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Breaking Ground 98 - UHC Pathways: A paid internship program for students with disabilities

by Melanie Lamb, Director of Member Advocacy, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee
two young adults with disabilities hold up certificates and stand next to a gentleman in a suit in the lobby of an office
Keith Payet, President and CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee, with spring interns, Fernanda Aguilar and Jack Steinkamp.

Nationwide, individuals with disabilities experience many challenges associated with participation in the labor force, and are far less likely to have jobs than those without a disability. According to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability ages 16 and over was 7.9%, more than twice the rate (3.7%) of those with no disability (U.S. Dept of Labor, Disability Employment Characteristics).

“At UnitedHealthcare Community (UHC) Plan of Tennessee, we see these challenges first-hand through our members in the Employment and Community First CHOICES (ECF CHOICES) program,” said Tonya Copeland, Vice President of Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities Services (I/DD). “The ECF CHOICES program promotes and supports integrated, competitive employment and independent living for people who have I/DD.”

To address these challenges, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan wanted to create a collaborative learning opportunity where high school students with I/DD are compensated while building job skills that lead to competitive employment upon graduation.

Preparing youth for adulthood

In collaboration with the Williamson County Board of Education’s High School Transition Program, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee launched UHC Pathways, the state’s first paid internship program for students with I/DD.

Like a traditional student internship, UHC Pathways allows youth with I/DD to be paid for work that prepares them for the transition to employment in an office-based setting after high school.

With frequent communication between business, school system, and job center representatives, the program also encourages strong collaboration between organizations to ensure a successful and positive experience for the intern.  

The pilot program

A pilot program launched on March 25, 2019, with two interns from Brentwood High School hired to work with the Case Management Associates (CMA) team on a variety of customized work assignments.

In the weeks leading up to their start date, the interns participated in pre-employment assessments and screenings, the application process, interviews, and orientation meetings. UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee employees and intern mentors also attended trainings to help prepare them for intern goal setting, problem solving, disability etiquette, and inclusion in the workplace.

To encourage successful integration and provide guidance, each intern was assigned to a CMA mentor who helped them strengthen their professional skills for future employment opportunities.

Building skills and experience

During their time at UnitedHealthcare Community Plan, the interns gained valuable work experience through a variety of different assignments. They worked on things like analyzing Person-Centered Support Plans, supporting provider networks, and assisting members over the phone. They were also able to improve their professional communication skills by attending department meetings, sending emails, and navigating the different communication platforms.

“The program’s success has exceeded our expectations,” said John Camperlino, Statewide Employment Manager at UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee.

The interns experienced a tremendous amount of growth and the collaboration between all parties involved has established a firm foundation for future program enhancements.

The internship graduation celebration for the first set of UHC Pathways interns took place on May 17, 2019. The eight-week internship concluded with an exit interview when the interns were able to reflect on their experiences and provide feedback. They also used this time to update their résumés for future job applications.  

“It is rare for people with special needs, like me, to find opportunities like this,” said Fernanda Aguilar, UHC Pathways intern.  “This internship has proven that I am capable of conquering new skills. I feel accomplished after these two months and am very proud of how far I have come from when I first started.“

Another UHC Pathways intern, Jack Steinkamp, said:

“I really feel like I’ve grown as a human being. I have gained skills in written and verbal communication, problem solving, and email management. All of these assets I have gained will help me to be successful as an independent adult and employee.”

With the success of the pilot program, UHC is looking forward to expanding this internship model to other departments across the organization, lengthening the duration of the program, and hosting multiple sessions each year in different areas across the state of Tennessee.  “That way,” Camperlino said, “more high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities will have the chance to complete a paid internship where they gain valuable skills to help them achieve their employment goals.”