Uniquely Abled Academy Training Program Provides Underserved Workforce Segment With Valuable Job Skills

By Jon Wollenhaupt

Uniquely Abled ProgramCollege of the Canyons’ Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA) provides job training for individuals with high-functioning autism who seek careers in which the job requirements match their unique aptitudes and abilities.

The UAA is an implementation of the Uniquely Abled Project, which was originally conceived by Dr. Ivan Rosenberg, managing partner for InVista Associates and a parent of two adult children with high-functioning autism. Because of Dr. Rosenberg’s experience and passion for the aerospace industry—he is co-founder and executive director of the Aerospace & Defense Forum—he recognized that many of the sought-after characteristics of CNC machinists matched those of his own children.

The UAA program at College of the Canyons prepares trainees for work as computer numerical control (CNC) machinists—a core job function and process used throughout the manufacturing and aerospace industries.

Uniquely Abled AcademyCollege of the Canyons launched its UAA program in the spring of 2018. Mike Bastine,UAA’s director, says, “We created a Fast Track CNC Machining Training Program specifically for these trainees. After completing a 12-week program, trainees graduate from the program and qualify for entry-level positions as CNC operators, machinist apprentices, and machinist trainees.”

Skilled CNC machinists are in high demand in aerospace and other manufacturing environments. According to the Thomas Index Report, the job involves “computer programming and operating electromechanical devices that produce ultra-precise positioning of machining tools used to create incredibly complex surfaces and intricate geometries.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be a need for an additional 29,000 new machinists by 2024. “The goal is to have this program fill the CNC skills gap all over the country,” Dr. Rosenberg states. “It’s a real opportunity to make a difference.” In California, the Uniquely Abled Project is currently offered at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita and at Glendale Community College in Glendale.

To learn more about the Uniquely Abled Academy at College of the Canyons, UpSkill California spoke with Michael Bastine, director for the Academy.

UpSkill California: What are the criteria for someone who wants to enter the Uniquely Abled Program at College of the Canyons?

Michael Bastine: Prospective trainees must be 18 years or older and have graduated high school or have earned a GED. They must successfully pass the ACT WorkKeys pre-test, which is a skills assessment testfor career readiness. On a practical level, trainees must have transportation and the ability to work a typical Monday through Friday workweek, eight hours a day. We also want to make sure they will be comfortable in the training and work environment, where they may encounter loud noises, strong odors, and large machines. Lastly, it is important that they have a strong support structure at home and have their own motivation to complete the program, and not just because a family member is pushing them to do it.

UpSkill California: How is the Uniquely Abled Academy funded?

Michael Bastine: Goodwill Industries and the Department of Rehabilitation sponsor the program, so there are typically no costs to the trainees.

UpSkill California: How is the program structured? Do your graduates earn any type of industry certification?

Michael Bastine: The Uniquely Abled Academy provides a blended program of online training combined with classroom instruction and hands-on experience. The UAA structure also includes three National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) CNC credentials, which gives our graduates a competitive edge when applying for jobs. NIMS credentials demonstrate to employers that our trainees’ skills meet established industry standards. Everything our trainees produce during the program is competency-based, measured, and validated for NIMS credentials. At the end of the 12-week program, graduates have a full package of commendations and benefits, including:

  • College certificate of completion
  • NIMS credentials
  • ACT WorkKeys certificate
  • Polished résumé
  • A products they have machined
  • Mock interviews
  • Scheduled job interviews                                                                         

UpSkill California: How many trainees apply, and how many are accepted into the program?

Uniquely Abled AcademyMichael Bastine: I would say 70% to 80% of the applicants qualify. When we do the orientation, we show the candidates what the work environment is like—the sounds, the smells and the protective gear they would have to wear, and some respond, “I don’t know if this is right for me.” If a candidate finds the work environment acceptable, they then take a skills test that covers literacy and mathematics, which they have to pass. If someone does not meet the basic skills requirement, but is determined to get into the program, we direct them to ACT, an organization that provides career readiness solutions. ACT is dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Via the ACT-NCRC website, they can take practice tests to help them attain a National Career Readiness Certificate. We had one person who didn’t pass the skills test for our first session but was motivated to improve his skills. He studied, took several practice tests on the ACT-NCRC website, and passed our skills test. He then entered the training program.

UpSkill California: What are the demographics of a typical class?

Michael Bastine: The age ranges from 18 to 58. I’d say the average age is 25. We are working to get more women into the program because they make great CNC machinists. Women have great hand-eye coordination.

