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Connecting to an opportunity: Local agency starts in-depth discovery program for job seekers

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Behn Lehrman is part of a customized employment program between Career Connections and LifeQuest. (Matt Gade / Republic)

A Mitchell agency that matches people with disabilities to career opportunities has launched a program allowing participants to explore potential employment in-depth over a period of several months.

Career Connections' certified employment support professionals (CESPs) are using their customized employment program, which began earlier this year, to find people's hidden talents and interests before finding career paths that might be a good match.

"It's more one-on-one time with the individual; getting to know them," Christine Allen, a CESP with Career Connections who is working with one of the program's first two participants, told The Daily Republic. "(It's) discovering them and finding their talents through the process of getting to know them on a personal basis, in their family life and outside of everything else, just to discover what their interests are."

The new program is a more in-depth, one-on-one version of the traditional vocational rehabilitation program at Career Connections, which is owned by LifeQuest. The customized employment program consists of six stages, each of which has three to five steps, and the first stage alone can take between 20 and 40 hours. In total, the entire discovery process is expected to take about 12 weeks per person.

Throughout the discovery process, CESPs get to know participants by talking to those that know them and seeing what they like or don't like when they visit local businesses.

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"During this whole time, in the first part of the discovery, we're trying to find out if there's any emerging patterns or things that are going to be good work quality traits, taking somebody forward," said Darla McGuire, CESP and quality assurance program manager at LifeQuest. "Then, we're going to find out what our themes are, and we're going to try to match those to area businesses, and different types. Then we'll set up interviews based on that."

Last year, the vocational rehabilitation program worked with between 20 and 24 people at any given time. Allen and McGuire said that when the customized employment program is in full swing, there would ideally be one person working with each CESP at a time.

"I think it's ideal to work with the people that have a hard time finding a job in that traditional voc rehab process, that may have not had opportunities otherwise to go through the process," McGuire said. "That's how I kind of envision it."

To learn how to implement the customized employment program, three people on Career Connections' staff went to Sioux Falls for three days of in-person training in February and another two days in March, and the remainder will attend similar training later this month.

At that training, representatives from consulting firm Griffin-Hammis Associates led the approximately 20 attendees earlier this year in completing certificates of achievement in community employment services through the Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators. The training was provided by the South Dakota Department of Human Services' vocational rehabilitation program, through which Career Connections gets all of its referrals.

Allen said that as she's learned more about how to administer this new program, she's learned a lot and has had to remind herself to break down the process she's gotten accustomed to.

"Christine's done job development for a long time, so her first thought is, 'go get him a job. Go get him a job,'" McGuire said. "You have to trust the process."

Those at Career Connections who attended 40 hours of earlier training are now in the mentorship stage, in which they're taking the customized employment program's first two participants through the discovery process. They regularly make online submissions to Griffin-Hammis senior consultant Doug Crandell, who evaluates their progress. Crandell recently visited Career Connections to check in and meet the two people in the program.

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Allen said Behn Lehrman, one of those participants, has shown interest in the outdoors and in public safety in the approximately nine weeks he's been in the program. When he completes all six stages, the goal is that he will have identified a career path he can pursue long-term and can start looking for an employer who can meet their business' needs by hiring him.

"We want it to be a win for the employer, too," McGuire said.

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