Finding an Edge: How VR, Business, Career Pathways and Apprenticeships help individuals with disabilities find vocational success

Live podcast recording

Rick Sizemore Twitter @Rickwwrc or email,

Anne Hudlow’s email is

Cherie Takemoto, PhD Project Director/Senior Research Analyst  on  Twitter @RSA_NCRTM Phone: 703-356-8035 ext. 107   National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials

Katia Albanese Twitter @katiaalbanese;

Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center @wwrc or on the web at

Jonathan Bibb  Twitter @jlbibb or @VRpipeline;  (501) 454-6428

Debby Hopkins, Valley to Virginia Grant;

Karen VanCuren, Senior HR Manager, the Hershey Company;

Dr. Joe Ashley, Private Consultant

Emily West, Va. Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), CPID;

Dale Batten, DRS Director DARS;

Virginia DARS

Speaker 1:VR Workforce Studio.

Speaker 2:VR Workforce Studio, inspiration, education, and affirmation at work. Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.

Speaker 3:Listen to our amazing stories. Hear the joy, and share in our inspiration.

Speaker 2:We’ll also meet the champions of business and industry.

Speaker 4:I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that some of our best employees have disabilities.

Speaker 2:Hear from the VR professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work. Now, here’s the host to the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore, along with the Executive Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation, Anne Hudlow.

Anne Hudlow:Welcome to Episode 63 of the VR Workforce Studio Podcast.

Rick Sizemore:Today, we bring you an amazing story about a phenomenal partnership that’s opening up career pathways that help individuals with disabilities train for and go to work in modern manufacturing as skilled and credentialed registered apprentices.

Anne Hudlow:We’ll bring you the special live podcast from the HIRE, and that’s H-I-R-E, HIRE Ed Conference of the Virginia Community College system, which is their annual workforce conference. This story is truly compelling with a start to finish story of a young man which had completely isolated himself from society as a result of his disability, and how vocational rehabilitation gave him a pathway out of seclusion to his ultimate success as a registered apprentice, and at a job with a Fortune 500 company.

Rick Sizemore:We also hear from the plant’s senior HR manager and two highly effective grant partners about VR’s alignment with the Federal Department of Labor’s requirements for pre-apprentice training.

Anne Hudlow:Later on in the show Cherie Takemoto joins us with RSA’s National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials yearend report.

Rick Sizemore:But let’s get started with our VCCS HIRE Ed Conference on Fusion. For the live podcast on how this powerful partnership helped Chris find the edge he needed to be successful in modern manufacturing. Welcome to our VR Workforce Studio Roadshow, part of the 2018 HIRE Ed Conference on Fusions. We are absolutely thrilled and delighted to be here. We were here in 2016, and it is such an honor to be part of this great conference. We have an absolute all-star panel of top professionals. They’re going to be talking with us today about how they have been working together to build career pathways that help individuals with disabilities train for, and successfully work in modern manufacturing as skilled, credentialed registered apprentices in some of the great companies in Virginia. So we’re delighted to be here.

Anne Hudlow:That’s right, Rick. On today’s show, the story focuses on how vocational rehabilitation partnered with a Fortune 500 company, and harnessed two powerful grant partners to bring about what we can only be describing as a highly effective partnership with amazing results.

Rick Sizemore:So let’s meet this all-star panel.

Speaker 1:VR Workforce Studio.

Rick Sizemore:Dr. Joe Ashley, he is certainly no stranger to this conference or to our podcast. He is here as a recent retiree from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services with Emily West, who has become really a national spokesperson.

Anne Hudlow:That’s right, and then we have Debbie Hopkins here, who is with the Valley to Virginia Grant and the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board.

Rick Sizemore:You can’t have a disability employment conversation without employers, and our good friend, and certainly a champion who hires individuals with disabilities, Karen VanCuren, senior HR manager for Hershey from the Stewart’s Draft Plant, and the rock star of vocational rehabilitation, this young man seated to my right. Oh, doggone it! I forgot. Anne is, of course, the Executive Producer, and she has to approve all the music, and I have to go through this all the time. I forgot to ask you. Is it okay if I change the Big Inspiration Showcase music? I brought my harmonica.

Anne Hudlow:You’re doing this now?

Rick Sizemore:I am doing this now.

Anne Hudlow:Okay. No.

Rick Sizemore:Can you approve it?

Anne Hudlow:No. No.

Rick Sizemore:Come on.

Anne Hudlow:We can’t. We can’t. Only commercially-approved materials, sorry.

Rick Sizemore:Okay.

Anne Hudlow:Sorry. I’m saving you all from a-

Rick Sizemore:You’re such a buzzkill.

Anne Hudlow:Yeah. It’s too early.

Rick Sizemore:So this is the Big Inspiration Showcase portion of our podcast. We always begin with an individual with disability telling their story about going to work through the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. This young man we’re going to meet this morning is a graduate of the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center Manufacturing Technology Training Program. He has skills. He also has workforce credentials. He is a production operator and an industrial manufacturing technician registered apprentice at the Hershey Plant in Stuarts Draft and, as I said, a rock star of vocational rehabilitation. Ladies and gentlemen, join me in welcoming Chris Hall.

Anne Hudlow:Well, Chris, we are really, really happy to have you. Can you tell us a little bit about your story to start off?

 Chris Hall:  Certainly. Any particular place I should begin?

Rick Sizemore:What it’s like working at Hershey.

Anne Hudlow:Right. Yeah. Let’s hear Hershey.

Rick Sizemore:Around all that chocolate.

Anne Hudlow:Yeah.

 Chris Hall:  Well, it was pretty intoxicating at first, and it was pretty nice to come home every day smelling like chocolate, but you get used to it after a while. The appeal wears off when you’re cleaning up thousands of pounds of chocolate every day.

Rick Sizemore:Yeah? Do you like working there?

