For several days a week, Evan Hodge can be found working at his job as a courtesy clerk at a Kroger store near his hometown of Rochester. The 24-year-old greets customers, helps bag groceries and uses a pulley system to retrieve shopping carts from outside the building, among other responsibilities.

He landed his job last October, after taking part in several OUCARES Pre-Employment Skills Trainings, 12-week workshops that are specifically designed to help individuals with autism prepare to enter the workforce. Each training has roughly six participants, ages 18 and up.

“This is my first official job,” said Hodge, who works up to 30 hours per week. Hodge said his job brings him into contact with a diverse population and that treating each customer with respect is his highest priority.

“The customers are from different ethnicities and age groups,” Hodge said. “It’s important to be accepting of everyone, regardless of their status.”

Hodge credits his experiences at the pre-employment training with helping him gain the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace. The workshops focus on helping participants identify and achieve career-related goals. Participants get individualized support crafting a resume and cover letter, developing interview skills by going through mock interviews with employers, and are taught the social norms and appropriate behaviors to maintain quality employment.

Hodge said the mock interviews are a good learning experience, as participants receive “constructive feedback” and are more confident when going into a real interview. He appreciated the supportive environment, calling the workshop facilitators “the kindest people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”

“What really stands out is the acceptance they give you,” he said.

According to OUCARES Director Kristin Rohrbeck, the employers who visit the workshops also provide participants with a real-world perspective on what it is like to work in various fields.

“We have connections to employers throughout Oakland and Macomb County,” Rohrbeck said. “For each training, we bring in employers that the participants are interested in working with in order to tailor the program to meet their individual needs.”

Examples have included pet care, child care and banking, Rohrbeck added.

Along with a focus on job-related skills, the pre-employment trainings emphasize “soft skills” such as communication, social awareness, teamwork, problem-solving, appropriate dress and grooming. These skills are particularly important when it comes to breaking down the barriers to employment that those with autism face.

“There’s a stigma that people with autism and other special needs face in terms of gaining and maintaining employment,” Rohrbeck said. “Oftentimes, they may have difficulties such as knowing how to interact, following directions, understanding boundaries and responding appropriately to social cues and gestures. The OUCARES trainings help the participants develop an awareness of how to conduct themselves in a professional setting.”

The program has a high success rate, according to Rohrbeck, as roughly 75 percent of participants find employment after attending the workshop or go on to pursue additional education toward a career goal.

“Both of these outcomes are great because the participants end up either employed or on a path to being employed,” Rohrbeck said.

OUCARES will be offering its next pre-employment training from February 27 to May 19. Limited scholarships are available up to $2,500 thanks to support from the Ted Lindsay Foundation. The sessions run Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. at Meadows Learning Center, 1435 West Auburn Road, Rochester, Michigan.

Applications are available at oakland.edu/oucares. For more information, email oucares@oakland.edu.