-profit organizations.
Through the project, colleges and universities partner with the organization to form their own Uniquely Abled Academy where individuals are trained, placed in the workforce and given on-going support, while upholding the project’s overall goal to employee those with disabilities.
“We have two purposes. One is to shift the societal paradigm from ‘disabled’ to ‘uniquely abled,’” Rosenberg said. “The second goal is to have people who are uniquely abled be able to fully exploit that through these academies and not just autism and CNC but have other people look at other combinations of diagnoses and jobs and form the academy.”
Success at Glendale Community College
A major focus of the Uniquely Abled Academy is placing individuals in industries where manufacturing is done primarily by CNC machines.
“They can’t find enough operators, they can’t find people to run the machines,” Rosenberg said.
After meeting with industries in the South Bay and with education leaders for more than a year, Rosenberg opened the academy’s pilot program for CNC operators at Glendale Community College in June 2016.
The program was an overwhelming success. The 11 students in the first cohort completed their training and were all placed in full-time jobs.
“The feedback from the employers has been off the chart,” Rosenberg said. “The theory was right. Running a CNC machine is a perfect match for someone with autism and they ought to be able to run that machine better than someone neurotypical.”
The Academy at COC
Following the success at Glendale Community College, COC decided last summer to open their own Uniquely Abled Academy.
“They seemed to have gotten timely placement and the trainees all received advancement, pay increases and successful evaluations from employers,” Bastine said. “All of that helped us decide how to do it ourselves.”
For more than eight months, COC has worked to develop the program, partner with employers, train teachers and recruit students.
“We’ve had general meetings regularly, now the big thing has been a recruiting effort to make the community and educators aware of the program,” Bastine said.
When the pilot program launches March 19, it will be an independently owned and operated non-profit academy.
“Each academy is independent,” Rosenberg said. “COC will be COC’s Uniquely Abled Academy and they have to raise the money for it and get it going. Our job is to get them going and to be a communication resource and maybe have a conference.”
Bastine expects the program’s first cohort to include 10 students who will participate in more than 420 of laboratory training and instruction during the 12-week academy.
They also will learn about team building, communication, time management and other soft skills.
“These are all things employers and industries are looking for with any population, Bastine said.
Students will then be placed in entry-level positions as CNC operators, machinist apprentices and machine trainees in local companies that have CNC manufacturing, like aerospace and defense companies.
“We can train them into what we do uniquely, but they have got to have this foundation and motivation and want to learn and be there ready to go,” Bastine said. “This will be an entry-level position for people, it’s a career.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_