Project SEARCH – Helping People with Disabilities Gain Job Skills, Helping Businesses Find Workers

/ July 30, 2021

By Blake Shearer

Competitive, integrated employment is a phrase and a mindset that drives the work many of us do in our capacities to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in today’s workforce. Project SEARCH® is part of that effort toward competitive, integrated employment in Tennessee, the United States, and now internationally. What started as an idea at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996 has grown from one program site to more than 600 sites in 48 states and 10 countries.

(Project SEARCH® is a registered trademark with a specific licensing process, and each Project SEARCH site must adhere to the guidelines of the program.)

At its core, Project SEARCH offers an internship program that is a business-led collaboration between the host business, an education partner (for student-based programs), a supported employment provider, and Vocational Rehabilitation (VR).

Tennessee is fortunate to have 17 program sites across the state in 10 counties. Thirteen of the programs are a student-based intern model, while the other four are adult-based models. Whether it be student-based or adult-based, the collaboration by community partners, the program fidelity, and the intern outcomes remain the same for both groups. However, there are some differences in each program as the student-based model operates through the local education agency, with the school system providing the instructor, and is designed for students in their last year of high school who will be seeking employment upon completion. In contrast, an adult-based model operates through a community rehabilitation provider, with the community rehabilitation provider supplying the instructor and skills trainer for the program and serves individuals who are already out of high school.

In 2013, Tennessee Vocational Rehabilitation adopted the oversight of Project SEARCH, which includes providing training to Project SEARCH teams, licensing, assisting in intern recruitment, offering statewide conferences, and more. Therefore, all interns participating in Project SEARCH must have been determined eligible for VR, have an Individualized Plan for Employment developed, and Project SEARCH included on the Individualized Plan for Employment to support the individual in reaching their employment goals.

Through a nine-month internship for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, interns are fully immersed in the host business and participate in three 10-week internship rotations based on their skills, needs, and employment goals. The interns also receive daily instruction throughout the nine months in employability skills including:

  • Team Building
  • Workplace Safety
  • Technology use and access
  • Self-Advocacy
  • Preparing for Employment
  • Maintaining Employment
  • Financial Literacy
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Social/Communication Skills

Tennessee has a wide range of host businesses participating as Project SEARCH sites, including, but not limited to, health care, higher education, and hospitality. While there is a definite benefit to the interns who complete Project SEARCH, and we will look at some outcomes shortly, there is also a benefit to the host businesses as they gain access to a new, diverse talent pool with skills that match their labor needs.

Other benefits to employers may include increased regional recognition through marketing and enhanced performance and better retention in high-turnover positions. While employment at the host business is not an expectation of the host site, in many instances the host business does hire several of the Project SEARCH interns upon graduation. To see what this looks like in practice, click here to watch a two-minute video of an intern’s journey from being born at Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, to becoming a Project SEARCH intern there, to becoming a Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital employee.

So, what do the outcomes look like for interns after graduation? In the 2018-19 intern class, of the 97 interns enrolled across the state, 73.2% were employed at least 16 hours a week year-round in a competitive and integrated setting. (Project SEARCH considers 16 hours a week to be a good measure of employment status.) Interns averaged 25.5 hours per week with a wage of $9.28. The 2019-20 intern class of 137 interns saw a decrease in the number of students employed (56.93%), but this was attributed to the impact of COVID-19 on intern completion and on hiring practices. However, 85 interns still obtained employment and averaged 27.5 hours per week with an average wage of $11.10 an hour. Additionally, many of the 2019-20 interns returned to complete their Project SEARCH internships that were cut short by the pandemic.

Tennessee’s 17 Project SEARCH sites are listed below and indicate those sites that an adult-based program. All other sites listed are student-based and offered through the local education agency/school district.

  • Sheraton Downtown Hotel-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Memphis Peabody Hotel-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Methodist North Hospital-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • West Tennessee Healthcare-Jackson/Madison Schools, Jackson
  • Tennova Healthcare-Clarksville/Montgomery County Schools, Clarksville
  • Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital-Progress Inc., Nashville (Adult)
  • Amerigroup-Progress Inc., Nashville (Adult)
  • Embassy Suites-Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nashville
  • Embassy Suites-Rutherford County Schools, Murfreesboro
  • Blue Cross of TN-Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga
  • East Tennessee Children’s Hospital-Cerebral Palsy Center, Knoxville (Adult)
  • Parkwest Medical Center, Knox County Schools, Knoxville
  • University of Tennessee Medical Center-Breakthrough, Knoxville (Adult)
  • Maryville College-Blount County Schools, Maryville
  • Wilderness at the Smokies-Sevier County Schools, Sevierville
  • Welch College – Sumner County Schools, Gallatin

To learn more about the 17 Project SEARCH sites in Tennessee, please click here or take a look at the national Project SEARCH site at  If you are interested in being involved with Project SEARCH in any capacity, (as a host business, a local education agency, or a community rehabilitation provider) or would like additional information, please contact me at If you have a potential intern candidate, please contact your local VR office or VR counselor. You can find your local VR office here.

I appreciate Blake taking time out of his busy summer schedule to provide an update on our state’s Project SEARCH programs. For many individuals and families, these programs offer the right kind of training and structure that allow folks to gain the skills they need for a job that is in demand. And many of these trainees are happy to fill jobs that are typically considered “high-turnover” positions. They want to work! I also hope that some businesses will consider serving as host businesses for new Project SEARCH sites, particularly for adult-based programs. If you have questions, please email me at Thank you for you for reading!

Blake Shearer is the Vocational Rehabilitation transition director with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. He has a passion for helping to improve the postsecondary outcomes of students with disabilities through collaborative efforts. Prior to joining VR in 2019, he served in various roles within the education system for 15 years, from paraprofessional, to classroom teacher, district-wide supervisor, and state Department of Education director for supports services and student readiness. He, along with a statewide team of more than 25 individuals, help to oversee Pre-Employment Transition Services, Transition School to Work grants, and Tennessee’s 17 Project SEARCH programs

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