Empowering Unique Abilities
Joe Breeden works quietly — assembling and inspecting catheters inside the clean room at a Medtronic manufacturing site in Plymouth, Minnesota. His managers rave about his work ethic and attendance record, but it’s something else about Breeden that makes his work even more remarkable.
Like millions of other people living with autism and other cognitive or developmental disabilities, Breeden has trouble processing certain types of information. As a young child in school, learning was difficult. But a community program that helps students like Breeden transition from high school to adulthood opened the door to Medtronic.
Breeden began at the company two years ago as part of a Medtronic partnership with Project SEARCH, an immersive internship experience for people with intellectual and developmental challenges or other qualifying health issues. The students go through a rigorous job selection and interview process before they are chosen for the nine-month program.
A “Typical” Day at the Office
Project SEARCH interns begin each day with an hour of life-skills and work-skills classes, followed by four hours of onsite experience. The interns learn about several aspects of the business. They participate in three, 10-week job rotations in different settings — from assisting in an office to helping in an assembly room.
“Some of the interns have had jobs before, but typically those jobs are in fast food, custodial, or retail,” said Karen Aalund, a Project SEARCH Instructor at Medtronic. “Medtronic teaches the interns technical skills, whether in manufacturing, an office, warehouse, IT, or in a research lab. It expands their view of what careers are available to them.”
25 Years of Thriving
The idea for Project SEARCH began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where Project SEARCH founder and hospital nurse Janet ‘Erin’ Riehle looked to hire people with disabilities, but saw many of the candidates needed additional training.
“We know that people with disabilities can do things that are very complex as long as there’s an element to them that’s routine,” said Riehle. “But to thrive in a professional setting, they also need some workplace appropriate social skills and an understanding of productivity and quality that isn’t necessarily taught in schools.”
Partnering with special educators to develop the internship curriculum, the program received accolades and soon earned attention from other companies that wanted to copy the Project SEARCH success.
In 2009, Medtronic became the first major corporation based in Minnesota to partner with Project SEARCH. Since then, the company has hosted a class of up to 10 interns each year, at various manufacturing locations, like its Plymouth-Nathan Lane facility, or corporate offices. Riehle credits an innovative mindset at Medtronic for the program’s success.
“Some businesses would say, ‘A person with disabilities can’t do this kind of work.’ But that’s not in Medtronic’s nature. They’re optimistic. People at Medtronic think outside the box. They’re taught not to create limits, and they know anything is possible. That’s what makes Medtronic an ideal partner for Project SEARCH,” said Riehle.
The Medtronic/Project SEARCH partnership has been so successful, Riehle often holds it up as an example when talking to other organizations. She says if a massive, global, medical technology company like Medtronic can make the Project SEARCH program work, any business can. That proof point has helped the Project SEARCH program expand to more than 600 companies around the world.
Launching Careers that Make an Impact
The ultimate goal for the interns is competitive employment — making sure they build impressive, resume-worthy experience and references to help launch their careers. On average, Project SEARCH host businesses tend to hire about 37% of their interns. At Medtronic, Joe Breeden is one of them.
“I knew it was a big honor getting to become a full-time employee,” said Breeden. “I was really excited and happy because I like working for Medtronic, and I thought it was really fun.”
Breeden’s colleagues see the benefits of having him on their team, too.
“We see higher morale in the teams where these interns are placed,” said Jennifer Johnson, a Medtronic human resources director and Project SEARCH business liaison. “It opens the eyes of some of our employees and expels myths or stereotypes about what people with different abilities are able to do.”
Breeden said there’s a lot he enjoys about his job, including the people he’s met, but he’s most proud of the company’s impact on patients.
“I like the idea that the work I’m doing is helping to save lives,” said Breeden.