Man with Down syndrome working at sporting goods store.

(From TennesseeWorks)

What Do We Mean By Connecting Youth to Early Work Experiences?

Every young person with an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) should graduate from high school having had authentic opportunities to develop and deepen their career interests, as well as to experience the world of work first hand. Every young person can develop skills and strengths that have value to employers. But those skills and strengths are difficult to develop unless students have hands-on opportunities to try out a variety of jobs throughout secondary schooling. Schools can play a critical role in helping students make connections to on- and off-campus work experiences that build student’s aspirations, capabilities, and resumes in important ways.

Why are Early Work Experiences So Important for Youth with Disabilities?

Among the most powerful predictors of integrated, community employment in early adulthood is holding a paid job while still in high school. Research indicates that students with severe disabilities who hold a school-sponsored, weekend, or summer job are about 2.5 times more likely to connect to paid community jobs after high school than students who lacked these experiences (Carter, Austin, & Trainor, 2012). Like anyone, young people with IDD benefit from exposure to real work experiences that help them make informed decisions about their future goals. Moreover, early work experiences can help students learn those all-important soft skills (e.g. teamwork, decision making, and creative thinking) that are essential for any job.

How Do You Connect Youth to Early Work Experiences?

Opportunities for early work experiences can vary widely from one school and community to the next. For example, some schools offer work-based learning and internship programs within their curriculum. Take advantage of these existing opportunities. Networking with local employers and community organizations is another great way to increase access to early work experiences. Teachers can connect their students to job shadowing opportunities, career fairs, and mentoring relationships.

Think creatively when looking for job opportunities for young people. Remember that jobs can be restructured, carved, or customized to enable young people to perform at their best. Consider the needs of the employer when restructuring the job and communicate to them the business benefits of the customization. Shifting around job duties can increase efficiency for all employees, an added bonus for the employer. Ideally, job experiences should be mutually beneficial for both the student and the employer.

The following links include guides, stories, and other resources related to increasing access to early work experience for young people with disabilities:

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Potential Avenues for Youth to Gain Career-Related Experiences

  • Touring local businesses and workplaces
  • Listening to guest speakers talk about what employers look for
  • Participating in a short-term job shadowing experience
  • Taking part in Disability Mentoring Day
  • Attending a job fair
  • Getting involved in a school or community Career Day
  • Connecting to a mentor in your preferred profession
  • Participating in a summer internship
  • Taking part in an apprenticeship
  • Helping with a youth-run business
  • Getting involved in service-learning or volunteer projects
  • Participating in community-based job training
  • Enrolling in the school’s work study program
  • Securing an after-school or summer job