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Students compete in work-based skills contest

Students and advisors walk through a room filled with vendors to help transition them into the workforce after high school. -- Jenae Hackensmith/jenae.hackensmith@austindailyherald.com

Students and advisors walk through a room filled with vendors to help transition them into the workforce after high school. — Jenae Hackensmith/jenae.hackensmith@austindailyherald.com

Austin Public Schools came together Wednesday with other area schools to help teach special education students a variety of job skills.

About 30 high school students from Austin, Albert Lea, Northfield and Southern Minnesota Education Cooperative came together at St. Olaf Lutheran Church Wednesday to compete in the first annual Work Skills Challenge Day.

“This is a competition for students who receive special education services, and it’s a collaborative day between different school districts and agencies throughout Southeastern Minnesota,” Erin Gustafson, work based learning coordinator for Albert Lea area schools, said. “And it’s our first annual.”

The three competition areas included filling out a job application, a mock interview, and general work knowledge. The event also connected students with agencies and services in the area that could be beneficial to them now or throughout their lives.

The event has been in the works for the last two to three years, and there will be another event held in Winona next week for eastern Minnesota.

“This is being based off an event that has been going on for 30 years up in North Branch, and somebody heard about it and we thought this would be an awesome thing to have here for our students,” Gustafson said.

Vendors from area service providers and businesses such as housing resources, Riverland Community College, Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living, Job Corps. and more were at the event. The keynote speaker was Jim Jayes, who shared a strong message.

“He was able to keep those kids laughing and still throughout his presentation he delivered a very strong message of ‘You can do it, you just need to try and don’t give up,’” said Sara Gilberg, work based learning coordinator at the Austin High School.

Students fill out job applications during an event at St. Olaf Lutheran Church to help transition them into the workforce after high school on Wednesday.

Students fill out job applications during an event at St. Olaf Lutheran Church to help transition them into the workforce after high school on Wednesday.

Gilberg explained the event is for students looking to strengthen their career skills, but each school individually did not have enough students to put on the event. So they decided to collaborate.

“We needed a larger group in order to put one on,” she said. “ … So this is a collaboration amongst all of the work coordinators and transition coordinators in Region 10 to put this event on.”

Gilberg noted the need is great for a program like this.

“There’s a terrific need,” she said. “First of all, our students with disabilities are wonderful workers and they can do many many things, and I think that’s an employee demographic that’s been underserved in employment.”

“We want to showcase our students’ abilities and we want to show the employers in our community how awesome our students are and what they can do,” she continued. “And we want to give our students a broader base of experience by collaborating with other school districts.”

Organizers hoped students would gain experience interacting with people they don’t know, and being in a professional interview, doing a professional application and being judged by people who work with human resources every day.

“They’re going to gain experience, they’re going to gain confidence, they’re going to meet new people, they’re going to learn about possibilities and opportunities, and they’re going to have fun,” she said.