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No limits: Project SEARCH intern gains new skills – and a new job

May 25, 2021

Nikita on his first day as a full-time employee at Rice Lake Weighing Systems
Nikita on his first day as a full-time employee at Rice Lake Weighing Systems

"I don't think there have been any limitations to me doing this job," said 23-year-old Nikita Bergmark, a new full-time employee in the shipping department at Rice Lake Weighing Systems in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. He is responsible for reading orders, tracking down parts, packaging them, and making sure they get shipped out. "It seemed like it would be fairly easy."

But success didn't happen overnight for Nikita, who is on the autism spectrum. After graduating from Prairie Farm High School, Nikita went on to college. Struggling with anxiety and finding it difficult to concentrate, he decided the traditional college setting wasn't the right fit for him. So in the fall of 2020, he enrolled in the Project SEARCH program in nearby Rice Lake, where he joined eight other interns with disabilities in their journey toward meaningful employment.

"When I first started the program, I was both nervous and excited, because I felt like I was going back to school," Nikita recalled. "I also felt nervous because I was going into a new environment not knowing anything or anyone and they might not like me. As the program progressed, we all started to come out of our shell and stepped out of our comfort zones."

Administered by the Department of Workforce Development's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), Project SEARCH is a nine-month program where students with disabilities participate in on-the-job training rotations at designated business sites while receiving instruction provided by local school districts. DVR provides customized job search assistance to each intern and continues to work with them as needed following the program.

"Project SEARCH teaches critical job skills that help people with disabilities reach their goals and adds to a talented pool of job seekers who are ready to work and become assets to employers across Wisconsin," explained DVR Administrator Delora Newton. "The program is about ensuring that our interns get real-world on-the-job training, working right alongside colleagues who don't have disabilities. This kind of integrated employment training is key to career success."

Project SEARCH was developed in 1996 at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and is now offered at over 600 sites worldwide. Wisconsin's Project SEARCH program began in 2008 with a single site located in Madison and has since expanded to 30 sites across the state. Nikita is one of 176 Wisconsin Project SEARCH interns set to graduate from the program this year.

Bush & Gilles Furniture, a small family owned store, was one of the first training rotation sites for Rice Lake Project SEARCH interns during the 2020-21 school year. The store's goal was to help interns like Nikita learn how to assemble furniture, handle materials, and complete custodial work. Nikita was quick to pick up on the assembly jobs, his first involving fireplace kit assembly. On his first day, it took Nikita most of the day to assemble one fireplace. By the end of his second day, Nikita had assembled four fireplaces.

Nikita assembling a fireplace during his first Project SEARCH rotation at Bush & Gilles Furniture
Nikita assembling a fireplace during his first Project SEARCH rotation at Bush & Gilles Furniture

Don Johnson Motors in Rice Lake hosted Nikita's second job rotation. With an interest in car repairs, he was selected to work in the parts department. Nikita quickly learned the procedure of matching the part numbers on the order sheets with the part numbers in their stock. He caught on so quickly that they also taught him how to enter the parts on the computer to help maintain inventory.

Working at Don Johnson motors
Nikita working at Don Johnson Motors

When Nikita was ready to start his third rotation at Rice Lake Weighing, he discovered the shipping department – the area he was most interested in – didn't have enough staff to mentor Project SEARCH interns.

Since Nikita already had experience in material handling, order picking, and data entry from his previous rotations, his Project SEARCH Instructor Mary Gruber suggested that he consider attending the Rice Lake Weighing job fair. "He truly blossomed in his abilities," Gruber said. "He did so well in his first two rotations I thought they might be willing to hire him without any more experience."

Nikita applied and got an interview for a full-time position in the Rice Lake Weighing shipping department.

"I knew that I was applying for a position I already had some background knowledge because of what I had done at Bush & Gilles and Don Johnson Motors," Nikita said. "Having prior work experience in the material handling area made me feel comfortable about what I was going to be doing."

"I was really impressed with his resume and communication skills; he seemed like he knew what he wanted to do and he was very interested in the position," said Dan Casey, manager of shipping and receiving for Rice Lake Weighing. "I think he did better than most anybody I have interviewed since I've been here."

Nikita was officially hired on April 5.

"He has the skill sets and a great attitude about the job," Casey said. "(Nikita) jumped right in and has been doing an excellent job."

Nikita has already formed close bonds with his co-workers, including another former Project SEARCH participant who graduated from the program in 2017. Nikita is set to graduate from the program alongside his fellow interns during a virtual ceremony on May 27.

Nikita says he's ready to take on whatever the future holds in his new job.

"I felt this same way, as well, in Project SEARCH that there weren’t any limitations to my future career plans," he said.

For more information on Wisconsin's Project SEARCH program, visit the DVR Project SEARCH page.