Special-needs students get practice with job interviews

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Kevin Araujo, 19, of Pleasant Hills, is an independent worker, quick to grasp technical concepts, knowledgeable about various computer languages and interested in robotics.

With those skills Kevin should prove valuable in the job market, and on Thursday, dressed in a dapper suit and tie, he was learning how to sell himself to employers.

To do so, Kevin, who is deaf, used an interpreter to participate in an interview with Beth Plocki, manager of human resources at Sodexo Education, a food service company that holds the University of Pittsburgh among its clients. He got that opportunity through the Mock Interview Event for special needs young adults held at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit headquarters in Homestead. The event was sponsored by the Allegheny County/City of Pittsburgh Transition Coordinating Council.

Special-needs students learn job interview skills

Special-needs students from throughout Allegheny County learn job nterview skills from business leaders. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/10/2013)

The council, founded in 1994, is composed of volunteers who work for the schools, agencies and institutions that serve special needs students. Its purpose is to help transition the students to the workplace.

Kevin, who attends Thomas Jefferson High School and the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, already is working at a robotics internship at Carnegie Mellon University and plans to attend California University of Pennsylvania in the fall to study robotics. While Ms. Plocki had questions for Kevin about his skills and interests, he had questions for her as well, such as what kind of benefits her company provided to employees.

Through his interpreter Lori Daylida, Kevin said he learned how to make his resume stronger. "I think it's a little weak and needs a few changes," he said.

Kevin was among about 75 students who participated in the event. They ranged in age from 16 to 21 and came from the Allegheny Valley, Chartiers Valley, Hampton, Moon, Northgate, Pittsburgh Public, South Fayette and Upper St. Clair school districts. In addition, students from Pressley Ridge, Sunrise, Wesley Spectrum schools, Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and Propel and Spectrum charter schools participated.

Employer interviewers for the event were secured by members of the council and provided with suggestions on how to interview the students. Sample questions included asking students about their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and any job experiences.

The students prepared at their home schools by learning about appropriate interview clothing, preparing resumes and learning interview behaviors such as direct eye contact and hand shaking.

Will Wieble, of McCandless, a student at Pressley Ridge, told interviewers his interests include nature walks and animals and that he would someday like to work at an animal preserve or do conservation work.

Aaron Bildhauer, 19, also of McCandless, a student at City Connections, a program for special needs students ages 18 to 21 operated through a partnership between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Community College of Allegheny County, talked at length with Lisa Bowlin, director of sales at the Courtyard by Marriott Waterfront. Together they identified some of Aaron's strengths, including his attention to detail and his ability to quickly spot a problem, and how they might translate into the job market.

Aaron said the interview process was "better than I thought it would be."

Lee Ann Wagner-Cica, co-chair of the transition council and Aaron's teacher, said the mock interview event was important for the students because it was their first exposure to the interviewing process and the transition from school to the workforce. "We practice with them, but they know us. The value of this is that the interviewers are someone they don't know who can give them honest feedback," Ms. Wagner-Cica said.

The volunteers who conducted the interviews will give a written evaluation to the students and their teachers so they can improve their interviewing skills and the students were taught to write thank you letters to their interviewers.

Bryan Baer, general manager of the Bud Baer car dealership in Washington, said he tried to draw the students out of their shells in interviews by getting them to talk about themselves and make eye contact. "Eye contact is something with these kids. Some of them have a hard time with it," Mr. Baer said.

He understood perhaps better than the other employers about the challenges the students face because his 8-year-old daughter is autistic. "More than anything I'm trying to help them get more comfortable. For them it's a lot more work to talk with strangers," he said.

education - region

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published May 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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