Pittsburgh is home to many organizations that specialize in worker development. One of the leaders in this cause is the Community College of Allegheny County Community Training and Development. Led by Director Mary Jo Guercio, the Community Training and Development program helps local community members with disabilities prepare for career paths that can lead to financial independence.
Creating Career Opportunities for People with Disabilities
CCAC has made a commitment to people with intellectual, behavioral, and emotional disabilities through four different programs:
Nursing Assistant/Health Care Professional
Indoor/Outdoor Building Maintenance
The Community Training and Development program assists a population that is frequently overlooked. “What many people don’t realize is that among all minority groups, people with disabilities have the highest unemployment rates,” Guercio explains. “Through the Community Training and Development programs, we can cut those numbers and help people with disabilities access jobs.”
Intense Classroom Sessions
To prepare their students for the workforce, CCAC requires rigorous classroom standards. Students come to school dressed in industry-appropriate uniforms. From Monday through Thursday, students learn theory and hands-on training. On Fridays, students cover real-world employment skills, like preparing for interviews, interacting with co-workers, and workplace communication.
Though theory and employment skills are important, students spend the bulk of their classroom time emphasizing hands-on training. For instance, the Indoor/Outdoor Building Maintenance program may spend time studying a lawnmower and the importance of the ignition, the blade, and other components, but the majority of their time is spent with students physically working on the machine so they can apply the theories they learn.
While hands-on experience is important, another factor in classroom training is helping students find new ways to overcome their disabilities. The ability to properly mix chemicals, for example, is an important skill in the Environmental Services/Housekeeping program, but this is a difficult challenge for students who have trouble reading. In these cases, professors teach students how to mark their measuring cups so they can rely on visual cues instead of reading words and numbers.
To get as much value as possible out of training sessions, CCAC designed each classroom to feel like a job site. “The front half of our Janitorial Services Lab is set up like a hotel,” Guercio says. “And in the back room, where the slop sink is, students can find their mops, brooms, strippers, scrubbers, vacuums, cleaners, water, bottles, and carts. They come in, set up their carts, and then go out into the hotel to work.”
In addition to custom-designed environments, CCAC also ensures each student goes beyond the required training hours for their industry. According to Guercio, the typical nursing assistant program requires around 160 hours of combined classroom and clinical training. Through the Community Training and Development program, however, Nursing Assistant/Health Care Professional students receive 900 hours of combined training. The extra time helps to cement facts, procedures, and skills into every student who graduates from the program.
Job Placement and Accommodations
Thanks to the small classroom sizes, professors can create individualized lesson plans for each student. “A great example of this is in our Food Service program,” Guercio says. “Every student will spend time working at each station in our kitchen. Over time, we’ll watch to see where their strengths are. In the second semester, we hone in on that strength.” So, if a student’s highest ability level is the dishwasher, the professors work on increasing that individual’s productivity with that machine. Once the student graduates, they have a unique skill set that can help them stand out from the rest of the job force.
Near the end of the second semester, each student spends four to six weeks in a practicum or clinical. To help, faculty members visit the job site with each student to help them learn where everything is and translate the skills they developed in the classroom into a new environment. “We’re there for support on the last leg of their journey,” Guercio says. The extra effort CCAC puts in pays off. Many of the practicums and clinicals turn into job offers after the students graduate.
Success in the Community
CCAC’s program prepares students to excel, with many graduates rising to supervisor positions or even starting their own businesses.
One graduate, Tony, is an exemplary example of the program’s effectiveness. Tony has worked his way up to the Supervisor of Environmental Services at the Sisters of Divine Providence Motherhouse. When he has an opening, CCAC is the first organization he calls because he knows how well it trains people.
Another example is a woman who opened her own cleaning business. After finishing the environmental services/housekeeping program, she found she loved being able to see the results of her efforts so quickly. She has been in business now for nearly two decades!