 Chris Hall:  I do. Yes. Yeah. It’s been a very supporting environment. I enjoy my coworkers. They’ve worked with me a lot in helping my disabilities, and made me feel really at home.

Rick Sizemore:Yeah? What I’d like to hear from you is: What was the path from a time when you had a pretty significant disability, and didn’t have a job? What was the path getting you to Hershey like? What happened along that pathway?

 Chris Hall:  Well, of course, I went to Wilson, which honestly, completely changed my life. I was someone who was crippled by anxiety and depression. My ADHD kept me from really functioning in every day life, and for almost 10 years I would leave the house maybe once a month, and I decided I needed to change, so I went to Wilson. I got my driver’s license. I got certifications, my manufacturing specialist, manufacturing technician one, OSHA 10 forklift certification. I went from leaving the house maybe once a month to working 56 hours a week at fantastic job.

Rick Sizemore:Well, talk us through the program at Wilson Workforce. What was that, the actual training experience, like? What kind of things did you learn?

 Chris Hall:  So many things. First, they started us off with a soft skills program because most people lose their jobs not because they aren’t qualified, but because they can’t handle being a lot of people. They don’t know how to handle peer-to-peer interactions, interactions with their bosses. They put us through a lot of social situations, and taught us how to handle those. From there, we went to the more things that would be required on the job, the mechanical skills.

Rick Sizemore:It sounds like so much to cover.

 Chris Hall:  Yeah.

Rick Sizemore:How many years?

 Chris Hall:  It’s really so much. I can’t cover it in such a short period of time.

Rick Sizemore:How many years did it take to gain all those credentials, several years?

 Chris Hall:  Oh, no.

Rick Sizemore:College for you? How long were you there?

 Chris Hall:  I don’t even think it took six months.

Rick Sizemore:Yeah? So six months?

 Chris Hall:  Yes.

Rick Sizemore:Wow.

 Chris Hall:  It was a very intense program. They packed so much knowledge into such a short period of time.

Rick Sizemore:Yeah? What’s your favorite story about learning a skill? Take us back to the classroom. Tell us what kind of things were going on, what you actually did to achieve particularly some of the social skills that you now have.

 Chris Hall:  The social skills, actually, I believe that was my favorite part. I’ve always been a fan of the soft sciences, and I enjoyed … Those hard things came second nature to me, so it was good to be able to flex those muscles, and I really enjoyed being back in a learning environment just because I had been out for so long, and I hadn’t challenged myself, and it was such a nice … To get back in the classroom, just have all this stuff pounded in my head, and to really apply myself. I think one of the things that stick out most to me is like mediating disputes, between my teammates that didn’t quite get along that well.

Rick Sizemore:How many people in the class?

 Chris Hall: Let’s see. I believe there were about 12 people. I believe three groups of four.

Rick Sizemore:So you worked in a small pond?

 Chris Hall:  Yeah. They had us work in small cells since that’s how it tends to go in manufacturing environments. You work with a small team, so they wanted us to get used to that.

Rick Sizemore:Well, how did you learn to mediate or get through challenges with other teammates?

 Chris Hall:  It was a gradual process. Basically, I tried my best to help them see things from each other’s perspective.

Rick Sizemore:We got an extra guest on the show-

 Chris Hall:  Apparently.

Rick Sizemore:*There is a fly that appeared on stage and was buzzing around Chris’ head

Anne Hudlow:He smells the chocolate.

Rick Sizemore:Conflict is a natural part of teams, and particularly manufacturing requires that you work as a team.

 Chris Hall:  Yes.

Rick Sizemore:How did you develop those skills? Take us back and maybe tell us a story about how you were able to learn those skills with other people in your work teams at Wilson?

 Chris Hall:  Okay. Well, the best example, I could give an example of when I try to mediate things with my team, and try to help them understand one another.

Rick Sizemore:That’s perfect.

Anne Hudlow:Great.

 Chris Hall:  Okay, yeah. Like I said, I had two teammates that didn’t get along very well. One was very independent, very gung ho. He liked to do his own thing, and just kind of jumped ahead without consulting anyone else. Someone else didn’t understand that, so I tried to help the other person understand that he is trying to help in his own way. He is trying to pave the way for us, while I tried to help the first person understand that the second person just wants us to work as a team, and communicate, and really pass information along to one another so that we can get the best results, and eventually I did help them understand one another, and we achieved a greater result because of that.

Rick Sizemore:Tell us about your workforce credential, the manufacturing technician one, the MT-1. What is it like having that and working at Hershey?

 Chris Hall:  Oh, it’s fantastic. That is what gave me the foot in the door, and allowed me to get into Hersey, and it is such a fantastic job. It’s really helped with my job as well. I am a production operative. I am a case packer for Mounds, Almond Joy snack size, which means I operate and maintain the robots and machines that package the candy. It’s given me the mechanical aptitude I need to be able to look at the machine to make minor adjustments when things are going wrong, and keep things running smoothly so we can reach quota, and try to get what we’re trying to do there.

Rick Sizemore:Get the candy out the door.

 Chris Hall:  Exactly.

Rick Sizemore:Anxiety-

 Chris Hall:  Yes.

Rick Sizemore:… and you and I have talked a lot. Anxiety played such a role in stopping you from moving forward in your life. Can you tell us how you were able to break through the anxiety that was preventing you from moving ahead in your life?

 Chris Hall:  Eventually, I realized that I had reached a crossroads. I was completely dependent upon other people to survive, and if something happened to them, I wouldn’t be able to make it. I realized I needed to take the steps forward to be able to make my own path, and survive on my own. Despite feeling great anxiety, despite feeling great anxiety even now, I keep on trying my best every day to get out of my bubble, and grow as a person.

Rick Sizemore:That’s pretty cool.

Anne Hudlow:That is pretty cool. Chris, if you could explain to someone that’s interested in going through the program and the apprenticeship program, and getting networked through manufacturing, what would you say to them?

