Kenneth Farmer, a senior at Centennial High School, has Tourette's syndrome and limited language and writing skills. But he's good at math and handy with tools.
Recently, he spent a morning in the Office of Workforce Development as part of a program to introduce disabled students to job opportunities in county government.
Since he's not particularly interested in an office job, he didn't expect the experience to open any particular career doors. "I was just going to walk around and watch people and see what they were doing," he said.
But while he was in the office, he happened to meet Glenn Bulaon, an elevator and escalator mechanic who was sitting at a computer, scrolling through job postings. The two got to talking, and Farmer liked what Bulaon had to say about being a mechanic.
Bulaon gave Farmer the phone number for the local union, urging him to call and find out what training he would need to get a job like that.
"It sounds good," Farmer said, beaming.
Farmer was one of 11 students who took part in the county's first Career Exploration Day last week. Students from local high schools -- and one who is getting his GED--spent several hours with county workers in the police department, animal control department, fire department and more.
"I think this type of hands-on training is terrific," said County Executive Ken Ulman, in a statement. "It provides much needed real world, and real work, experience."
Denise Marshall, the work-study transition coordinator at Centennial High School, was the one who urged Farmer to participate, she said. She works with 12 students of varying disabilities, she said, helping them make the leap from school to career.
"What I try to do is open up the world of possibilities to them," she said. And programs like the job shadowing day are a big part of that, she said.
Though Farmer is one of her higher-level students, she said, his "world is kind of limited. I just wanted him to stretch out and know there are other opportunities out there."
Farmer, 17, was paired with Cheryl Queen, a work force consultant. Queen said she was concerned that Farmer would be bored, since he wouldn't be able to sit in on confidential meetings with clients. But that didn't seem to be a problem as she guided Farmer around the office, introducing him to one person after another.
The county's job shadowing day was created as an offshoot of the National Disability Mentoring Day, held each October, said Sheila Little, the disability program navigator for mid-Maryland, who helps people with disabilities manage the challenge of finding work.
"We wanted to provide opportunities for youth to actually go into the workplace and shadow, and gain more hands-on experience and actually be able to witness what takes place in the workplace," she said.
The program was open to students who were about to graduate, she said, with the hopes that it would lead to job opportunities. One participant, Travis Suggs, who is working toward his GED, seems to have landed a maintenance job at Howard Community College as a result of his shadowing, Little said.
Little said the county plans to hold a shadow day each year. She hopes the program will expand, so more students can participate. In the future, students might interview for jobs, giving them more real-life experiences, she said.
But for the first year, things went well, she said. "All the department heads were saying this is really great," she said. "And kids were telling us they learned a lot, they were really interested in some of the areas."