by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC
Photo of NWIRC's Bob Zaruta with UAA at Crawford Tech students.
UAA at Crawford Tech students (L-R) Drew, Jonathan, Shannon, Aaron with Bob Zaruta

April is National Autism Month. A year ago, I wrote in my column about an exciting new program, the Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA). The program creates career opportunities with family-sustaining wages for young adults with high-functioning autism by matching their unique abilities with high-demand jobs. More specifically, UAA is geared for math- and computer-savvy young adults with autism, provides technical training as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) operators and job readiness training, then identifies career opportunities with local manufacturing companies. Last year, I shared NWIRC’s excitement about taking the lead with a group of community partners to bring this meaningful initiative to our region and, in fact, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. Now, I’m thrilled to share exciting news about the impressive outcomes of the first cohort of participants and what’s on the horizon for more UAA cohorts in the future.
For some background, the first UAA cohort in our region began in September 2022 at Crawford Tech in Meadville. The 16-week program included technical training on CNC machine setup and operations, job readiness training, job shadowing opportunities, and tours at local manufacturing companies. Since this was the inaugural cohort, the plan from the start was to keep the class size small. Crawford Tech had their first program completion ceremony on February 1 with four participants. Several manufacturing companies began their recruitment process soon after with formal interviews and job offers.

I believe I can speak for all the community partners involved with this initiative that it is with heartfelt pride and gratification that all four UAA participants have full-time employment opportunities. Congratulations Jonathan, Aaron, Shannon, and Drew on a job well done at the Crawford Tech UAA and a job to be very well done at your new employer!

Jonathan accepted a position at Highpoint Tool and Machine. He was excited to apply and be hired at Highpoint as he expects “to learn and grow there quite well”. Jonathan shared he particularly liked the family-run business culture at Highpoint Tool and he said, “they care for their employees, they work really hard and work well together”. Mark Sippy, President at Highpoint Tool and Machine, met Jonathan first at Highpoint and the Sippy Historic Machine Shop tours, and again at the UAA open house. “I was excited when he reached out and was interested in coming to Highpoint! I heard about this initiative through NTMA when UAA was getting started out west a few years ago, and I am excited to see it coming to fruition in our area. It gives the students an option to pursue a fulfilling career in an industry that is in need of skilled workers”.

Aaron went through his interview process and was on the job working at Mecal by Starn in early February. He said, “I was recruited after a job shadow – Zach who showed me around the facility, is now my supervisor. I like when I get into the ‘zone’ where you go through parts at a decent pace. My role at Mecal is IPI (in process inspection) and I just started learning to check final inspection.” Aaron’s Supervisor Zach said, “The UAA has brought one of the hardest working and most detail-oriented employees that we have. He continues to grow every day, and is willing to learn and perform any task that is asked. Mecal by Starn is proud to have this young gentleman on our team and is excited to see what his future holds.”

Shannon accepted an employment offer at The Arc of Crawford County and is excited about her new job as Direct Support Professional and Employment Specialist. Despite doing well in the UAA training, I‘m not surprised where Shannon landed based on my previous conversation with her just prior to completing the program. “I’m very passionate about helping people who need it, so seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Shannon said about her new position. “I already feel like I’ve been able to help a few people, so that’s been rewarding.” She’d like to someday be a job coach to support students in UAA. Emily Carpenter, Employment Specialist at Arc said, “Shannon is a wonderful employee, she made connections with our staff the second she met them at the UAA training. I believe it was a great benefit that Shannon went through UAA where she learned how to be disciplined, work with others, and problem solve.”

Drew has employment opportunities as well that are still to be decided, including a recent job offer and another company interview.

Congratulations also to all involved who contributed to the program success including the instructors and team at Crawford Tech; NWIRC and Dawn Bailey (UAA Program Coordinator); Arc of Crawford County; PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR); Northwest PA JobConnect; CareerLink; Crawford County K-12 Career Education Alliance; Starn Marketing; and Northwestern PA Chapter of NTMA. Also to the numerous manufacturers that supported the program with planning and by providing job shadowing and facility tours throughout the program, including Starn Tool & Manufacturing, Greenleaf Corporation, Highpoint Tool, Acutec Precision Aerospace, Channellock, and Pinnacle Mold. This is truly a community initiative with new roads and new horizons we can all feel good about and we‘ve only just begun!

The next cohort at Crawford Tech is scheduled to begin in September 2023 and applications are now being accepted. Contact Program Coordinator, Dawn Bailey, for more information at In addition, plans are currently in the works for a UAA at EC3 (Erie County Community College) in Erie County with the first cohort coming this Fall.


The UAA at Crawford Tech is 100% supported by the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor as part of an award totaling $60,320 and an AmericaWorks mini-grant with 0% and $0 funded from non-governmental sources. The UAA at EC3 also has support in-part from this funding, as well as majority support from an Erie Community Foundation grant.