 Chris Hall:  I would thoroughly recommend it. It has been a life-changing experience for me. I learned invaluable skills, and made quite a few friends along the way, some of which I even work with now. Those connections are going to stay with me for quite some time.

Anne Hudlow:That’s great.

Rick Sizemore:Back to anxiety, just a little bit-

 Chris Hall:  Yes. Yes.

Rick Sizemore:… because I happen to know that operating a forklift petrified you.

Chris Hall:  Oh, I was absolutely terrified.

Rick Sizemore:What scared you most about operating a fork lift?

 Chris Hall:  I think it’s because of my ADHD. I can have trouble paying attention to things as much as I would like, and I was scared that I would hurt someone, honestly, that I would miss an important detail, miss someone walking around me, not pay attention, crash into something, and then I took the forklift training at Wilson, and it really put my mind at ease, which in turn helped me get my driver’s license because I was scared of wielding a 2,000-pound death machine going down this road at 70 miles an hour, but I got over it. Now, I’ve been cross trained in several different jobs at Hershey including line supply, which drives a forklift 80% of the time delivering the supplies to the line that it needs to keep on going.

Rick Sizemore:Do you remember the day that you decided to get on the forklift? You’ve talked about that with me a lot-

Chris Hall:  Yes.

Rick Sizemore:… as being a moment that your life changed.

Chris Hall:  Yes. I am pretty sure.

Rick Sizemore:Tell us that story.

Chris Hall:  Yeah. I’m pretty sure the first time I got on there I white knuckled that thing. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard, and I looked so tense, and one of my classmates came up to me and just said, “Just relax. There’s plenty of space here. You’re not going to hurt anyone. We’re here with you every step of the way.” They kind of gave me advice and made me feel at ease, and helped me learn what I need to learn, and gradually I became more comfortable, and wasn’t terrified anymore.

Rick Sizemore:How did you become an apprentice? You were hired out at Hershey, but not as an apprentice. How did you become an industrial manufacturing technician apprentice?

Chris Hall:  Let’s see. It was a long process. It started with the pre-apprenticeship that I got at Hershey, and then I believe Debbie started working with Hershey, and they got an apprenticeship program going, which thankfully they … You know, you have to work so many hours in the plant, and you have to have the skill set, and they basically applied the hours that I had already worked there previously, and just a couple of months ago, actually, I got my card certifying myself as an apprentice in industrial manufacturing.

Rick Sizemore:How about a round of applause for that? That’s pretty cool. On an average day in the plant as an apprentice, how does it help you advance in your career? How does the apprentice training help you?

Chris Hall:  I believe it gives me a better understanding of what’s going on because I had the skill set. I have the knowledge. If I apply to a greater position, it’ll look good on that application because they’ll be like, “Hey, this guy has experience. This guy has knowledge. He knows what’s going on here. He would be a fantastic candidate for this.” I believe it’s certainly going to help me go places.

Rick Sizemore:Let’s talk about that. Where do you eventually want to go in your career? What do you want to become? What’s the top of the heap?

Chris Hall:  Putting me on the spot here. Aren’t you?

Rick Sizemore:I am putting you on the spot. That’s my job as an interviewer, by the way.

Chris Hall:  I think it’s something that I’m still trying to work out what I really want to do, where I really want my career to go, but I am very happy at Hershey, and eventually I’d like to. As of right now, I think it would be fantastic to become a line lead to help direct things, and help things, run a line, but before that I need a lot more experience under my belt. I need to learn all the jobs on the line, so that I can help wherever needs help and that’s something that I hope to do one day.

Rick Sizemore:You work an eight to five shift and never work weekends or nights. Is that right? You’ve got this.

 Chris Hall:  Oh, Rick. No. My average shift is from 3:00 to 11:30 p.m. I’m out of the house on average 11 hours a day. Yeah. It’s not uncommon for me to be out of the house for work 77 hours a week.

Rick Sizemore:Not only that, this whole concept of second shift on Saturday and Sunday, this weekend work. You bring a work ethic that is critical to plants like Hershey. Tell us about that commitment that you have to make sure the candy gets made.

Chris Hall:  Let’s see. At first, it wore me down a little bit having to work that much, but after a period of time, you get used to it, and you really have to enjoy your work, otherwise, if you’re there that much, it’ll just drive you insane. You try to stay in high spirits and keep high spirits around you as well. Just keep a good morale going so that everyone is happy with their job, and we can reach production quota.

Rick Sizemore:One of the things we try to do at Wilson Workforce is to make sure the training that we’re giving you really gets you ready to go into the plant. What was the transition like from the training environment, actually, to boots on the ground in the plant? How was the transition?

Chris Hall:  It was actually a very smooth transition. The first two weeks of work they had orientation, and for that they introduced us to company policy as well as talking about different things that we had already learned in the class, such as quality assurance, Lean, Six Sigma. These are all manufacturing terms that basically try to keep things going as smoothly as possible and efficiently as possible.

Rick Sizemore:Did you hear those terms when you were on the plant floor day one?

Chris Hall:  Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Rick Sizemore:So you had to have that in order to be successful?

Chris Hall:  Oh, definitely. Yeah. Wilson definitely set me on the right path for this.

Rick Sizemore:Well, that is exciting.

Anne Hudlow:That is exciting. Chris, we are just really, really happy for you, and applaud all of your great work, and we’re just so thrilled that you’re enjoying your job, and doing such a good job for them. I know Hershey appreciates that.

Chris Hall:  Oh, yeah. Like I said, I’m glad to be there and I’m glad to be here.

Anne Hudlow:Absolutely.

Rick Sizemore:You are a rock star of vocational rehabilitation.

Anne Hudlow:You are.

