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Project SEARCH program hits employment milestone

Feb. 10, 2022, 10:00 AM

Kabrien Watts recently became the 100th employee hired through the Project SEARCH program.
Kabrien Watts recently became the 100th employee hired through the Project SEARCH program. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Jessica Pasley

Since 2005 Project SEARCH has been opening employment doors for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The program recently marked a milestone when it hired its 100th employee, Kabrien Watts.

“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Brandon Pflug, instructor for the program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It really speaks to the dedication of all the folks who participate in the program as well as Vanderbilt’s leadership.

“Serving as an intern in our program does not guarantee employment. Our participants put in a lot of hard work, and it helps to have such incredible support through the various managers and areas within Vanderbilt over the years.”

Watts began working in Environmental Services at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt on Feb. 7.

Project SEARCH, a nine-month unpaid internship, is a partnership between VUMC, which serves as the host business site, Progress Inc., the provider agency, and Vocational Rehabilitation, the funding provider.

Children’s Hospital was the first Project SEARCH site in Tennessee, offering students/interns free job training, educational development and employment opportunities at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University Hospital, The Vanderbilt Clinic, Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital. Pflug hopes to expand the reach of the program in the coming months.

Interns attend six-hour training sessions Monday through Friday in the classroom located in the basement of Children’s Hospital, learning an array of life skills needed for the future, including budgeting, resume creation, making travel arrangements to and from the jobsite, as well as communicating with supervisors, guests and peers. Typical rotations of the program include environmental services, guest services and nutrition services. The program can provide interns to 36 departments at VUMC.

Since the program’s inception, 117 interns have graduated from Project SEARCH at Vanderbilt, placing it as one of the top performing programs in the world, said Pflug.

“We have an overall 85% success rate,” said Pflug. “If you break down even further, since 2016, 97% of our participants achieved successful employment meeting the program’s four criteria: job integration (a setting of employees with and without disabilities); making a prevailing wage (at least minimum wage); employment is nonseasonal; and jobs provide 16 hours or more a week.

“We continue to provide support and career guidance once our interns are a part of the workforce. We also have a high retention rate. Not many departments are hiring folks at entry-level positions for seven years or more. It’s a sound business investment to hire our interns, who do a really solid job,” Pflug said.

There are 658 Project SEARCH sites worldwide in 10 countries and within 48 of the United States.

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