Sunday, May 15, 2005

Career Trek: Propelling Career Advancement

Career ladder employment: The final frontier.
This is the voyage of a program named Career Trek.
Its five year mission?
To explore strange new worlds.
To seek out higher paying jobs in our community workforce.
To boldly go where no man or woman with a serious mental illness has gone before.

Captain’s Log, Stardate: May 14, 2005

Career Trek is a unique job placement program that focuses on career ladder advancement and the customizing of employment for unemployed and underemployed adults with serious mental illnesses (SMI) in our community's workforce. This five-year grant program is funded by the Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and has four demonstration sites located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul and Central Minnesota.
"I knew that working was healthier for me than not working," said a Career Trek participant named Karl.
"Career Trek has helped me to stay true to my original career goals," shared another participant named Gina.
According to Maria, "I now have the perfect job teaching English Second Language (ESL) and Spanish."
"I have finally found a job that pays a living wage," Jim recorded with pride and satisfaction.
These comments were shared by four "trekkies" in an annual feedback survey about the program. The reflections of these participants strike at the very core reasons why this experimental career development program was launched in the first place.
Career Trek's first thesis was that it is important for people living with SMI to go to work because it is fundamental to their wellness and recovery. Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, Career Trek assumed that adults with SMI could indeed get back in touch with career dreams and use their education, training, and talents. Third, Career Trek recognized that mental illness can be disruptive to a career path, but its symptoms could be effectively managed so people can use their talents and work in careers of high interest to them. Finally, Career Trek set forth an assumption that adults with SMI should not be discouraged from pursuing higher paying, career ladder jobs because most could be successful in their chosen career fields with business mentoring strategies, good job matching, planned accommodations, and access to supported employment.
In summary, the core mission of Career Trek is counterintuitive to traditional service practices at most community rehabilitation and mental health treatment programs throughout the United States. For many years, it was believed that adults with SMI were either unable to work or better suited to placement within sheltered workshops that offer intensive supervision. Or, in best case scenarios, a small number of people with SMI could be placed into entry-level, low-paying employment positions that minimize stressful situations. The end result of such thinking is a mental health system that lacks creative vision and features a high degree of dependency on inpatient mental health treatment, outpatient adult day treatment, and segregated employment options.
In a national study conducted by the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in 2002, it was reported that 90% of adults with SMI in the United States are unemployed and most maintain lifelong dependency on disability entitlement programs. Although no national data base is available, it is widely accepted that a majority of adults with SMI who do work are underemployed and not working up to their full potential or abilities. Clearly, traditional adult mental health treatment and community rehabilitation practices are not supporting enough people with SMI to obtain competitive employment and economic stability in their lives.
This is very discouraging news to many because supported employment has been identified as one of six evidence-based practices in the treatment and recovery from SMI. An evidence-based practice is a therapeutic treatment or service intervention for which there is clear documented effectiveness based on clinical and statistical research.
According to Doris Illies, Career Trek’s Service Team Leader and manager of one of its demonstration sites in Central Minnesota, this program has been focusing on the job placement needs of two major groups. "First, we are providing services for people who are unemployed and want to use their education, training, or talents to find good paying jobs in their chosen career fields. And second, we are addressing the job progression goals of people who are underemployed and locked into entry-level jobs below their education or abilities. Career Trek offers person-centered, career development services so all of these individuals can advance and find jobs that are in alignment with their assessed interests, education, abilities, and wage compensation goals," said Illies.
According to Sara Gerst, manager of two demonstration sites in the Twin Cities, the range and diversity of career outcomes obtained by Career Trek participants has been amazing. "Before Career Trek, our programs produced a typical range of entry-level jobs with a high concentration in the areas of manufacturing and assembly, food service, and janitorial work." Gerst continued: "Now I want to be clear that I believe all employment fields have their own merit and value. It gets down to a question of people making personal choices and wanting to use the unique talents they have. Since Career Trek was introduced, we have experienced a much wider range of occupational fields where our participants are now working."
To illustrate Gerst's point, consider the program's outcome performance. Career Trek has assisted people in obtaining jobs in the trades such as a cabinetmaker, roofer, machinist, welder, new car salesman, retail sales associate, and musician. The program has also assisted participants obtain professional and paraprofessional positions including a nurse, human services technician, teacher’s aide, college professor, accountant, secretary, personal care attendant, computer technician, and engineer. In addition to its employer development services, Career Trek has helped people use their talents through self-employment strategies. The program has assisted several entrepreneurs launch business plans including a building architect consultancy, a free-lance publisher, a nanny service, and a professional clown entertainment business.
Mike Harper, manager of the demonstration site in East Central Minnesota indicates that earned wages have taken a sharp turn upward since Career Trek was introduced at Rise, Incorporated in 2001. "There is little question that Career Trek has impacted the average hourly rates and overall wage earnings of people with SMI served by our agency," said Harper. "The average hourly rate of Career Trek participants has been consistently above $10.00 per hour for all demonstration sites. And we have had some highly skilled folks earning close to $20.00 per hour," Harper continued. "What is especially exciting is that Career Trek has influenced the performance of all Rise MH employment programs in 2004, driving our average hourly wage for all adults with SMI placed into integrated jobs to $9.56," Harper shared.
According to Mental Health Resources Professional, Melinda Shamp, Career Trek is not only impacting wage earnings by securing better jobs, but also by focusing on the actual number of hours that people work. The average number of hours worked per week for all participants placed is approximately 30. "Many people with SMI have concerns about controlling their earned wage income so it won’t interfere with their cash and health care benefits," said Shamp. She continued: "Career Trek educates people about Social Security disability work incentive programs and assists them in taking action to increase wage earnings and insure that health care coverage is sufficient to meet each individual's presenting circumstances."
By the end of its five-year voyage, Career Trek will have assisted more than 200 people with SMI obtain career ladder jobs. "We are very excited about the performance of this program and we're taking close note of all lessons learned so we can integrate and sustain these services after our grant period ends," said Illies. "Rise recognizes that career trajectory is a personal choice but we have learned that virtually all people with SMI have the potential to use their education and talents in career fields of interest if they have the courage to dream, possess the skills, and have access to supported employment," she continued.
At Rise, we are very proud of our "trekkies." Together, our staff and program participants have done an outstanding job shattering the glass ceiling in this important area of career advancement. There is little question that Rise intends to incorporate all lessons learned and work with appropriate government agencies to implement public policy and service delivery changes we have found to be crucial in increasing career ladder jobs for adults with SMI. As Career Trek draws to its close, we hope to share our findings and experiences with colleagues from around the country at RSA's Project Director Conference to be held on August 8-10, 2005 in Washington, D. C.
For Rise mental health employment programs, there is no turning back to the old ways of doing things. If I can borrow a quote from Mr. Spock of the popular TV series Star Trek:
It would be highly illogical for us humans to do so.
For more information about Career Trek, contact Principal Investigator Don Lavin at


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