Rick Sizemore:There are many people who are following in your footsteps, and Hershey we’ll hear more about how they’ve established this industrial manufacturing technician registered apprenticeship, but I’d like for those who are here listening to this this morning, and those who are listening on podcast, Chris has presented at a national conference down in Texas last year, and his message of stepping forward, leaning forward of pushing through anxiety has been really something that’s resonated with so many people, and we certainly are excited for you and want to see your career continue to grow, and wish you nothing but the very, very best in all that you’re doing.

Chris Hall:  Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Anne Hudlow:Thank you, Chris.

Rick Sizemore:Well, up next our panelist from Hershey that our good friend, Karen VanCuren. Karen, welcome to the podcast.

Karen VanCuren: Thank you.

Anne Hudlow:Karen, can we start by talking about Hershey, giving us kind of a quick overview of you all working with individuals with disabilities and how that started?

Karen VanCuren: Sure. Sure. I’m very happy to work at Hershey, but I’m very proud to work for a company who is interested in involving individuals with disabilities. Back in 2013, we began to experiment with hiring individuals with disabilities, and we did some benchmarking with others to better understand what that might look like for us. We had a little apprehension as to whether that would work for our site or not, and not every situation does, but many do. I think just becoming open to that, having the opportunity to become open to that was really great. So we began to work through both Wilson and DARS, and started hiring individuals with disabilities, and then, along the way, the program for the manufacturing technology program at Wilson became available, and it’s just been such a great program for us, and so we currently have three graduates from that program that are working with us, now.

Karen VanCuren:  It is just so comforting to knows that when you make a hire you are hiring someone who has the requisite skills and training that you need for them to be successful on the job day one. As Chris mentioned and talked through a number of soft skilled opportunities he had to train, that really helps for anyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s an individual with disability. People are people, and so learning to relate to one another in that type of close working setting is very important.

Rick Sizemore:I have to tell the story, one of the initial efforts that was put in place out at Hershey. I attended a meeting and there is always one fellow in the room and corporate was there, and they rolled out this event, and said, “Are there any questions?” He said, “Well, at the end of the day, they still have to move a 35-pound box of chocolate just like anyone else.” As it might have been a blunt comment, it was absolutely correct because we’ve left behind the days of hiring someone just because they have a disability and it looks good. Employers like you are saying across the board, “Yes. We want to work with you, but they have to be able to do the job just like anyone else.” That kind of leads me to my next question. What’s it like building and maintaining a workforce at Hershey today?

Karen VanCuren: So it’s a bit difficult. I mean, we’re in the middle of a talent crisis. Where is the next person going to come from? Who wants to work in a manufacturing plant? We have a nice plant, a clean plant, a safe plant, but it is a different environment than maybe working in an office setting. As we begin to look to where are we going to get those sources of talent from a market where unemployment is very low? One of the resources that we are comfortable to tap into would be individuals with disabilities, and so our partnership with Wilson just makes us comfortable because we’re not only hiring a person with a disability, but we are hiring a person with a disability who can do the job. That is critically important.

Anne Hudlow:We are big fans of Chris, but how is it working with Chris? How has he been at Hershey, and through your experience?

Karen VanCuren:  I am so proud of Chris.

Rick Sizemore:We are, too.

Karen VanCuren:  Do I tell you that? I hope I do.

 Chris Hall:  Yes.

Karen VanCuren: I always before we have an opportunity to speak in a forum of this nature, I always check in with both his coworkers and his supervisors. The comments are just so satisfying to hear because what I hear are things like Chris wants to learn the next new job. As soon as there’s an opportunity, he wants to learn a new job, and new skills. I just said, “So, what are the social interactions like?” One of the coworkers said to me, “He is so happy. I don’t know how he’s so happy every day, but it’s contagious on the line.” As you’re working in a line-driven manufacturing plant, you’re going to have times when it might feel a little routine, maybe even a little boring. Chris has been able to add a light into the environment so that people are having fun, and seeing a reason to have some joy when they’re at work.

Rick Sizemore:Excuse my interruption. Do you know there was a time when he wouldn’t talk to anyone and he used board games to learn to be able to talk to people?

Karen VanCuren: It’s amazing for me to think and to hear Chris to share his story. It’s an amazing story. From just an employer point of view, if I didn’t know Chris, and I walked out onto the line and I saw him functioning doing his job well, with attention to the things that we need him to give attention to, such as safety and quality, and then I actually look at the interactions he’s having with coworkers, I would never know that he has concerns or struggles with anxiety. He does not appear to. I would never know that he came from that background.

Rick Sizemore:Wow. It’s exciting to see the story. Tell us about the MT-1 credential. There has been so much discussion about it from the manufacturing skills institute, and from your perspective folks coming into the plant with an MT-1, are they ready?

Karen VanCuren: Yes. Sure. Sure. So for folks who come into the plant with an M-1 what I know when they come through the door, and what I can comfortably tell my supervisors and department managers is that, “Sure. This person’s going to come through orientation, but our orientation may prove to even become boring for this person because they’re already going to know.”

Rick Sizemore:We love to hear that.

Karen VanCuren: Yeah. You know, they’re already going to know about Lean at a foundational level. They’re going to know quality and safety, and we may be talking a little bit more about how those two things apply in a food environment, but the principles are applicable regardless of the manufacturing environment. We know that he’s going to have, he or she, will have that basic foundation coming in. We know the person is going to already know some soft skills in terms of relating with others, and so it feels comfortable knowing that the person that you’re hiring you know the program that they’ve been through versus the person I may hire from the street who maybe even worked at another production-related facility.

Karen VanCuren:  I still don’t know what level of training they have in safety and quality, and what their people interaction skills are like.

Anne Hudlow:You had spoken briefly about having other employees there at Hershey, but can you tell us a little bit about the value of the industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship where you’ve started with Chris, and how many you have now, how it’s evolved?

