Steve Cook of Arc Mercer.

The Arc Mercer is seeking employers for what could be a win-win situation. The Mercer County-based organization, which provides community-based vocational services for individuals with special needs and developmental disabilities, trains its consumers for a specific job, when requested by area businesses. In turn, this training helps Arc Mercer teach job skills to the prospective employees.

“You are helping us create opportunities to train our workers by hiring Arc as a subcontractor,” said Steve Cook, Arc Mercer executive director. He points out that the highest unemployment rate is among people with disabilities: 75 percent. “To train someone to do a job, you have to have the work available to do that job.”

Arc’s teachable moments are in the categories of fulfillment, clerical, landscaping, auto detailing, food service; and what is referred to as “pick/pack and ship” — the process of pulling a product from inventory, packing it, and shipping it. More than 300 individuals receive a paycheck through Arc’s social enterprise program.

This workforce cleans more than 2.6 million square feet of office space daily, and prepares more than 100,000 meals annually. Usually the work is done in a small group working on or off-site with a job coach, but a company can hire an individual employee through Arc as well.

The Arc program works because of a carefully cultivated pipeline that takes a consumer through learning, training, working at a training site, and sometimes going to employer-based sites. Arc provides transportation and medical support in addition to vocational support.

Employers who have worked with Arc have seen their needs fulfilled with enthusiasm and a sense of responsibility.

Tektite on North Clinton Avenue in Trenton is among several Trenton businesses that have been working with Arc Mercer for 15 years. Tektite President Scott Mele said a former colleague made him aware of the organization and its services, and he first approached them about an assembly job at Arc’s training site, about six blocks away.

Tektite produces lighting and other products for the outdoor, industrial, public safety, and military markets, and is known for LED flashlights. Now, an Arc “enclave” completes packaging right at Tektite, which works well because there is no shipping needed for packaging, Mele explained. Usually four to five “enthusiastic” Arc clients package items three days a week, with a job coach. Recently they packaged U.S. Coast Guard SOS lights for nighttime distress.

“It has worked out very well,” said Mele. “The customer is pleased.” Tektite has also been able to provide other jobs in its space so that the job coach can evaluate whether the work would be appropriate. “I’m very pleased,” Mele said. He added that he has observed a good relationship between Arc workers and the other employees.

The Fulfillment House in nearby Yardville also reported a “tremendous win-win” relationship, according to president Greg Kilmer. The Fulfillment House provides logistical and operational services to companies who outsource these functions, such as sorting customers’ goods; picking and packing components and shipping them; repackaging products; and making modifications at customers’ request.

The company, said Kilmer, has “worked on and off with the Arc from 1995 thru 2010. In late 2016 “Steve Cook and I got together as part of an outreach push Arc was conducting to ‘reintroduce’ themselves to the local market. We constructed an enclave environment where the Arc would bring anywhere from four to 12 clients out to our facility, and we would provide them production space to work on projects for our customers,” typically two to four days a week.

The experience has been positive, he said. “Our customers get their projects handled quickly and efficiently. They save the cost of having to ship the goods out and back to another production facility. We get the benefit of having a dedicated group of individuals who truly enjoy their jobs and who look forward to coming to work. The job coaches do a great job of coordinating with our staff to ensure everything goes smoothly.”

But the route from working in a secure environment to a community setting doesn’t come without challenges. “You are always looking to break barriers: life skill barriers, job skills, transportation, finding work. Breaking barriers is the model for everything,” Cook said. “We try to find a way to identify someone’s interest and get them to experience the work first. Then we overcome transportation and health issues.”

The Arc, with more than 625 chapters nationally, is state-based, but services are delivered from counties. Mercer County is distinctive because it offers recreational and social programs, its own medical center with doctors on staff, and its own transportation system with more than 70 vehicles.

The Occupational Training Center (OTC), a separate building on New York Avenue, trains individuals toward extended employment and is a “safety net” during training. The next step is to experience a real work site and employment in the community. At the OTC, for example, consumers certified by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) learn to sort materials before shredding.

Arc Mercer consumers are a part of the team at medical waste remediator Stericycle’s Shred-It operations in Trenton. The four or five workers who come daily with their job coach also come to company picnics and other celebrations, said plant manager Mark Duerr. The relationship with Arc began at another New Jersey location, said Duerr. That good experience prompted the company to seek workers from Arc Mercer for its Whitehead Road operation. There, they sort non-standard material from what is being readied for shredding, such as sorting colored paper from white, checking for non-paper, and watching for metals and batteries.

“The experience for us is overwhelmingly positive,” said Duerr. “I strongly recommend to any employer in the area that if they can find a way to fit Arc Mercer into what they do, they will reap generous rewards.” He said that working toward Arc’s mission of community-based work is “worth it all.”

In a way, the Arc Mercer is “also training the employer,” said Cook, a former civil engineer who was chief of staff for former State Senator Peter Inverso. “It is a commitment from the employer to support us in training.”

Cook said he learned a long time ago to “always expect a no, and then think of reasons you should do it” — a philosophy that has been helpful in the business of removing barriers.

“If you do any of these types of jobs, reach out to us,” he says. “Speak to us, and we will create the job path. What helps us is to use your site, to lead to people getting placed.

“We will in turn get you great workers with little or no turnover and low absenteeism. We are removing barriers. We want to get our people to the highest level possible.”

The Arc Mercer, Inc., 180 Ewingville Road, Ewing 08638. 609-406-0181. Steve Cook, executive director.

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