A Fort Wayne retailer sends out some 4,000 shipments every day, and at the start of the distribution line is shipping specialist Sam Miller, assembling box after box with meticulous attention to detail. Miller is part of a new program in northeast Indiana that’s training people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to fill entry-level positions at logistics operations. Just weeks away from its first class of “graduates,” the program helps students earn a nationally-recognized industry certification, and employers gain a new pool of job candidates.

“When you’re growing at the rate that we are,  and you’re hiring three to six employees every week, [hiring] is a challenge,” says Sweetwater Sound, Inc. Human Resources Senior Vice President Jeff McDonald.

The second-largest music retailer in the U.S., Sweetwater Sound found one of its most reliable employees through Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana, which provides services and resources for children and adults with a wide range of disabilities. The organization recently launched the Job Education & Training (JET) program to meet two needs in the community: people with disabilities struggling to find employment and logistics operations hungry for entry-level workers.

“We’re seeing some businesses here locally start to understand that people with disabilities  are really quite capable of being productive—if not exceptional workers in positions that they’re having a difficult time filling,” say Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana President and Chief Executive Officer Donna Elbrecht.

As part of the program, JET is partnering with Ivy Tech Corporate College to provide Certified Logistics Associate (CLA) classes, which teach concepts for positions in shipping and receiving departments of distribution centers. When the pilot program ends in December, the JET students will test for CLA industry certification, just like any other person taking the course at Ivy Tech.

“Our folks are very reliable when it comes to positions with any kind of repetition—that’s actually one thing they excel at,” says Elbrecht. “If it’s repetitive—maybe something where other people would get bored and start losing quality—our folks have laser focus.”

The JET program includes High School Equivalency classes that emphasize reading, math and language, and Elbrecht says logistics quickly emerged as a promising avenue to parlay learning into employment. About five JET students are currently pursuing the CLA certification, but Sweetwater leaders say Miller was “such a natural fit” that they hired him while he was still training.

“Without him creating that box flow, our logistics would not happen like it does every day,” says Sweetwater Sound Vice President of Distribution Brian Randol. “The other employees love him, he’s reliable and a very good communicator. He asks a lot of questions when he has a concern, or he wants to make sure he’s doing something right. He has that mentality to go above and beyond to make the operation smoother.”

Sweetwater leaders say Miller—who has a “very contagious” positive attitude—is every bit as productive as an employee without disabilities and believe more logistics operations in the area could benefit by hiring JET graduates.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to work with a local not-for-profit that has a great mission and try to help them place people who other employers might at first be reluctant to interview,” says McDonald. “It’s all about putting the right person in the right seat on the bus. Whether they’re disabled or not, you have to say, ‘What’s the job that fits their skillset and that they can succeed in?’ And we just hit a home run with Sam.”

Elbrecht says, for the first time in her career, businesses have become “the champions for this effort,” realizing the impact people with disabilities can have on work force shortages.

“Our folks are friendly and eager; they’ve wanted to work for so long that they’re just happy to be there and part of the team,” says Elbrecht. “[Local companies] tell us it’s been a real struggle to find reliable individuals who can show up on time for work every day and be ready to work. Our clients with disabilities are ready to go. The business community is seeing that, and it’s really exciting.” 

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Elbrecht says the business community seems very excited about a potential new group of people to fill open positions.

Elbrecht says a similar job training program is beginning at a local hospital.

Randol says Sam started with three days per week, but was promoted to work four days per week, due to his desire to go “above and beyond.”