Karen VanCuren: Sure. Chris was our first person into the program. We worked closely with Debby for this program because we really didn’t know how to get started, but it sounded like a great idea. We currently have around 170 people that are in the IMT program.

Rick Sizemore:Woo-hoo.

Karen VanCuren: Yeah.

Rick Sizemore:I see Debby smiling.

Karen VanCuren: Yeah. Certainly, this apprenticeship opportunity is for people with or without disabilities. It’s a great advertising tool. If I were hiring someone from another plant somewhere in the Valley who had this credential, then I would know that they’ve had a substantial amount of training in the respective fields that are important to us, and are important to our job. I think this is going to be something that we can leverage going forward as a marketing tool, an advertising tool, to get candidates as well as to have something that we’re very comfortable with as we look to advance people to higher level jobs within our facility.

Rick Sizemore:Wow. Chris certainly has a significant disability, and he has made enormous leaps forward in his own life, but he’s just one person. Can you tell us about the other employees that you’ve hired from MTT, and maybe what some of their disabilities are?

Karen VanCuren: From the MT-1 program we have been able to hire three graduates. Sometimes abilities aren’t apparent. You aren’t really sure. We do have someone who’s in the program and he has a bit of a learning disability. He’s been able to really succeed to higher level jobs within a certain area of our plant because he is mechanically oriented. He was before he took the MT-1 program. I believe that his disability may have come from a severe car accident, but regardless he’s gone through the training so he took natural skills that he already had in terms of troubleshooting, and then put in those safety, quality, social, and Lean skills. He has succeeded and is doing well. We have another person who his disability is he doesn’t hear well. He’s hearing impaired and he’s like Chris.

Karen VanCuren:  He just smiles every day, and he’s so thankful for the opportunities that he has. He’s the newer one to the group. He’s in entry level roles now, and learning additional skills going forward. It’s just been a great source of talent for us and I think the people coming from the program are welcomed into our facility, and I think that coworkers maybe, I don’t know, eight years ago or so, when we began to really actively work to find individuals with disabilities that could work in our facility, I think people had some apprehensions because they weren’t sure. One, can that person do the job or, two, how do I help them, or how can we help make someone successful? It’s like when we know someone’s coming with the MT-1 credential.

Karen VanCuren: It’s just a matter, really, of orienting them to our facility because we know they’re ready to go to work, and they understand the job, and what has to be done.

Rick Sizemore:Hershey is such an absolute champion of business and industry, and we appreciate you so very much. It’s time for a little transition music, so we move to our next … Is it? No.

Anne Hudlow:Oh, no.

Rick Sizemore:Okay. All right. Well, I’ll get some-

Anne Hudlow:It’s still not time.

Rick Sizemore:… commercially appropriate podcast music to transition to-

Anne Hudlow:Elevator music.

Rick Sizemore:… Debby Hopkins from Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board, who leads the Valley 2 Virginia effort, V2V. This has been such a pleasure getting to know Debby over the last couple of years as she has helped our MTT program become aligned with pre-apprentice training. Welcome, Debby.

Debby Hopkins:    I’m glad to be here, Rick.

Anne Hudlow:Debby, it’s always so nice to have you. She’s always so good at this podcast. It’s hard to follow her.

Rick Sizemore:Yeah. She’s a jewel.

Anne Hudlow:I don’t know. Yeah. It’s quite intimidating, but let’s start at the beginning, and talk about how V2V got involved with WWRC.

Debby Hopkins:    Well, in the beginning was when we were actually drafting the grant proposal in the first place in 2015. There is a national talent shortage in this country and both the current and the previous President agree, and have put funding behind apprenticeship as a wonderful way to be able to build the talent pipeline for the skills that we are not going to have. There’s no evidence that they’re coming back anytime soon, unless we take some effort. In the very beginning in 2015, we thought about Wilson. We knew a little bit about, just in general, some of the programs that they had, and thought they would be good partners. We also partnered with the Virginia Manufacturers Association, but until the MTT program really got started, and I got involved in that program, we hadn’t focused on that as what we would target for our pre-apprenticeship.

Debby Hopkins:    Once attending the Advisory Committee Meetings and seeing the companies who were engaged, and seeing that the curriculum was MT-1, but MT-1 on steroids because it has a tremendous amount of company input into the curriculum, very motivated instructors, very motivated individuals, and we knew this was the model that we wanted to turn into a pre-apprenticeship. In talking with Rick and talking with Jim Leech, and talking with Steven, and talking with the instructors, and talking with DARS we put together all of the elements to make sure that it did align with the Federal guidelines for a quality pre-apprenticeship program.

Rick Sizemore:Can you drill down a little-

Debby Hopkins:    Yep.

Rick Sizemore:… on what some of those elements are?

Debby Hopkins:    Well, first of all, it has to be very aligned and engaged with business. You cannot have a pre-apprenticeship program as if it were just another training that was training and saying, “We’re done, and hope you get a job.” No. You have to have companies who are registered apprenticeship sponsors, and who do want to hire these individuals into apprenticeship programs. That’s the number one. The second you need to have very quality instruction, and have in the MT-1, MS, MT-1, OSHA, forklift, all of these other credentials were going to be interim credentials. That would be very satisfying for that. The structure for us we wanted to have people who’ve not only got all the pre-requirements, such as the soft skills, such as being evaluated to make sure you can work in manufacturing. There’s an intense evaluation process.

Debby Hopkins:    That’s part of a pre-apprenticeship. You have to make sure that assessments are done so that you don’t just train someone and hope they can work in manufacturing. You make sure that their abilities, their disabilities, their attitudes, their soft skills will work in that environment, and add fantastic training onto it, and add the companies who want to pull them into their workforce. It was absolutely ideal, and so then we just needed to talk with Hershey because we knew they would be the model first one, and to try to show them that to have them take a good look at the production occupation. They were already a fantastic apprenticeship sponsor for many maintenance jobs, which is common in manufacturing, but this new apprentice role for production operators is not something that had really taken off very well.

