project-searchMore than 20 years ago, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center nurse Erin Riehle came up with a novel idea for addressing her hospital’s workforce needs.

Riehle, then the emergency department’s (ED) nursing director, wondered if she could train people with developmental disabilities to fill some of the ED’s high turnover entry-level positions. Could people with disabilities thrive in a workplace with people of all abilities?

“I was struck by how we provide so much medical care to people with disabilities, but what do we do to provide the education and job training that can improve the quality of their lives,” she says.

Riehle and Susie Rutkowski, then a special education director at a nearby career and technical education center, co-founded Project SEARCH in 1996 to help young adults with disabilities find employment.

“We had students in our schools with more serious cognitive disabilities who were having trouble finding places where they could learn the skills they needed,” Rutkowski says. “They were not getting a full work experience in simulated settings, and we were concerned about them getting out there in the real world and falling apart.”

Since its inception, Project SEARCH has opened employers’ eyes to what the developmentally disabled can do.

Today, there are more than 400 Project SEARCH sites, which span across 45 states and into Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland. Each site has a licensing agreement with Cincinnati Children’s Project SEARCH. Institutions that establish partnerships with Project SEARCH commit to certain fidelity standards and agree to follow the model program established at Cincinnati Children’s.

“We are still a department of the hospital, but we exist by going out and providing technical assistance to anyone in the world who is interested in replicating the model,” says Riehle, who is Project SEARCH’s senior director.

Project SEARCH prepares youth between 18 and 21 years of age for entry-level jobs that pay competitive wages. In Cincinnati Children’s case, those jobs include data entry, materials management inventory, patient transport, clerical work or food service. Those are jobs that many people may find boring, perform without enthusiasm and often quit without warning.

“We have a number of high turnover entry-level positions which can be filled with people with disabilities who may be your best employees, because if they are trained in the skills they tend to stay in the position longer,” Riehle observes. Cincinnati Children’s employs 70 young people with developmental disabilities. Some have worked there for 20 years.

“Workforce immersion” is key to the program’s success, the program’s founders say. Student interns spend the entire day at a workplace for about nine months – the equivalent of a full school year. The mantra is professional behavior in the workplace.

“This isn’t a simulated setting, but a real work environment,” Rutkowski observes. “We want the students to take on the persona of actually being an associate or a staff member of the organization because we want the young people to start to act like, feel like, and be like a young worker as opposed to a high school student.”

“When they are in school they know how far they can push their teachers and get away with it,” adds Riehle. “When they come into the business world, we expect them to behave differently and we find every time that they do.”  

Because they are embedded in the business, the students – there are typically eight to 12 per class – gain a level of confidence, maturity and familiarity with workplace culture that cannot be achieved with occasional visits to a workplace or simulated work environment.

The interns are on the worksite five days a week with a teacher, job coaches and mentors. They go through three different placements in each company so they can learn different job skills. Interns’ supervisors and co-workers also get some coaching so they are more comfortable with their new colleagues.

The year ends with an individualized job search process in which each student intern works with a team of Project SEARCH partners (including a special education teacher, job coach and vocational rehabilitation counselor) to seek employment that matches their interest and newly acquired job skill.

Most Project SEARCH program sites are in hospitals, but the model is increasingly being implemented at host businesses in other industry sectors.

“Hospitals are awesome because they are like microcosms of the working world,” Rutkowski says. “Erin and I have talked many times about the range of jobs that hospitals offer to people – anything from a cashier in the cafeteria or the food court all the way to very complex work in the emergency department or in clinical sterilization and then everything in between.”

Project SEARCH last year served nearly 4,000 young people with disabilities and more than 75% of the graduates achieved competitive employment.

“I look at that and think it’s pretty good,” Riehle says. “But it still means we are failing one out of four times. We strive every day to get to 100%. That’s the business model.”

While the program helps build youth’s self-esteem and addresses workforce shortages, its promotion of diversity brings added value for Cincinnati Children’s.

“We hear it all the time from the patients and families who walk down our halls,” Riehle says. “People know we are a welcoming environment and that we appreciate diversity. We don’t just talk about it. We do it.”

The program’s founders say Project SEARCH also is helping to eliminate employers’ skepticism and fear about hiring young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.   

Businesses hire Project SEARCH graduates “not just to check a box in diversity, but because of the dedication of these young people to efficiency and quality,” Rutkowski notes.

“The good work and visibility of these young people changes the perception of everyone they encounter,” Riehle says. “They are capable and have the same desire like all of us to be happy and loved and contributing members of society. I’m proud of our outcomes and how we are changing expectations.”  



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