Christopher “C.J.” Calhoun loves the sense of accomplishment that comes with checking off everything on the list he’s given daily when he shows up for work at The Nelson Company in Fairfield.

For roughly the past 17 months, Calhoun has been serving as one of the last checks on the machine shop’s production before its farm machinery parts go out the door. He cleans off any rust and paint spillage left on iron castings, oils anything that needs to be oiled, then boxes parts for shipment.

“I enjoy what I do,” Calhoun said. “There’re some things about the job that I don’t really care to do, but I do them anyways… I love working with my hands. I love putting things together.”

C.J.’s new found career came together thanks to close cooperation between Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS) and IowaWORKS in Ottumwa.

Born with some learning barriers, Calhoun received special education classes in high school before he was referred to IVRS to prepare for the workforce. He eventually landed a job stocking shelves and handling carts at a local supermarket. But when that job later ended, C.J. remained unemployed for several years.

Quincy Smith, a rehabilitation counselor for IVRS in Ottumwa, ultimately reached out to Miranda Millhouse, a career planner at the local IowaWORKS office, for assistance in helping find C.J. a job. Smith referred to the hand-off as a normal collaboration between the agencies. It’s something that Iowa Workforce Development leaders hope to increase after July 1, when a recently approved state government reorganization plan will take effect and turn IVRS into a division inside IWD.

Millhouse worked with Calhoun to assess his interests and find a career where he could be both successful and fulfilled. She eventually approached The Nelson Company about a Work Experience Program (WEP) – a federally funded internship that’s designed to encourage employers to hire someone who otherwise may face a significant barrier to employment. As part of the program, the company agrees to provide one-on-one job coaching for a prospective employee (who meets certain economic criteria). In return, the program tries to lower the risk for employers by covering wages and worker’s compensation insurance for a set amount of time.

The goal is that job candidates receive permanent employment after the initial period is over. But that isn’t required, and it doesn’t always happen.

“I’ve had several WEPs, and they don’t always work out,” Millhouse said. “Individuals aren’t always as dedicated to showing up on time or performing tasks.”

That was not a problem in Calhoun’s case.

“C.J. is a good type of employee to have – not for anything special, just that he takes pride in the work that he does,” said Clint Hardin vice president of manufacturing for The Nelson Company. “He wants to do it right. That’s pretty important for the job that we have him doing.

“It’s something that I don’t think you can train for,” Hardin said. “A person either has it or they don’t. You’ve got people like C.J. that are going to be out there plugging at it, which is a good quality to have.”

For Miranda Millhouse, C.J. Calhoun is an example of what can happen when IowaWORKS and its partners are able to match the right kind of worker with the right kind of employer. “Helping one individual might not change the world, but it might change the world for them,” she said. “These small victories are why we’re doing it.”

Beth Townsend, Director of Iowa Workforce Development, hopes the victories will multiply once the new state government structure kicks in on July 1. The hope is that reorganization soon will have IVRS team members working more closely with IowaWORKS career planners – opening the door for even greater coordination and an expansion of services to each agency’s current clients.

“We want every person in C.J.’s situation to find a career that can make them happy and productive at the earliest possible moment in their work life,” Townsend said. “By working more closely together, the two agencies can help individuals like C.J. find opportunities faster. We want to expand their awareness of opportunities available to them from the beginning of the first job search activity.”

For more information on the Work Experience Program, visit our website.