Q&A: Learning on the job

A conversation with David McDermott

David McDermott at Perk Cafe.

Lead Job Coach David McDermott with student employees at Perk Café. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

David McDermott’s job actually involves many jobs.

As lead job coach at Perkins, McDermott accompanies students to dozens of work sites on and off campus, helping them gain crucial vocational experience in real-world settings. McDermott recently talked with Perspectives about how he supports students in their vocational exploration.

What types of jobs do Perkins students have?

They’re all different. Our biggest job site on campus is Perk Café, which the kids run. Some students make phone calls to donors for the Trust or staff the reception desk in the Howe Building. Off-campus, students work in the kitchen at Doble Engineering, and chop vegetables and bag meals at Community Servings, a non-profit that delivers meals to families with serious illnesses.

How do you prepare students for workplace challenges?

Before students go to a job we’ll get together and talk about what they want to focus on (that day) – whether it’s greeting a supervisor or getting to a workspace independently. Then we’ll debrief afterwards and talk about how to improve.

We also work really closely with teachers. If a student has a hard time speaking on the phone the speech teacher will work that into his or her lesson. Mobility teachers will help kids with the route they need to get to their job. Our occupational therapists make sure they’re safe in the specific work environment. We’re all working toward a common goal – making sure the students are safe and actually learning from a job.

How do students benefit from having a job?

Being out in the real world encourages our kids to think about what they might want to do when they leave Perkins. The new focus they gain from that experience is really impressive. They know that they have to dress the right way, they know they have to come into a work situation with a greeting. They’re really into learning the job and focused on working with a supervisor who may not understand some of the challenges they face. They’re learning to advocate for themselves so they’ll be able to ask questions and, ultimately, succeed at their jobs.

How do you support students while also allowing them to learn independently?

Once we arrive at a job site I try to stay in the background. If they have any questions, they ask their supervisor. Some kids are really advanced and can take on new challenges. One particular student working on campus told me, in a nice way, “I don’t even need you anymore.” He found his route there with the help of his mobility teacher and he’s able to greet his colleagues, ask for headphones and a memory stick and he’s all set. For the first month and a half I was there the whole time with him but now he’s basically there on his own. That type of independence is great to see.

Learn more about vocational training opportunities, read about our Transition Services »