College of the Canyon’s Uniquely Abled Academy Unleashes Untapped Potential in People with High-Functioning Autism to Excel in CNC Machinist Roles

Contract Education (CE) programs play a role in creating equitable access for California’s underrepresented groups, particularly populations of color and other disproportionately impacted groups. Equity is at the core of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) work, as expressed in its  Vision for Success and the  Strengthening Our Vision document.

In this blog article, we highlight how College of the Canyons is helping to create equity in the workforce through its Uniquely Abled Academy. This 12-week program matches the unique abilities of people with high-functioning autism with the unique skills necessary to excel at computer numerical control (CNC) machining.

The results?

Employers who clamor for these exceptional employees – and employees with well-paying, enjoyable careers that have a future. 

Understanding the Skills of People with High-Functioning Autism

Several factors contribute to the underrepresentation of people with autism in today’s colleges and workforce.

People with autism often have personality traits that mainstream society may perceive as divergent from the norm. “People with autism tend to be very literal and may not pick up on social cues,” said John Milburn, executive director of College of the Canyon’s Employee Training Institute, which directly supports the school’s Uniquely Abled Academy.  

Also, the environments of typical classrooms and some workplaces may not be conducive to this population’s learning and working styles. 

However, people with high-functioning autism are noted for their laser-sharp focus, attention to detail, appreciation for repetitive tasks and preference to work alone.  

Understanding the Skills Required of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Machinists

CNC machinists are in high demand around the nation, particularly in California[1]. This position requires not only excellent programming skills but incredible attention to detail and the ability to perform repetitive tasks alone, safely and without distraction.  

See a connection here?

The Uniquely Abled Project Unleashes Untapped Potential 

Ivan Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a management consultant who helps companies solve business challenges. He is also the father of two children on the autism spectrum and knows the unique abilities of many people in this population.

When Rosenberg learned of the CNC machinist shortage and the skills required of the role, he realized people with high-functioning autism could be a natural fit. The Uniquely Abled Project and a paradigm shift from “disabled” to “uniquely abled” were born. 

Today the Uniquely Abled Project operates with the goal of enabling those with a diagnosis to have a meaningful career that provides income, dignity and purpose – all while filling a major need for employers. 

What is the Uniquely Abled Academy at College of the Canyons?

The UAP created the Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA), a partnership between machining educators, autism specialists, local and state agencies, and non-profit and for-profit organizations. In California, programs exist at College of the Canyons and Glendale College, and more are planned nationwide. The programs are structured differently but have the same outcomes.

College of the Canyon’s UAA is a 12-week, 400-hour program, with classes meeting Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Students augment their learning with SME Tooling U online training modules. At the end of the program, each graduate has:

  • A college certificate of successful completion
  • National Career Readiness Certificate®
  • Tooling U-SME certification
  • Three industry-recognized credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills 
  • Manufactured parts to show employers
  • Interview and soft skills training
  • A polished resume

“The program also includes awareness training for employers,” said Mike Bastine, regional director of Advanced Manufacturing for the South Coast Center Region and a founder of the UAA at College of the Canyons. “We educate HR about this workforce that might not interview well but has the tech knowledge and focus that ops and shop floor managers will love.” Training also extends to employees, so they understand and appreciate the mannerisms of their new coworkers.

Funded through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, UAA is offered at no cost to students or employers. College of the Canyons partners with the California Department of Rehabilitation, America’s Job Center of California and Los Angeles-based Jay Nolan Community Services to execute the program.  

What are UAA’s Results so Far?

In short, the results are extremely impressive. With College of the Canyon’s two completed cohorts, the graduation and placement rates are 90%. Employers seek out the program’s graduates and offer these testimonials:

“Solid workers, staying on task, eager to take on more knowledge and try anything you throw at them. I would definitely hire again. It would be my first choice.”

Brian Schlofelt, President of Pacific Metal Stampings

“They are so appreciative of any input and any opportunity to learn something new. They grasp things much faster than the average student.”

Randy Lusk, CEO of Lusk Quality 

“Predominate traits – very focused, very dedicated and attention to detail. We have clients that have high accuracy requirements, which makes the UAA graduates perfect candidates for that type of work.”

Alain Belisle CEO of Intelitek Engineering 

Milburn is quick to point out that UAA is a business venture: delivering skilled workers for in-demand jobs. “We are tapping a specialized skillset to develop top performers for local employers,” he said.

Insights for Starting a Uniquely Abled Academy

The first UAA cohort at College of the Canyons started in 2018. Now two cohorts in, Milburn and Bastine offered these insights for starting a UAA:

  • Ensure all stakeholders understand the untapped potential of the high-functioning autism population and how they can be essential for filling in-demand jobs. 
  • Know the cost per student may be higher than other Contract Ed programs. Milburn said once stakeholders understood the return on investment, they agreed it made sense.
  • Be prepared for pushback, as the program duration of 12 weeks (some programs are up to 16 weeks) is longer than the usual 8 weeks for a Contract Ed program. 
  • Work with autism specialists to create a solid candidate vetting process.
  • Engage families early and often. Families of people with autism are usually very invested in their well-being. Therefore, ensure that communications are robust and inclusive.
  • Rest assured, you are not starting from scratch. The UAP is an existing network with extensive resources. Milburn said he is happy to talk with any college interested in starting a UAA. 

Milburn said colleges interested in starting a UAA should:

Devin Daugherty Ph.D., MAS, MPA
Director, Center for Applied Competitive Technologies
661.362.3111 | devin.daugherty@canyons.edu

Lynda T. DePerno
Coordinator, Center for Applied Competitive Technologies
661.362.3112  | lynda.deperno@canyons.edu


[1] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes514041.htm#nat

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