Debby Hopkins:    Rick and I had a few meetings. We split lunch expenses a couple of times to take Karen out, and start really showing.

Rick Sizemore:When an idea is a good idea, you find a way.

Debby Hopkins:    You find a way.

Rick Sizemore:The whole idea was, “How are we going to get to Karen?” At the Mexican restaurant in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, and it worked. We had a great meeting that day and it just continued going forward because it just had to. I mean, there were all the pieces of the puzzle there and, of course, this driver of V2V and those federal partners have been absolutely essential. Put you on the spot. Do you recall the day that you did have a visit from Federal DOL? Came to-

Debby Hopkins:    Yes.

Rick Sizemore:… the MTT program. What was that like? What did they say?

Debby Hopkins:    Oh, well. This was pretty tremendous because with federal grants it always sounds great. “Oh, you’ve got four or five million dollars and you have these great initiatives.” Yes. They are federal programs, and they are routinely monitored, and then our site visit we visited five production operations, interviewed, I don’t know, maybe a dozen apprentices, participants in the program, and the highlight of the visit was really coming to Wilson, and then going from that going to Hershey, but we went to Wilson. The federal and the state apprenticeship officers with the U.S. Department of Labor got to talk with the instructors, got to talk with the students. They talked with another student. Chris had already graduated by that point, and they were extremely impressed with the quality of that pre-apprenticeship program.

Debby Hopkins:    I think people are still trying to wrap their heads around just what is pre-apprenticeship. You have to see it. You have to see it, and they could see it there. Then we left and went to Hershey, and got a chance for them to see the production operations, to see these apprentices in progress, and see it’s just evident there in talking with the managers that they were going to have careers, not just jobs. They were going to have fantastic careers. It was the highlight of the monitoring.

Rick Sizemore:I think one of the things that struck me that day you have folks who monitor grants. They’re numbers driven. They came to the classroom and they began to hear the stories from people whose lives had been radically changed because of disability. I think it was very touching for this fellow to sit and talk with our students, and hear these, actually, motivating and inspiring stories. It was a great day.

Anne Hudlow:Right.

Debby Hopkins:    We talked with, Matt, one of the students who had to leave the program because he got cancer, and as soon as he recovered he came back.

Rick Sizemore:Right.

Debby Hopkins:    Came back to the program, and he was there, and the U.S. Department of Labor representative gave him his card, and said, “You can call me anytime.”

Rick Sizemore:Yeah. My favorite story, I got a LinkedIn message at 10:45 one night from a mom who was just going out of her mind. Her son had found that he had cancer. He had to leave the program for surgery in Texas, and she said, “He’s not worried about the cancer. He’s worried about being able to return and finish this MTT program. Of course, we said, “Look. As soon as he’s up to it, you bring him back.” Of course, you know the rest of the story. He now works in Weyers Cave, Virginia in a manufacturing job. We’re so delighted about that.

Anne Hudlow:Absolutely. Debby, what does Chris’ success mean to demonstrate the value of the work that you’re doing?

Debby Hopkins:    What’s so interesting in having Chris and having Hershey is that now we can put a picture, and a story to really help show the rest of the country. We’ve been asked now for numerous federal level events. Next week, I’m going to Chicago talking about Chris again, talking about Hershey again because the world wants to see how in this low unemployment environment. How can we really tap into individuals who have been sidelined for no good reason. They’ve been sidelined. They need it. The country needs to have everybody who can work in the workforce. We need to tap into these individuals with disabilities and make sure that they are in these companies working in all of these jobs. Manufacturing and any other job, but to make sure that they are in there.

Debby Hopkins:  That has helped us a great deal to be able to show that we can be funded, and help grow the initiatives that we already have in place, and that other workforce boards, other colleges, other nonprofits around the country can take what we’ve done and do it in their work area.

Rick Sizemore:60 million people in this country have at least one disability. It’s a huge number of people, and I’ve been quoted as saying folks are knee deep in a river dying of thirst saying they can’t find employees when individuals with disabilities just like Chris every day can help meet that need. What we’ve not said this morning is that the partnership between Hershey and V2V, and our next guest, and if I can have some transition music with it … No?

Anne Hudlow:No.

Rick Sizemore:Okay.

Anne Hudlow:I have my new producer on speed dial if you play that harmonica.

Rick Sizemore:Let’s just move on.

Anne Hudlow:I’m getting a new producer.

Rick Sizemore:You said you would fire me if I played the harmonica.

Anne Hudlow:Yeah. I do. I have him on speed dial.

Rick Sizemore:Let’s move on to our next guest without any transition music. Emily West with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, key spokesperson for Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities has been an instrumental partner, along with V2V to make all of this work and come together. Emily, welcome. How did CPID get involved with Wilson Workforce?

 Emily West: Thanks, Rick. Well, CPID the project is funded by a five-year federal grant awarded to the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, and the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. We’re now in year four and, as Debby put so beautifully, Career Pathways is really a new way of looking at employment for individuals with disabilities, really helping them reach their full potential and independence. Our project offers a targeted use of VR professionals specializing in assessment, assistive technology, and business services. I’m talking about my team of Kate Kaegi, Paul Martin, and Tish Harris. They’re a fantastic team. What we do is we align these supports with in-demand careers, training, and education on both the systems and individual level.

 Emily West: The two industry sectors that we have focused on are modern manufacturing and IT, and we are very demand driven. We use labor market information, and we see ourselves as very responsive to the needs of business. We’re looking to equip our individuals with the skills, competencies, and credentials to help them attain these in-demand jobs, and increased earnings. Everything we’ve accomplished so far is a part of our strategic partnerships across all WIOA titles. That includes the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, Workforce Development Boards, adult education, the Virginia Employment Commission, VCCS and, of course, WWRC, Wilson. We’ve found that our workforce partners and our businesses are also really able to benefit greatly from these supports.

