by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC

Uniquely Abled LogoApril is National Autism Awareness Month, so it’s a perfect time to write about a new program coming to our region. A program that NWIRC is very excited to lead and join numerous community partners in this meaningful initiative. And, it’s another opportunity for creating a career pathway to manufacturing – training via the Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA).

UAA is a training program to create career opportunities, with family sustaining wages, for young adults with high-functioning autism by matching unique abilities with high-demand jobs. Through community partnerships with educators, agencies, and manufacturers, the end goals are to provide skills and career readiness to an unrealized population of capable individuals and to address workforce needs of manufacturers. Upon completion of training, the program seeks to match math- and computer-savvy young adults with autism to careers as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) operators at local manufacturing companies.

The program was founded by Ivan Rosenberg, a managing partner with InVista Associates helping companies with organizational performance. As he was hearing more and more about the dire need for CNC Operators in manufacturing, he realized that his own two children (young adults with high-functioning autism) had many of the characteristics and abilities required to become a CNC Operator. Thus, the Uniquely Abled Project was born. To quote one of the UAA program flyers, it’s “A new program for a new way of thinking. Because the words we use shape the way we think, when looking through the lens of the word “disabled,” we tend to think about what’s missing in a person. As a result, we often miss seeing the unique capabilities these people have. The mission of The Uniquely Abled Project is to shift the paradigm of thinking from “disabled” to “uniquely abled”. It starts with an innovative job-training program for people with high functioning autism – The Uniquely Abled Academy.”

NWIRC is now working to help convene project teams for launching two Uniquely Abled Academies, one in Crawford County and one in Erie County. The concept was first introduced to me by a manufacturer, Greg Wasko, Executive Vice President of Starn Tool and Manufacturing in Meadville. He had met Ivan, learned his story, and quickly moved to explore bringing this program to our region. It didn’t take long for all of the key community partners to come together to start planning the program in Crawford County– including Crawford County Career and Technical Center as the host-school. Soon after, NWIRC started discussions and the process of forming project teams for launching a UAA in Erie County – with host-school, Northern PA Regional College (NPRC). There are still planning steps and logistics to be finalized for both programs, but we are in hopes that classes will start this Fall.

The typical age range for UAA students is between 18 and 30 years. There is no cost to the individual due to numerous programs and resources available to cover the cost of the training tuition and other program features. Not only does the program include the CNC technical training, but students will benefit from learning and practicing soft skills to enhance communication with supervisors and co-workers. Each student is paired with a job coach during their training and transitions with them as they start a new job, and for a short time thereafter as they get acclimated to their new career. Organizations involved with the various project teams, which include manufacturing companies, will also assist with student job placement. The goal is 100% placement, and most of the existing UAAs are at or very close to that mark.

Both the Crawford and Erie UAA programs received funding to assist with various aspects of planning and getting the first classes off the ground. These grant awards are from the Erie Community Foundation’s Helping Today Grant, the PA Department of Labor & Industry’s Business-Education Partnership Grant via NWPA JobConnect, and an America Works Grant via Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).

Stay tuned for more information about the launching of the UAA programs and the organizations who are dedicated to bringing this program to life. Reach out to me if you would like to learn more and get involved, or to explore a UAA in your local area. (Send a note to me at rzaruta@nwirc.org)