The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 10, 2013

Program puts workers on the right track

Eight-week program features classroom training, hands-on experience at area businesses

By Tim Krohn
tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com

---- — When customers call Land to Air to schedule rides to the airport, Lily Poss does all the normal booking work — giving the customer route options, taking credit card information and scheduling the trip.

But customers often ask her about the soft, fast-talking they hear in the background. She tells them it's her assistive computer telling her what's on the screen.

Poss was born with limited vision and lost all sight in 2006. Her laptop computer — which reads 120 words a minute or more and talks quickly to Poss — allows her to work rapidly and with ease.

"It tells me everything on the screen. I get to drop down boxes by certain key strokes — the 'c' key gets me to the box where you pick which credit card they're using," Poss explained.

Jason Mekalson, general manager of Land to Air, who hired Poss in 2011 after she completed a jobs training program at MRCI, said Poss also works quickly because she has a near photographic memory.

"The first day she was here she pretty much had our whole schedule memorized. I still get confused on it. She can remember phone numbers from days ago," Mekalson said.

Poss also has a smartphone app that lets her scan bills that customers hand her when they are in the office and paying by cash. The app reads out what denomination each bill is as she accepts it and makes change.

"People are interested. They ask me about how the different things work," she said.

The permanent job was made possible for Poss by the MRCI Track to Success job skills training and placement service, an eight-week program that features classroom training and hands-on experience at area businesses.

"The goal is to give our employees the skills they need to work out in the community and to be able to be competitive to get a job and to hold a job," said Tom Rivers, coordinator of the Track to Success program.

"In the end, what it really gives them is confidence."

MRCI serves people with disabilities or disadvantages with clients working at MRCI-operated production facilities or at area businesses. MRCI employees, for example, package or assemble everything from cans of chicken to toys for a wide variety of companies.

Track to Success aims to give people a better shot at landing a permanent job in the community.

The classes cover things like customer service, communication skills, speaking in front of groups, hygiene and health, handling a checking account and job-search skills.

Rivers said focus is also put on "soft skills," like body language, greeting people and understanding that people have different personalities.

While they are in the classroom each morning of the week, students go to participating area businesses in the afternoons to get some hands-on experience. A broad array of local businesses work with MRCI, from Hy-Vee, Culvers and Lowe's to thrift stores, repair shops and bus companies.

Once students graduate from the program Rivers works with them to apply for specific jobs. "I talk to them about what kind of jobs they'd be interested in and have the skills for and then I look for jobs that match their skills and abilities."

When a specific open job is identified, Rivers calls the business and explains the Track to Success story and seeks an interview for the graduate. Rivers tags along for the job interview.

Of the first six graduating classes, Rivers has seen 64 percent of graduates hired by businesses in the community.

Each class has about six to eight students who are referred for the Tracks to Success program by the state Services for the Blind and Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

While in the Track to Success program, Poss interned at Land to Air. After graduating, Mekalson hired her. "She picks things up very quickly, she adapts very well. Our call load is crazy. She really handles it well," he said.

"Her disability doesn't run her life. She's joked about learning to drive."

Poss said Track to Success gave her job skills but also gave her something more important. "It gave me a lot of confidence. I'm kind of shy around people," said the 39-year-old Poss. "I really like people but I'm really shy when I first meet them. In Track to Success they talked about how to talk with people, how to deal with people who are angry."

The state Services for the Blind helped pay for and set up the adaptive computer equipment Poss uses on her job. If bad weather prevents her from getting to the office, Poss can work from her North Mankato home.

"None of this would have happened without Track to Success and Jason and Services for the Blind," Poss said.

On the web: www.mrciworksource.org