Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Effect of a 9-Month Soft Skills and Work-Based Employment Training Program in Improving Transition Students’ Success: A Randomized Controlled Trial Study
Center: NCSER Year: 2019
Principal Investigator: Fisher, Marisa Awardee: Michigan State University
Program: Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Special Education Interventions      [Program Details]
Award Period: 2 years (08/16/2019 – 08/15/2021) Award Amount: $249,927
Type: Efficacy Award Number: R324L190002

Co-Principal Investigator:  Sung, Ying Yuk; Koenigsknecht, Scott; Fullerton, Tina

Partner Institutions: Michigan State University, Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Rehabilitation Services, and Project SEARCH

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to test the relative efficacy of Project SEARCH (a widely used transition program with internships) alone compared to Project SEARCH plus Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training (ASSET)and Employment Preparation and Skills Support (EPASS) for improving work-related social skills, job readiness, and employment outcomes of transition-age high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In Michigan, 81% of individuals with IDD (including autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disability) are unemployed compared to just 9% of the general population. Educational and vocational agencies across the state are working together to improve outcomes for transition-age students with IDD, including funding the implementation of a school-to-work transition program, Project SEARCH. Despite initial efforts, employment rates for graduates of Project SEARCH in Michigan are still well below the national levels. In consultation with Michigan State University (MSU), the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) identified an existing intervention that addresses the work-related social skills and job readiness skills needed for successful employment – the combination of ASSET and EPASS (ASSET-EPASS). This project will determine whether adding ASSET-EPASS to Project SEARCH leads to stronger employment-related outcomes for students with IDD than Project SEARCH alone.

Project Activities:  A multi-site, clustered, randomized controlled trial will be conducted to determine the efficacy of the Project SEARCH + ASSET-EPASS intervention compared to Project SEARCH, the business-as-usual approach for school-to-work transition support in the participating Michigan school districts. The research aims to determine whether adding ASSET-EPASS to what is typically implemented in schools is more efficacious in improving the work-related social skills, job readiness, and employment outcomes of students with IDD.

Products: The products of this project will include evidence of the efficacy of the Project SEARCH + ASSET-EPASS intervention compared to Project SEARCH alone for students with IDD. The project will result in peer-reviewed publications and presentations, and additional dissemination products that reach education stakeholders such as practitioners and policymakers.


Setting:  The research will take place in Project SEARCH sites, which are internship programs hosted by busineses in which school districts across Michigan may place their students.

Sample: Participants will be selected from approximately 18 Project SEARCH sites. Within these sites, approximately 162 high school students (ages 18-26) served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and their teachers (special education teachers leading transition classes), will participate.

Intervention: Project SEARCH is a vocational training/transition model that includes 7.5 hours of classroom-based instruction each week focused on functional employment and independent living skills and 20 hours of work at an internship site. In Project SEARCH, the host business develops the procedures that guide the program, identifies internships, and provides classroom space. The program provides a menu of resources (such as lessons on specific topics) that teachers can choose to support their instruction, but there is no manual, requirements, or set curriculum. Internship supervisors and host business administrators also provide regular feedback on student performance throughout the program. In the intervention condition, ASSET-EPASS is added to the existing Project SEARCH. ASSET-EPASS is a 24-week manualized work-related social skills and job readiness curriculum implemented twice per week (50 minutes per session) by the classroom teacher to systematically address the needs of transition-age students with IDD. Teachers participate in a 2-day training during which they receive lesson plans with didactic leacures, experiential activities, group discussions, role-plays, performance feedback, and weekly take-home assignments. During the first 12 weeks (the ASSET portion of the intervention), students develop the following workplace competencies: Communication, Networking, Enthusiasm and Attitude, Teamwork, Problem Solving and Critical Thinking, Organization and Planning, Professionalism, Mental Health and Stress Management, Awareness of Self and Others, and Maintaining Workplace Relationships. During the second 12 weeks (the EPASS portion of the intervention), students develop the following competencies for employment readiness: Goal Setting, Job Search, Job Application, Resume Building, Job Interview, Disability Law and Accommodation, First Day on the Job, Workplace Etiquette, and Job Maintenance. Students are taught each skill in the classroom setting and will then be able to practice their social and job readiness skills and receive direct feedback at their internship site. The classroom teacher and skills trainers are available at the internship sites to help reinforce the social and job readiness skills.  

Research Design and Methods: Using a cluster randomized controlled trial, researchers will examine the impact of Project SEARCH + ASSET-EPASS (treatment) compared to Project SEARCH as usual (control) on student social and job readiness skills. Researchers at MSU will randomly assign sites to either the treatment or control condition. Teachers will complete student assessments for MDE/MRS at pre-intervention, upon graduation, and at 3 months post-graduation; vocational rehabilitation counselors will collect basic employment status data.

Control Condition:  Classes assigned to the business-as-usual condition will engage in the current Project SEARCH program implemented in these districts.

Key Measures: Work-related social skills and job readiness student outcomes will be assessed by teachers using the Job Observation and Behavior Scale (quality of the student’s job performance, student’s need for supports, quality of the student’s performance compared to co-workers performing the same competitive job)and the Work Behavior Inventory (social skills, cooperativeness, work habits, work quality, and personal presentation). Employment outcomes include data collected from vocational rehabilitation counselors managing collection of program completion data (employment status, industry, hours worked per week, hourly wages, and fringe and social security benefits). Implementation fidelity of ASSET-EPASS will be measured by a fidelity checklist completed by teachers following completion of each week of the ASSET-EPASS curriculum.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will use a linear mixed effects model with baseline values and student demographic variables (gender, race/ethnicity, receipt of social security benefits, and type of disability) as covariates to understand changes in work-related social skills and job readiness outcomes. Interaction effects between site and group assignment will also be examined. Additionally, chi-square tests will be used to analyze the dichotomous outcome of employment status (employed or not employed). Multi-level path analysis will be conducted to understand whether work-related social skills, job readiness skills, job performance, and support needs mediate the relations between intervention participation and employment outcomes.