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Autism program launches work training center for its students

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Somerset Hills Learning Institute, a nonprofit program in Bedminster for students with autism, is launching a center to help advance the careers of its students.

The institute said it plans to partner with local businesses to provide job skills training— including interview skills, work flow completions and colleague interactions.

There is no fee associated with the service, and the institute is already in touch with employers interested in helping employ individuals with autism.

“Unfortunately, there is a woeful lack of funding to meaningfully support adults with autism in terms of career development,” Somerset Hills said in a statement to NJBIZ. “Regrettably, there are little efficiencies created through a model that values career choice, rather than caravanning many clients to the same job with one job coach.”

Somerset Hills also purchased Three Meadows Farm in Bedminster last year, and has made it a work training center for the students.

“Over the first five years of operating our hydroponic social enterprise, revenue is projected to increase to $750,000 annually. Providing individualized employment procurement and support services produces an average annual deficit of $67,000 per adult served. Without a social enterprise, an investment in a workforce that includes people with autism is cost-prohibitive. After exploring many options, Somerset Hills Learning Institute can look forward to continuing to change lives over the lifespan,” the institute said.

The new career center will take that a step further by helping individuals find work based on their interests, and they will be accompanied by a life coach to the workplace until they are ready to work solo.

When a local business, like Staples, Wee People Daycare or the Morris County Courthouse, has had employment opportunities, it has previously reached out to Somerset Hills, the institute said.

There is a growing trend in New Jersey with businesses increasingly aware of the unemployed yet eligible work force in the state, including efforts from Rutgers University.

In addition, there are small businesses paying attention.

Most recently, Jill Ruitenberg of Skillman-based Ruitenberg Lind Design Group hired two autistic adults who were students at Eden Autism in Princeton.

The two adults, Alex Rich and Andy Zhang, are working at the company’s design and production plants to help clean.

“If I know any (other business) owner, I’d recommend they try this. Even if it doesn’t work out, at least the student has the ability to go for interviews, and even that is good,” Ruitenberg said.

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