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New apprenticeship program leads to life-changing career opportunities for adults with disabilities
July 27, 2022
LANSING, Mich. — A new Cook Registered Apprenticeship program created through a unique partnership between the U.S. Department of Labor’s Michigan Office of Apprenticeship, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s (LEO) State Apprenticeship Expansion team, Michigan Career and Technical Institute (MCTI), and Torch 180 of Livingston County is delivering life-changing opportunities for Michigan adults with disabilities.
At a recent signing event, aspiring chef Blake Clay knew the significance of the moment.
The meeting room was filled with representatives from state and federal government, program sponsors, a few co-workers and a handful of well-wishers. And with one stroke of his pen, Clay was about to become the first participant in a new Registered Apprenticeship program designed to benefit persons with disabilities. It would open a new door to pursue his true passion – cooking – and could lead to economic self-sufficiency and a level of independence he had only imagined.
Choking back tears, he couldn’t help but think about the patient, caring man whose encouragement led Clay to this pivotal moment.
“I know my grandpa would be proud of me,” Clay said as he signed his apprenticeship agreement. “He really was my inspiration.”
Clay – who was joined by Vikram Durci and Shaun Gillespie as the program’s first apprentices – traces his love of cooking back to the age of 13 when he lived with his grandfather, who is now deceased, in Detroit.
“He’s the reason I got into cooking,” Blake said. “He trained me, because he was a professional caterer and a great cook – he made the best food. He started out with a catering business in Las Vegas. He catered for people like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
“I love cooking, and I’m hoping I can own my own business one day,” he said. “I know this program will help me a lot.”
Upon program completion, apprentices will earn industry-recognized credentials in a rewarding, long-term career pathway in the food service industry.
The Collaborative Effort
MCTI, the second-largest rehabilitation training center in the country and a division of LEO’s Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS), conducts vocational and technical training programs and provides supportive services needed to prepare Michigan residents with disabilities for competitive employment. Torch 180 is a non-profit organization providing food-industry training for adults with disabilities and has been a longtime partner of MCTI’s Culinary Training Program.
“We’ve been with Torch 180 from the beginning, assisting with curriculum and customer referrals via MRS,” said MCTI Departmental Manager Brian Smith. “Their story is quite amazing, starting with a food truck helping those in need eight years ago to a kitchen for training and dine-in restaurant today. Torch 180 has been a great training partner, and we’re very excited to see where this program will go."
Torch 180 co-founder Rhonda Callahan sees the Registered Apprenticeship program as a great fit for the Fowlerville-based non-profit.
“This is very exciting for us,” said Callahan. “You need young people with the right level of maturity and skills to be able to make this commitment to the apprenticeship, to complete the program. It’s been quite a journey, and we’re so fortunate to have these apprentices on board.”
Registered apprenticeships are high-quality, work-based learning and post-secondary earn-and-learn models that meet national standards for registration with the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). Tiffanie Clawson, Apprenticeship & Training Representative with the USDOL’s Office of Apprenticeship, worked directly with the partners to ensure all requirements were met.
“Providing opportunities to support persons with disabilities is a USDOL priority,” Clawson said. “This is a proven training model that helps individuals develop the skills for a career, not just a job.”
Throughout Michigan, employers in a variety of fields have increasingly turned to Registered Apprenticeship to develop and prepare the state’s future workforce.
“Our statewide Registered Apprenticeship expansion efforts have been focused on creating and supporting opportunities for underserved populations, including persons with disabilities,” said Scott Jedele, administrative manager for LEO’s State Apprenticeship Expansion team. “We’re so thankful to have partners like the USDOL’s Michigan Office of Apprenticeship, MCTI and Torch 180 who have worked together to bring life-changing solutions to Michiganders.”
The Journey Begins
Now that they’ve reached the starting line, the first three apprentices in the new program are eager to get to work.
“I’ve wanted to cook for a long time,” said Vikram Durci, a Pinckney resident. “I love to cook. I cook almost every day at home – now I’ll get the chance to cook here at Torch 180.”
Rhonda Callahan describes Durci as a hard worker who raises the level of performance for everyone in the kitchen.
“Vikram always brings his best,” said Callahan. “He’s willing to do the work – that’s why I know he can be successful in this apprenticeship.”
Apprentice Shaun Gillespie, like Blake Clay, traces his passion for cooking to his grandparents.
“I first discovered my love for cooking through being in the kitchen with my grandma,” said Gillespie, who attended Hartland High School. “I thought this is really something I love doing, and I could see myself doing this for a living.”
“Shaun does his best at everything he does and is reliable, very reliable,” said Callahan. “He’s always looking for ways to learn and improve. I’m proud that he’s here and excited for his future.”
Callahan also believes the program is a perfect fit for Clay.
“This apprenticeship was designed with someone like him in mind,” she said. “He’s demonstrated that he is willing to work hard, and he wants to learn. Blake has already come a long way, and this apprenticeship program will allow him to reach new heights. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Like his fellow apprentices, Clay says he is “all in” when it comes to preparing for his field of choice.
“My main thing is cooking – I love cooking!” he said. “I’m hoping I can get a second job now so I can spend even more time learning in the kitchen.”
For more information about Michigan’s Apprenticeship Expansion efforts, visit Michigan.gov/Apprenticeship. Online information is also available about MCTI (Michigan.gov/MCTI) and Torch 180 (Torch180.org).