CUPERTINO -- Dressed in a black dress shirt and red tie, 17-year-old Alfredo Rodriguez appeared all business-like Thursday as he seriously searched for a second part-time job.
The Sunnyvale Fremont High junior already works at Trader Joe's but is determined to earn money for college, and boost the college fund of his 12-year-old brother.
So he shook hands with would-be employers at the 2014 Youth Career Fair, a effort by six South Bay school districts to help students find jobs.
But they weren't just any students. Like Rodriguez, the majority of the 650 students at the Quinlan Community Center were youth with disabilities -- mental, developmental, emotional or physical.
Coordinated by Milpitas Unified, the fair drew 35 employers, from well-known names like Safeway and Orchard Supply, to companies like Kaman's Art Shoppes, which runs the photo and art concessions at amusement parks like Great America.
Even amid the high unemployment among young people, the numbers for those with disabilities stand out starkly. The gap in employment rates between working-age people with and without disabilities is 40.3 percentage points, according to TransAccess of San Jose, which provides adaptive technology and other aid to help the disabled find jobs. The nonprofit lists graduation rates as low as 26 percent for students with learning disabilities, compared with 76 percent for students without disabilities.
So school districts have focused on better preparing students with disabilities for job success. Getting early work experience is key, said Nancy Sullivan of the Fremont Union High School District, which ran the annual career fair for several years until it expanded to a multi-district effort this year. Experience helps students see what support they need to succeed in work, she said. "It's one thing to say, 'I'm going to college,' " she said. "It's another thing to get prepared for college and career."
The fair also featured agencies that guide students toward success: The Bill Wilson Center and NOVA, which match youth with jobs; TeenForce, which helps find jobs for teens, including those who have been in jail or on probation; Hope Services, which serves the developmentally disabled.
While many of the students had prepared for the meet-and-greet, they all got pre-interview tips from TransAccess.
"Introduce yourself with a smile and positive energy. Sound like you really want to be there," said Employment Specialist Ivon Perez. After the interview, "thank the employer for their time. Make eye contact. Walk away with confidence."
Rodriguez seemed to take it all in. He already had a resume, with landscaping and construction jobs. His ideal job is "anything that pays more than $10 an hour," he said while checking out the table of 24-Hour Fitness. "This is interesting. I like to work out."
Yanely Andres, 16, and Kacie Jacobson, 16, both of Cupertino High, like working with kids and were excited by potential summer camp jobs with the Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Department.
For teens who face multiple obstacles in seeking jobs, the fair offered distinct advantages.
"It's easier to get a sense of the job before you apply," said Russell Shyvers, 18, a senior at Cupertino High. He already works serving food on the USS Hornet in Alameda, but was hoping to find a job with a shorter commute.
The fair also gave students a sense of expectations of the working world.
Mandy Hazen, one of several Starbucks managers, told some would-be applicants, "We prefer employees didn't have any piercings or tattoos."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Sponsors: Milpitas Unified, Santa Clara Unified, Fremont Union High, Mountain View-Los Altos High and East Side Union High school districts, and the Santa Clara County Office of Education
Number of employers hiring: 35
Number of students attending 650