By James Helm, MPA, CPACC
As much as the conversation about innovating Oklahoma’s workforce should include people with disabilities, policy makers must also recognize the need for more specialized vocational learning opportunities for teenagers with disabilities. Transition services, which refer to students with disabilities transitioning from school to the workforce, are a key component to improving Oklahoma’s labor market.
Current programs designed to introduce basic skills and knowledge of work opportunities provide a solid foundation for this population entering the workforce. However, a noticeable gap in services between high school and employment exists that can and should be closed to strengthen Oklahoma’s pool of job candidates. Differences between available services in urban and rural areas also highlight the need for more community support to connect future job seekers with opportunities in their area. Focusing efforts on this group can yield big dividends for the state and community but not without making crucial adjustments first.
Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers in Oklahoma begin the transition from high school to the next step in life.[i] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85% of students in Oklahoma graduated high school on time, compared to 79% of students with disabilities.[ii] This latter group may take longer to graduate, seek an alternative diploma, or do not graduate at all.[iii]
In high school, students with disabilities may participate in Transition School-to-Work programs offered in conjunction with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. Within these programs, students may develop work goals, participate in career exploration by visiting different job sites, and even receive assistance in applying for work, among other services.[iv]
Beyond high school, society generally expects graduates to either seek higher education or leap into the job market. Fewer than half of new high school graduates attended post-secondary education in 2016, leaving the remainder to decide how they would enter the workforce.[v] This can be a particularly daunting experience for teenagers with disabilities, especially if they are ill-prepared to navigate the challenges of employment.
DRTC (Dale Rogers Training Center), a nonprofit agency that promotes a more disability-inclusive workplace and community, is on the front lines of connecting students with resources and meaningful career exploration prior to full employment.[vi] Originally formed as an educational center, the agency has transitioned to an entrepreneurial business model with the expectation of competitive integrated employment in the community. Through expanded partnerships with nonprofit agencies, state agencies, schools and businesses, these programs have the ability to take Oklahoma to new heights and serve as a model for others.
One existing program currently serving high school students with disabilities is Pre-Employment Transition Service (Pre-ETS), offered through the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. Pre-ETS serves approximately 8,500 students in 140 schools throughout Oklahoma. Through various activities, students explore different components of work such as: job exploration, work-based learning, workplace readiness, self-advocacy, and post-secondary counseling.[vii] Pre-ETS, which is designed to supplement but not replace transition services, largely introduces students and families/caregivers to the world of employment beyond high school. Current funding does not allow for Pre-ETS to assist with on-the-job training, creating a gap in services.
After high school, qualifying young adults with disabilities may participate in Project SEARCH, an unpaid internship-based program providing on-the-job skills training.[viii] This nine-month-long program offers real work experience in a variety of businesses, rotating every 10-weeks. However, one glaring issue with Project SEARCH is its limited scope. This program is only offered in Oklahoma City, Moore, Edmond and Enid. Other towns, notably in rural areas, are not included, creating a division of employment opportunity.
Prior to COVID-19, DRTC operated an in-person Transition School-to-Work program through DRS, working with 17 schools in the Oklahoma City metro. Over time, however, participation and outcomes dropped, causing the agency to refocus efforts to better serve youth with disabilities. DRTC is now working with DRS to implement a new career exploration contract that would focus on transitioning into the workforce, pairing an employment training specialist with a single student or small group. Piloting a successful career exploration program would prove scalable in cities and towns throughout Oklahoma, helping connect students with disabilities to previously unconsidered career opportunities.
An added benefit of career exploration is that it places more emphasis on early intervention—as young as 16 years old. Students can apply for transition services as early as 15.5 years old, but Project SEARCH starts at 18. By providing job discovery opportunities at 16, teenagers with disabilities can have extra time to build skills needed to be successful at work.
Existing services offered in Oklahoma provide a baseline of job exploration for teenagers and young adults with disabilities. Improvements can certainly be made from the lengthy application process, to offering focused career exploration at an earlier age, allowing the necessary time for teenagers to begin laying a foundation that will lead to successful employment. The state’s flexibility with innovative programs such as career exploration should continue, focusing on job development to further close the gap in current services.
The other component to this equation is business buy-in. In the current labor market, companies can tap into an under-utilized workforce (see previous article by DRTC Executive Director Deborah Copeland) to fill their needs, while benefiting the local community. Simple innovations to adjust current practices can help usher in a new era of productivity statewide.
This article will be used in the Background Resource Document for the Oklahoma Academy’s 2022 Town Hall which will focus on Oklahoma’s Human Potential-Enhancing our Workforce for an Increasingly Innovative Economy.
[i] 2016 High School to College-Going Rates.(n.d.) Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://www.okhighered.org/studies-reports/preparation/interactive/2016-HSIR-College-Going-Rates.xlsx
[ii] Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. (n.d.) Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_219.46.asp
[iii] Data on disabilities. (2019, April 1). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.nsba.org/ASBJ/2019/April/Graduation-Rates-Students-Disabilities
[iv] Transition for Youth with Disabilities. (n.d.) Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://oklahoma.gov/okdrs/students/transition.html
[v] 2016 High School to College-Going Rates.
[vii] Pre-Employment Transition Services Fact Sheet. (n.d.) Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://oklahoma.gov/content/dam/ok/en/okdrs/documents/students/transition/preets/Pre%20ETS%20FACT%20SHEET%20FY22.pdf
[viii] Project SEARCH. (n.d.) Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://oklahoma.gov/okdrs/students/transition/project-search.html