Preparing for the Trip: High School Work Experience

Did you know that a paid job in high school is one of the strongest predictors of community employment for the two years following high school for students with significant disabilities? In fact, those students with paid work during high school are almost 3 times more likely to have community employment after high school. So how can students start moving toward that goal?

Well there are many programs to help students figure out what they want to do, prepare, and practice starting at age 14—like the Community Work Transition Program and Build Inclusion. And students can also get support from Kentucky Vocational Rehabilitation at age 16 to apply for jobs and get work. Some students also directly apply for jobs that interest them.

We’ve shared earlier stories of Andy Meredith and Grayson Kemplin getting jobs in high school. Our friend, Caleb who has Down syndrome, applied directly to work at Chic-Fil-A when he was 17-years-old. His mom, Mollie, describes:

Caleb got a job with Chick-Fil-A (CFA) in 2019. He had mentioned that he wanted to work for them before, but one night while we were eating out, the owner of the 3 CFAs in our town happened to come in. I mentioned to Caleb that he owned them and that one day he might have to interview with him to get a job there (totally thinking in the future). Caleb stood up and said “Let’s do it!” I had him sit down and do a practice run through of what he might say, and he just walked up to Kevin and introduced himself and said he wanted a job. Kevin was so gracious and said for us to email him. So we did and the rest is history! Caleb interviewed with the district hiring person and then with one of the store managers. He was hired as dining room staff with the responsibility of sweeping, cleaning tables, and cleaning trays. He worked for almost a year before COVID shut down their dining room.

Sometimes I think we assume that students with disabilities are getting work experiences in high school so that they can get a job after graduation, but working during high school is one of the most beneficial steps they can take toward employment as adults. It’s also a time when many of their peers are also working at places like grocery stores, fast food chains, and movie theaters, so applying for a job is age-appropriate and gives them opportunities to make friends and utilize peer supports. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Is your student interested in getting a job in high school?
  2. Would your student be motivated to work by getting paid or working alongside friends?
  3. What kind of work would you student like to do, and where do their friends work? This can help you decide what high school jobs would be the best fit.
  4. Consider transportation. You will want to make sure your student can get to and from work by walking or riding a bike, taking public transportation, getting a ride, or providing their own transportation. Make sure you have alternative forms of transportation in a pinch.
  5. What are some special considerations? For example, if you student has severe nut allergies, a job at department store might be a better fit than an ice cream shop.
  6. What steps do you need to take to get a job? Some students may be ready to just apply for a job directly and get supports afterwards from an employer or a job coach through a service or Voc Rehab. Others may need to get help exploring their interests and finding a job through organizations like Voc Rehab, CWTP, or Build Inclusion. There is no right or wrong way to do it; you can customize what you do based on the needs and preferences of your student.
When students are given the opportunity to work in high school, then employment as an adult becomes the next logical step. Read this story of high school employment from Mitchell Levitz, an adult advocate and author with Down syndrome. He currently serves as a consultant/advisor on national projects after retiring from a long career as program staff at the Westchester Institute for Human Development in New York:
“When I turned 14-years-old, I got my working papers so that I could earn money. I got a job working in my family’s social catering business called Colonial Terrace, The Mansion-on-the-Hill. I was hired as a bus-person to work with the wait staff. I worked mostly on the weekends at wedding and other special occasions. After years of experience, I also helped to train other bus people. I learned a lot from working, such as following instructions and interacting with customers”.

Please take a minute to share in the comments how your jobs in high school may have prepared you for employment in the future.