Students with Disabilities Working Towards A Better Future
Deptford Twp. – It's a job fair like no other—potential employers approach job seekers positioned behind tables displaying resumes, business cards, posters and creative marketing giveaways.
Rowan College of South Jersey's (formerly Rowan College at Gloucester County) annual Reverse Job Fair brings business owners and community organizations to the campus, providing them with the opportunity to meet and interview young adults with developmental and other disabilities enrolled in the Adult Center for Transition (ACT) Employment First Program.
“ACT's Employment First works with each student to assist them in identifying and highlighting their career interests," stated Employment Specialist/Supervisor Alice Smith. “Employment First supports them to be efficacious in their career pathway by providing opportunities and guidance in order for them to reach their goal of employment. In their final year, each ACT student had an opportunity to participate in ACT's capstone project—the Reverse Job Fair."
Finding a job can be challenging for anyone, but for a young person living with disabilities it can be even more difficult. The College's ACT program provides academic, vocational and socialization skills to help students become independent and contributing members of society. An average of 48 students each year participate in the program, and to date, 40 area businesses are partners in the program. Students, ages 18 to 24 years old, have the choice of two tracks: Workforce Readiness, offering classes and soft-skill training geared toward employment; and Fundamentals of College, preparation to take college credit courses.
Once a month, guest speakers from the business community talk to students about their company, job positions and the journey to becoming an employee. Job coaches meet with the students to assess their strengths and interests, and use the information to identify “job sampling" opportunities. Two hours a week for four weeks, students receive one-on-one guidance, preparing them for a specific job, which they try out on a short-term, unpaid basis. Each student has the opportunity to participate in two job-sampling positions a year. Students get together regularly with an advisor to review their satisfaction with the position and work on areas where they may be struggling. The Employment First Program offers students resume and job application assistance along with practice interviews to equip them to transition to a paid job opportunity.
“While preparing for this unique event our students devoted a lot of time and hard work to make this successful. Each student excelled and procured countless career connections and employment opportunities," noted Smith. “As the result of the Reverse Job Fair, several students are now earning a paycheck as well as becoming contributing members of society."
“This is the most rewarding job," added Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) Gloucester campus Job Coach Kevin Athey. “What is so amazing about the Employment First Program is that you get to be a part of the end result. It can really be emotional sometimes, seeing your client get a job—to see them reach their goal of paid employment."
ACT graduate Eric Panetta, employed at Goodwill in Glassboro, enjoys meeting new people and discussing job skills. “I was dressed professionally and was being interviewed by television news stations. I also liked when people from different businesses interviewed me," said Panetta, following the Reverse Job Fair in March. “People need to know who I am. I showed them my display board, it had a Hollywood theme."
“I met a lot of nice people at the Job Fair and it was very helpful in getting a job," added Samantha Marx, a teaching assistant at the Shady Lane Childcare Center.
Since ACT first launched the Employment First Program on the Gloucester campus in 2016, area employers have supported the effort. Three years later, many more businesses have joined the fold, appreciating the value in hiring students with disabilities. In addition to Goodwill and the Shady Lane Childcare Center, WaWa, South Jersey Federal Credit Union, Amazon, United Artists, RCSJ, Giofano's, Jefferson Health, Nifty Fifty's, ShopRite Bottinos, Township Produce, Rowan University Early Childhood Demonstration Center and County departments, including the Mullica Hill and Gibbstown Libraries, County Elections Office, Health Department and Animal Shelter, have participated in job sampling experiences and paid employment opportunities.
These local employers know what a national survey, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Boston's Center for Social Development and Education, discovered—that people with special needs are not only an asset in the workplace, but that hiring a diverse workforce also generates a favorable customer opinion, regardless of the business sector. The University of Massachusetts study found that 92 percent of consumers surveyed felt more favorable towards companies that hire disabled workers, with 87 percent specifically preferring to endorse those businesses.
“Words cannot describe how proud I am of each of them," stated Smith. “ACT students never cease to amaze me. Their determination is an inspiration to us all."
Rowan College of South Jersey's ACT Employment First Program is designed as a two-year cohort program available to individuals on the Gloucester campus in southern New Jersey.
“We recognize that there is an increasing need for the expansion of services, and will be looking to bring this program to the Cumberland campus," stated Brigette Satchell, RCSJ's Workforce Development special assistant to the president.
For more information about the Adult Center for Transition, the Employee First Program or to participate as a business in the Reverse Job Fair, visit RCSJ.edu/Act or call 856-464-5203.
Rowan College of South Jersey is a comprehensive, two-year regional college serving more than 10,000 full- and part-time students with degree and workforce development programs, on campuses in Gloucester and Cumberland Counties. Rowan College of South Jersey is fully accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.