Last August, which feels like a lifetime ago, I was given the opportunity to work as a trainer for the Walgreens REDI training program. The program is designed to give people with disabilities a real opportunity for employment by giving them a 3 week training/trial period with the hopes that they will pass the employee assessment and be recommended for hire. Most Walgreens employees are given a very short training period without much support. I was hired by the non-for profit organization Deerfield Coalition whose mission is to help match people with disabilities to jobs in the community. As the trainer, I was given 2 days of on -the -job training at a local Walgreens. I was taught how to manage point of sale transactions, stock shelves, maintain the stock room, and offer excellent customer service to the patrons of Walgreens.
After my 2 days of training, I had an opportunity to meet with my 3 trainees off site. We talked about important details such as dress and hygiene for work. We also talked about some of the Walgreens lingo and we role played many scenarios. I was able to take my new trainees to do a walk through of a different Walgreens store so we could simply make observations. I showed them examples of what they would be doing. We also made some purchases and felt like secret shoppers as we observed and waited to hear the very specific Walgreens language and transaction sequence.
Then, our training began. I was able to get to know these “kids” very well. We talked candidly about their challenges and their successes. We got to know the employees and managers of Walgreens and we also got to know the Walgreens shoppers very well. As we stocked shelves, unloaded trucks, helped customers find medicine and bandages, and took our breaks in the break room, we chatted about what it means to work hard and keep a job.
As a special ed teacher, I am constantly searching for ways to make modifications or give students accommodations to help them learn and show what they know. During this experience working side by side with people with disabilities in the workplace, it occurred to me that at the end of the day you really need to be able to do the job and work hard. My trainees worked very, very hard. I had high expectations for them and did not coddle or enable them and they rose to the challenge. At the end of the three weeks, I’m proud to say that all three of my trainees passed the assessment and were recommended for hire. I’m also very proud of the fact that they were just as good, if not better, than the existing employees.
Here are a few things that made this experience successful.
1. My trainees were capable of doing the job.
Working at Walgreens retail stores requires many different skills. From making change, to dealing with an unhappy customer, the employees have to be prepared to think on their feet to ensure that the shoppers have a positive experience. My trainees needed some scaffolding, extra explanation, quality control and practice, but they each had the ability to do the job and do it well.
2. The trainer was an excellent role model.
Yes, I’m going to pat myself on the back here. I decided when I started this project that I was going to smile every day and be the best Walgreens employee I could possibly be. Through being positive, getting to know the other employees and shoppers, and working hard every day, the trainees saw an example of what it would take for them to be successful. I was very clear regarding expectations. It was not all fun and it was not all easy, but they never heard me complain and they watched me learn from my own mistakes. I did not dance around issues. We talked about them as they arose and problem-solved together. I also did not hide mistakes that I made. I was new too and it was important for my trainees to see that making mistakes is not what will get you fired, it’s not learning from them.
3. We did not discuss the fact that they had disabilities.
They were recommended for the program because of their abilities, not their disabilities. I took a very strength-based approach and made it clear that everyone has their issues but they cannot get in the way of doing a good job. I think this was empowering for the trainees. Coming from years of special education classes and talking about their gaps in learning, I think it was helpful and refreshing for these young people to be treated like all of the other employees.
4. We shared the gift of communication.
The three week training period allowed for lots of feedback and 2-way communication. They were able to tell me what things were helpful, or not, and I was able to share with them the things that I noticed that were going well and what areas needed attention. I think this was wonderful practice for real workplace communication which can be so difficult as we often don’t know how to give or ask for effective feedback.
5. We found things to enjoy.
There are parts of every job that are less than enjoyable. During our three weeks we talked a lot about our favorite parts of the job. One of the trainees was very nervous working the cash register, but loved being in the cosmetics department. Another really found enjoyment in helping customers find items in the store. The third became a whiz at the register and said that the time just flew by. Being able to identify those parts of the job that make us happy certainly helps add to job satisfaction and retention. At the end of the three weeks these young people had very specific tasks that they could identify as areas of strength and also things that they genuinely take pleasure in.
As more and more teens with disabilities transition to adulthood and hopefully the workforce, experiences such as the REDI program and organizations like Deerfield Coalition should be examined and replicated. People with disabilities can make wonderful, loyal, long lasting employees, they may just need more time and training from the start. Employers should note that this time and training is an investment well worth taking and that everyone deserves a chance.