As the state unemployment rate continues to hover around 8 percent, one Hillsboro-based job resource center continues to partner with employers throughout the Portland metro area, providing training and support to clients who have had an even harder time than most securing steady SUBMITTED PHOTO - Dan has worked at Regal Cinemas Movies on TV in Hillsboro for almost 12 years and is responsible for a variety of cleaning tasks to keep the theater looking sharp.

Since 1986, private nonprofit Abilities at Work has supported job-seekers with developmental disabilities by providing job skills training, job placement and ongoing support. With state and federal funding, AAW secures prospective employers through what executive Gerald Pearce compares to a “cold-calling” approach. Each job is created around the individual client and his specific abilities and needs.

AAW is licensed to receive potential employee referrals from throughout Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties, Pearce explained. AAW’s team of employment developers and jobs specialists then profile each individual.

“We need to get to know the individuals first,” Pearce says. “We try to find out what their interests are, how the individual learns. (The program) has to be very individualized for the person for us to be successful.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Mychal paricipates in computer classes through Abilities at Works computer education program. With AAWs support, Mychal has worked for Kaiser Permanente as a clerical support specialist.

AAW’s 37 employer partners include Fred Meyer, Forest Grove Library, McMenamins, Nike and the Oregon Zoo.

“We have to be straight up about what the individuals we serve can do,” Pearce says.

Lack of experience

One of the biggest hurdles, according to Pearce, is most clients’ relative lack of job experience in the community. At its sites in Hillsboro and southeast Portland, AAW provides classes on job skills that range from proper dress to punctuality to appropriate social behavior at the workplace. Classes often include mock job interviews and group discussion of past work experiences.

After that, Pearce said, “our job is to match the right person to the right job.”

AAW currently serves about 95 clients whose professional responsibilities include custodial duties and assembly in a manufacturing setting. Once an employee is placed, AAW provides support on a case by case basis. For some clients, that means members of the AAW staff will stay with a client for his entire shift during his first weeks on the job, until the AAW can comfortably “fade away” as the employee grows more confident in his new workplace. Other employees require only periodic check-ins from AAW staff.

“Giving the individuals AAW serves the opportunity to succeed in a real employment setting, and to be productive, active members of our society is so important to the health of our community,” said Tracy Puhl, owner of Glad Rags in southeast Portland. Her business, which specializes in eco-friendly feminine hygiene products, has been an AAW employer since 1999.

“We have had between one and four adults with developmental disabilities come in to do packaging for us one afternoon a week,” Puhl said. “Now we have a more independent individual whose employment specialist checks in at the end of his shift. She works with him both on improving his on-the-job skills and his communication and social skills with us.”

Puhl has found her AAW employees to be an asset to her business. She has also been impressed with how AAW employment specialists have ensured that employers such as Puhl effectively utilize employees’ skills.

Work side by side

Job-seekers who require ongoing supervision are sometimes placed in an administrative office at Kaiser Permanente medical center in downtown Portland, where they work side by side with AAW staff who can provide ongoing direction on clerical tasks, such as collating papers.

Pearce describes AAW’s office at Kaiser Permanente as “an enclave” where some employees have worked for 20 years or more. Other AAW clients at this office develop skills that enable them to then take “more independent” jobs elsewhere with less supervision.

AAW’s success stories are many: One client suffered acute issues with anxiety that affected his work attendance record; with AAW’s support, he has been able to hold down a job at a local restaurant. AAW worked with a job seeker whose short-term memory problems proved a challenge during job training — by creating a unique system of signs, as well as an instructional picture book, AAW helped the client settle into a regular routine at McMenamins Grand Lodge in Forest Grove. Another AAW -supported employee has worked assembly at Forest Medical Products, Inc. in Hillsboro for the past 15 years.

Although grateful for AAW’s ongoing partnerships with more than three dozen Portland-area employers, Pearce acknowledged that in a time of economic downturn, it is difficult to persuade companies to take a chance on a new work program. But forging new partnerships is essential to AAW.

“The individuals we serve have a lot of ability and a lot of opportunity for growth,” Pearce said, “but that doesn’t happen unless there’s a business willing to give us that opportunity.”

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