 Emily West: Career Pathways is a perfect fit with the WIOA common measures that we’re all looking at. That’s because of its focus on measurable skill gains, and ongoing wages, ongoing and upward trending. For vocational rehabilitation professionals, this will mean recommitting to the mission of VR with a focus on the long game: connected trainings leading to stackable industry-recognized credentials for both business and our WIOA partners. This means creating access to training that translates into retention for both business and opportunity for our consumers. It’s working. So far, our original goal for participants was 470 and we exceeded that at the end of year three. Our participants have earned over 140 industry-recognized credentials, as well as numerous foundational credentials, like the OSHA 10, and many of the credentials offered at Wilson.

 Emily West: We’ve successfully closed in integrated employment close to 80 cases so far.

Rick Sizemore:Wow.

Anne Hudlow:Wow.

Rick Sizemore:I know Anne’s not going to let you off the hook without asking a WIOA question, though.

 Emily West: Okay.

Anne Hudlow:You talked a little bit about the measures. Can you explain for those of us that need a little more information how that correlates with the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act?

 Emily West: Okay. Well, I would say that it correlates with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in that it gives us a chance to collaborate to meet these measures. For instance, co-enrollments. When sometimes we have something called order of selection at DARS, and that’s where we have funding issues, and so someone will be found eligible and what we can do then is work with our Workforce Development Boards, work with our American Job Centers to get them that entry way to the Career Pathway, that first training; then order of selection ends, and DARS or DBVI can go ahead and give them the next step on the Career Pathway, especially in manufacturing. A lot of our folks we have articulation agreements with Virginia Community Colleges, and a lot of them want to go onto mechatronics or welding. This gives them the opportunity to do so.

Rick Sizemore:That’s amazing.

 Emily West: So that would be one-

Rick Sizemore:That’s wonderful.

 Emily West: … example.

Rick Sizemore:CPID has been the glue and the synergy along with V2V that’s really helped us advance. Could you give us maybe some examples of the specific things? You know, details of how you’ve helped support MTT.

 Emily West: Absolutely. Working with the MTT program we created a mechanism to align services for graduating students called the Next Steps Meeting. Now, this is a student-driven meeting that brings together a resource team. We like to call it an integrated resource team of both DARS, Wilson, business development managers, job placement staff, autism experts to really focus on streamline and focus on employment planning process, and identify what supports we need to overcome barriers going forward. We created Next Steps forms, and this is a student-driven meeting. They fill the forms out before the meeting, and these cover essential planning for transportation. They deal with those questions like shift work, which Chris talked about because if you’re a newbie, you may not be getting that day shift. You may have to work the night shift, the swing shift.

 Emily West: The meetings really result in an increase of communication across the board, and that’s really what CPID is all about, collaboration. This really assists in their timely employment and long-term independence. We are looking to use this process with our workforce partners as well to promote affirmative referrals, and co-enrollments across all titles. We also have the MTT Readiness Group. In our work with business, especially in our demand side meetings, which we have held, and are going to hold next week, I believe, in the Peninsula Area, we hear again and again about the importance of employment readiness and soft skills.

 Emily West: The lack of these skills is really a huge barrier across all populations, not just individuals with disabilities. In terms of many of our folks in the MTT program do have developmental and emotional challenges, and trouble completing. They make a great start with the program, but they might have trouble completing the program. So being solution oriented we collaborated with Wilson instructors on a two-week MTT readiness group. We hired a positive behavioral support specialist, and created a curriculum for this pre-MTT program, including a handbook, an MTT value statement, and a facilitator assessment guide. Overall, our goal is to continue to build cross-agency partnerships by aligning processes and programs through collaboration and collaborative funding. We really believe that all partners benefit.

Anne Hudlow:That’s great.

Rick Sizemore:Well, great story from a great spokesperson, and a couple of federal grants that have really made a difference for people like Chris in companies like Hershey. Well, I was going to reach for the harmonica, but since I’ve been threatened, our next guest we have some special transition music. I think commensurate with his skill level [inaudible 00:48:04]. Joe Ashley, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services retiree has just finished up a marvelous career spanning several decades is now a private consultant, and we’ll look forward to his contributions going forward, but Joe. We wanted to give you an opportunity to sort of tell us what you think today’s conversation means.

Joe Ashley: Thank you, Rick. It’s a pleasure to be here, even as a retiree. I think the thing that I hear that I’m really pleased and proud of is the fusion. As the conference title, our theme, indicates, it’s about the fusion of the programs, and what you’re hearing is how an RSA, rehab services funded, grant around Career Pathways, a Department of Labor-funded grant, a Wilson, a VR program, and it also included some workforce partners in this process, worked with a business, and that’s the key. It’s all about the business engagement. If you understand what the business needs and you can address some of their pain points, you can in turn put a process and program together that will address the needs and dreams of a person like Chris. It was bringing all this together and the supports necessary, and it wasn’t that hard to do. It just took us a few years and learning.

Joe Ashley: It was being willing to try something a little different. Debby brought to us this pre-apprenticeship idea. One of my goals when we started CPID was to end up with some apprenticeships out of it. We just kept talking to them. On our first meeting at Wilson for the Career Pathways Grant, Debby was there with Sharon Johnson, the Director of the Workforce Board there, and Rick, and the instructors from the MTT program. We started talking about, “Well, what can we do?” It didn’t really gel until a few years later. It came together and this is the result of people working together addressing the needs of business as articulated by business, and we can address the soft skills issues. You heard that today and that’s important for those of us that are on the supply side, and those of us in the training industry. We can do it. It’s doable for our students so they can be successful. It’s a requirement.

Joe Ashley: I just want to say. I was very proud to hear the discussion, and how everything came together, Rick.