UpSkill California: Does the average program applicant live independently?

Michael Bastine: All of our trainees have high-functioning autism. Some live at home. Some have their own apartment. Most are underemployed in jobs that have very low skill demands. Very few have full-time jobs. What motivates our trainees is the desire to have a career where they can use their hands and their minds. They want something that’s more challenging and rewarding. That is why they come to our program.

UpSkill California: What is the typical starting wage for a graduate of the program?

Michael Bastine: It varies from company to company, but I would say the average starting wage is $15 to $16 an hour plus benefits.

UpSkill California: What are the career advancement opportunities for your program graduates as CNC machinists?

Michael Bastine: There are various upward mobility pathways in most manufacturing organizations. They can go into quality control or they can become a manufacturing team leader. If they have the desire and aptitude, they can become a CNC programmer versus an operator/machinist role.

“The goals of the UAA program dovetail perfectly with the equity goals of the community colleges’ Strong Workforce Program, which is to improve access, completion, and employment success for all trainees.” —Mike Bastine,director, Uniquely Abled Project, College of the Canyons

UpSkill California: What is the program completion rate for the trainees in your program?  

Michael Bastine: We have found that a very high percentage, over 90%, stay in the training program.

UpSkill California: Do you get feedback from the companies that hire your trainees?

Michael Bastine: We keep in contact with the employers that hire graduates from our program. The HR departments at those companies send us an Employment Verification Form, which proves a person has been hired in the career field for which they have been trained.

The comments I’ve heard from employers are statements like, “This has been the best hire I’ve ever made” or this person is a “quick learner, and I’ve already given them a promotion.”

The overall responses from employers has been very positive. I would say the best endorsement we get regarding the quality of our trainees is when we receive an unsolicited call back from an HR manager who asks, “Hey, when are you going to have another graduation?”

“Think of the impact on the economy and community by giving these individuals jobs! They are no longer on the government payroll, are filling a real need for manufacturing jobs, and are increasing the employment rate in a community. Plus, the individuals themselves feel accomplished, respected, and part of something important. It’s a win-win-win situation.” —Dr. Ivan Rosenberg

UpSkill California: Does the program focus only on technical training related to manufacturing?

uniquely Abled ProgramMichael Bastine: No. A significant portion of the program curriculum is designed to enhance soft skills or employability skills. Of course, we teach the highly relevant technical skills, but we also teach communications skills, critical thinking, time management, interview techniques, and résumé writing. Enhancing those types of soft skills is of great value to our trainees because those skills are applicable to every stage of employment—from the interviewing process, to communicating effectively with co-workers and management, to collaborating within teams. When it comes to success on the job, I would say having good soft skills is every bit as important as having hard technical skills.

UpSkill California: How do you present the unique capabilities of your program graduates to employers?

Michael Bastine: We show them testimonials from other employers. We let them know that our trainees who pass the basic skills test typically pass with incredibly high scores. We also educate employers about the general characteristics of individuals with high-functioning autism and how those characteristics are what they are looking for. For example, employers want people who are punctual, can stay focused, and are attentive to detail. Those are typically some of the behavioral traits of individuals with high-functioning autism. Additionally, they are rarely sick, incredibly dependable, and have higher IQs. They pick up things quickly. They’re comfortable with repetitive tasks that you and I might find tedious to perform on a daily and weekly basis. Our trainees have endurance for that type of work. Our employers say those characteristics and behavioral traits are a perfect match for what the job demands.

UpSkill California: Do you work with some of the same employers for whom you have delivered other training programs?

Michael Bastine: Yes. We have a pool of employers that we’ve worked with over the years. We let them know when a group of trainees begins the program, when they will graduate, and when the interviews will take place. We send out flyers to potential employers with all that information.

We also do some geographical matchmaking with employers and graduates. For example, many of our trainees from the second graduating class live in the Lancaster-Palmdale area, so it would behoove us to try to place them with employers from that area. 

For more information on the Uniquely Abled Academy at College of the Canyons, please contact:

Lynda Deperno
Coordinator, Uniquely Abled Academy
College of the Canyons
Office: 661.362.3112
Email: Lynda deperno@canyons.edu

About the Author

Jon Wollenhaupt is a marketing consultant who writes about topics related to contract education, employee training, workforce development, and corporate learning for the California Community Colleges. He can be reached via email at jon@golaunchmarketing.com


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