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Mechanicsburg site makes disabled workers a key part of supply chain

Mechanicsburg site makes disabled workers a key part of supply chain

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Running a production line is hard work. It’s especially difficult when the goal is not to retain your best employees, but rather to send them off to another business.

“Our goal is to get rid of our best employees,” said John Heckman, director of the Pollock Center for Industrial Training (PCIT). “But the work itself is just a tool we use.”

At the PCIT, most of the workers – except for Heckman and a few supervisors – have a developmental disability. The center is part of the ARC of Cumberland and Perry Counties. Nationwide, ARC groups provide a wide array of social services for disabled citizens.

“The overarching goal is independence, and independence within the community,” said John Reardon, executive director of the ARC of Cumberland and Perry. “The trainees are developing connections and social skills that will give them the knowledge to transition into the open job market.”

There are currently about 250 trainees being served at the PCIT, Heckman said. Every year, roughly 25 to 30 of them successfully move out into competitive jobs at local restaurants, service center, and manufacturers.

The PCIT, located on Silver Spring Road in Silver Spring Township, was built in 1980 as Industries Limited, Heckman said. The facility was improved some years later with a donation from the estate of S. Wilson Pollock, and renamed the PCIT.

Last week, PCIT students were diligently pulling air fresheners off their shipping pallets and assembling them into the display boxes one sees at the grocery store. Another group was sorting pharmaceutical rack cards into packs and putting them through a wrapping machine.

Yet another crew – typically 30 students with two instructors – was assembling the boxes and foam packing used by Apple to service customers’ iPhones.

“If you’ve ever sent you phone back to Apple, they send you a box to send it back to them with. They get the boxes from a company who contracts with us to assemble them,” Heckman said.

The PCIT holds a 14© certificate from the federal government, Heckman noted, which allows the facility to pay sub-minimum wages to employees who would otherwise be unable to work.

Each trainee is paid per output – those who produce less receive less, while those able to produce more receive more. Heckman estimated that the average PCIT student puts out roughly a third of what a person without a developmental disability would.

“We’re authorized to pay below minimum, but we have to pay commensurate with what they produce,” Heckman said. “They get a paycheck every two weeks just like anyone else.”

The money, however, is secondary to the experience, which will hopefully accustom students to a productive working lifestyle.

“Competitive employment is the end goal,” Heckman said. “There are some that have been here longer, and some that are only here a short time before they move into a competitive job. Everything is individualized to the person and their family and what path they think is best. There’s no set timeline.”

The students this publication spoke with last week were enthusiastic about showing off the work they do, and eager to articulate what jobs they would be interested in after leaving the PCIT.

“I will honestly tell you that 99 percent of the folks I’ve worked with are eager and able to tell you that they like working here, and also that they want to get out and work in the community,” Reardon said.

Apart from the assembly floor, the PCIT also trains students in culinary work. Working under the name of Sassy Gourmet, the PCIT pulls in over $200,000 per year in catering work, Heckman said.

The kitchen does work for area food processors as well – last week, students were measuring and vacuum-packing salt packets for soft pretzels. The PCIT also holds several contracts to make boxed lunches, including work for military intake centers and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The lunch you get at the recruitment center after you join the military probably comes from us,” Heckman said. “The ICE contract is actually with York County Prison, where they hold immigration detainees for this region.”

If you get deported, your last meal on American soil probably came from the PCIT.

The PCIT provides not only work experience, but also classroom sessions for students ready to enter the competitive workforce. Even after placement, former students are visited by their case worker at their jobs on a regular basis.

“We’ve had a lot of employers say that our applicants seem to appreciate their jobs more than most,” said Mary Norris, the PCIT’s Employment Specialist. “Once they’ve been there a bit, we’ll know how much support they’ll need.”

“I think that some employers think that they’re suddenly responsible entirely for that person once they hire them, which is not the case. We’re still providing whatever support they need off-site,” Heckman stressed.

While the goal for each of the industrial trainees is to move into the competitive market elsewhere, the PCIT itself serves a significant economic role.

Despite the national concern over automation and globalization, the end result is that globalized products often end up routed back to Mechanicsburg, where Heckman and his trainees find themselves batting cleanup for the global supply chain.

Heckman keeps a display case of some of these items in the hallway of the PCIT.

At one point, the PCIT was contacted by a major hat manufacturer after discovering that hats recently shipped from overseas had the wrong sponsor on the bill sticker, Heckman said. Shipping the hats back would’ve been cost-prohibitive.

So PCIT trainees sorted the hats – which were individually sized – and replaced 875,000 stickers. The last hat sits in the case, alongside the last Ames rake the facility assembled.

For many years, the PCIT held a contract with Ames True Temper to put the metal tines of garden rakes into the plastic rake heads, Heckman said. But after some time, Ames announced that they were automating their facility, and the rakes would be assembled my machines.

“The new machine was made in the Far East somewhere, and was on a container ship around the Horn of Africa and got hijacked by Somali pirates,” Heckman said. “So we kept that contract longer than we thought, actually.”


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