April 21, 2010

“For Some, On Campus Employment Provides More than Just a Paycheck.”

History tells us that during difficult economic times, jobs and the people that work these jobs suffer. This is particularly true as it relates to employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities in our community. Thanks to a little-known partnership between the Eau Claire Area School District and Sodexo, a group of high school students enrolled in special education programming at both Eau Claire North and Eau Claire Memorial have been developing their employability skills on campus at several UWEC Dining venues.

The UWEC Work Skills Program has been operating in different capacities on campus for over the past decade. In the program, students from both city high-schools are enrolled in Work Skills and Work Study programs which allow them an opportunity to use knowledge gained in the classroom and apply it in real-life vocational experiences.

Sodexo known on campus at UW-Eau Claire as Blugold Dining, is a food-service sub contractor hired by the University that employs approximately 10 local high school students each semester. The students are hired in paid positions to supplement their workforce during the busy lunch rush on campus between eleven and one o’clock, in which they serve approximately 2,000 students each day.

Student workers hold a variety of jobs all related to food-service, including working in the dish-room, cafeteria dining room, serving lines, salad bars, and storerooms for both perishable and non-perishable goods.
The student’s spend approximately four class periods outside of school each day; this includes transportation to and from the University, a shortened class period on campus, lunch on campus, and most importantly working on the job each day.

Special Education/Transition teacher Tim Burns, who has supervised the program from the District standpoint for the past two years, has many positive things to say about the program. According to Burns, “This program is very unique within the state with its design and inception, thanks to the management of Sodexo. Many of our students work on the UWEC campus the entire year, without being identified by similar-aged college students as young men and women with special needs. Our goal is to introduce the skills to the kids in the classroom, give them opportunities to practice these skills, and then enter them into the world of competitive employment with limited support by both Sodexo employee’s and school district staff.” Before entering the program, students have held previous positions within the school or in the community to demonstrate basic work-readiness skills. Chai Xiong, a former participant in the UWEC Works Skills Program had this to say about his experiences. “The job at the University has helped me learn how to work as a team member. I learned how you can get more done cooperating with each other. I feel like I can do anything now and am happy I got to do this as part of school.” Chai has now moved on this current school year to a job at Goodwill Industries as well as an apprenticeship at a local automotive business.

Not only are the student’s benefiting from this experience, but so is Blugold Dining. From a business standpoint, the students are integrated into the regular employee schedule and are depended upon to perform. Thomas Sahr, manager of the Terrace Cafeteria in the Davies Center had this to say about the expectations of his high school workers. “As I often say, if I didn’t need the help, I wouldn’t have created the positions. We drive this home by requesting every effort be made to come to work; even on days that their high school is not in session (excluding weekends). Each person on our team is critical to the success of our operation.” Sahr also talked about the rewarding aspects of overseeing these young people on the job. “It is great when you are able to watch the students grow and mature in their positions and start to understand how to be successful in the job. The first few weeks the kids are quiet and seem almost scared. After a while, they finally learn that it is o.k. to laugh when the boss tells a joke.” The second reward comes outside of the confines of UW-Eau Claire. According to Sahr, “I really enjoy being around town and hearing “Hey Tom!” I look around to find a smiling person excited to tell me what they have been up to and asking what is new at “work.” It is great to hear all of their success stories and updates after they leave us.”

Sahr also mentioned that the most challenging part of this program has been creating an understanding at times with the customers. “The students have a limited set of duties with their jobs and may not always know how to handle every scenario. That’s an education piece for student, employee and customer. I, along with the district staff, work to put students in positions that will challenge them and help them learn new life skills. Unfortunately, not all of our customers (and full-time staff) understand the learning curve of high school students with disabilities. Although rare, I have received complaints about a part of our service. When I receive negative comments, I take it personally and think about how wonderful it is that these young adults are working to overcome barriers in their lives that our often beyond their control.”

Thankfully, the future looks bright for both parties invested in this program. Each year the program gets stronger with each group building off of the last group’s experiences. Sahr is hopeful that the program will continue to play an important role in Blugold Dining’s daily operations and in the school district’s vocational curriculum. Sahr also discussed how the school staff works hard to make sure the student’s are performing and learning life and work skills every day. Sahr says, “There is a misconception in the world that if you can’t find a job you can always work in food service. In today’s business and customer demands, you really need to understand how to work, be responsible and almost be intrinsically motivated. That is what this is all about.”

If you are interested in learning more about this program or having local youth help benefit your business, please contact Tim Burns by email at tburns@ecasd.k12.wi.us or by calling (715) 852-6394

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