Rick Sizemore:Well, how does it make you feel ending up your career, particularly with such a successful venture like CPID to hear Chris’ story and hear from V2V and Hershey?

Joe Ashley: It’s been sort of a bookend for my career. I started in Virginia in ’85 looking at Career Pathways, and developing strategies to get people into Voc Ed, and then post secondary careers for individuals with disabilities. This new process, this Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities process requires more partners. All the work we’ve done in the past with our friends at the VCCS, and the Department of Labor grants have helped us build towards this. We understood the workforce system. We understood the partners that were available. We’ve also, through this conference, been able to learn more about the community colleges, and reach out to the vice presidents there to say, “We think we can work together to create opportunity.”

Joe Ashley: My passion is creating opportunities that will support the choice of individuals with disabilities to live and work in their communities, and it’s just been really exciting, and gratifying to see it come together when you hear a story like Chris’.

Rick Sizemore:How about a big hand acknowledging this marvelous career for Dr. Joe Ashley?

*Rick plays the harmonica (laughter)

Anne Hudlow:You did it.

Rick Sizemore:I’m going to be fired.

Anne Hudlow:You did it.

Rick Sizemore:Career-terminating event. I had to. I had to. (laughter from audience)

Anne Hudlow:I couldn’t do it without you. You know. What a great episode, Rick.  *tape rewind sound ending live show and return to the studio.

Rick Sizemore:I just loved that story, Anne, and hearing from all those great panelists out at HIRE Ed. Well, it’s time for our National Clearing House update with Cherie Takemoto. Welcome, Cherie.

Anne Hudlow:Hi there, Cherie.

Cherie Takemoto: Hi. It’s so nice to hear from you. You know it’s been a year since I first came out to WWRC for that first podcast.

Anne Hudlow:Wow. It’s been a year already. You know, that just flew for us.

Cherie Takemoto: Yes and it’s been so much fun pulling together resources for each month’s topic, so that our listeners can learn more if they’re interested.

Rick Sizemore:So what’s up, Cherie?

Cherie Takemoto: Well, this month I’d like to feature our December newsletter, which aligns with this podcast thing, the Year in Review. How’s that for timing?

Rick Sizemore:That’s great timing.

Cherie Takemoto: Looking back on the year, a few stats. Our site uses is up 72%. Twitter followers are up 53%, and I think that’s largely due to the interaction between the NCRTM, and the VR Workforce Studio podcast.

Rick Sizemore:Well, Cherie that’s certainly exponential growth. We’re excited to hear that things are moving in such a positive direction.

Cherie Takemoto: Yes. Our newsletter subscribers are up threefold. Do you think that has any relationship to your growing listening-dom?

Rick Sizemore:Well, we’d like to think so as we approach 40,000 listeners per episode. We’re very excited to be aligned with the Clearing House, and I believe we help each other and everyone in the VR community is benefiting from everything that’s going on in social media. Well, one of the cool things about the Clearing House is everything is fully accessible and that’s certainly a commitment that Anne and I share in bringing these podcasts, so make sure the people who listen and access the site are able to get the information they need.

Cherie Takemoto: Yes, and we encourage you to keep up with the latest resources in the VR world by subscribing to our newsletter. You can find our latest newsletter and subscribe through our website, This month, in addition to highlighting some of our favorite resources from 2018, we have new resources from our TA Centers in business engagement, customized employment, and a VR toolkit for SSI youth from our Youth Technical Assistance Center.

Rick Sizemore:Well, Cherie thanks for that wonderful report and for being such a partner with the VR Workforce Studio, and best of luck to you throughout the year.

Cherie Takemoto: Thank you. Happy New Year.

Anne Hudlow:Happy New Year, Cherie.

Rick Sizemore:Well, Anne I know you want to talk about some of those powerful partnerships in podcasting.

Anne Hudlow:That’s right, Rick. The WWRC Foundation is grateful for the continued assistance that we receive in support of the Center. Additionally, we extend our thanks to our wonderful partners in podcasting who have made this episode possible. Career Pathways for individuals with disabilities, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CVS Health, Dominion Energy, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Hershey Chocolate Company, Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, the Valley 2 Virginia Grant, Wells Fargo, and the Community Foundation of Central Blue Ridge.

Rick Sizemore:We can’t forget our friends at the Global Impact Today Radio Network, and the Virginia Voice.

Anne Hudlow:Well, we thank you for joining us today. We encourage you to sign up for our newsletter, and to visit us online at

Rick Sizemore:Well, as we finish up today, here are some reflections from a Wilson graduate who now works in IT about the experience of vocational rehabilitation. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.

Anne Hudlow:And I’m Anne Hudlow.

Rick Sizemore:With the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.

Speaker 13: I have a couple of disabilities. One is generalized anxiety disorder and the other is recurrent major depressive disorder. I’ve had to learn over time skills that would allow me to sort of overcome that barrier, and being here, an environment that accommodates for that, has allowed me to definitely work on improving that. I got so many resources here that allow me to make me feel empowered to go into the workforce. I’ve got my instructors, the administrative staff, my counselor, and just a whole bunch of people that I’ve met here, as well as the credentials that I’ve gotten in this facility during my program.

Speaker 13: The main credential that’s being strived for in the program is CompTIA A+. That is a fantastic certification for getting into the information technology field. It shows corporations and employers that you are knowledgeable in a wide variety of technical troubleshooting and repair skills, and including software and hardware. It’s very comprehensive. A lot of jobs are looking for it. The environment really promotes growth and development and really has an individualistic approach to helping its clients deal with managing and overcoming their disabilities. That is really spectacular in the sense that it allows these individuals to grow, and develop, and move onto the next chapter of their life much more quickly and effectively than I think could be possible anywhere else.

Speaker 14: VR Workforce Studio, inspiration, education, and affirmation at work. The Workforce and Disability Employment Podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, a division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our foundation at and is available in iTunes and at