Blog Post

Fifth Third Bank’s Transitional Work Program, Project SEARCH, Trains Differently-Abled Young Adults

By Danielle Jones
October 22, 2019
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A group of Fifth Third’s Project SEARCH students at one of their campuses in Cincinnati.
Fifth Third

Each October, companies across the U.S. observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Celebrating diversity goes beyond embracing one’s race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It also includes welcoming and accepting those who are differently abled —both developmentally and physically.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 56.7 million Americans – about one in six – have a disability, which makes people with disabilities the nation’s largest minority group.

In 2005, Fifth Third Bank implemented Project SEARCH, a unique transition-to-work training program for young adults ages 18 to 22 who have disabilities.

The program provides marketable and skill-building opportunities that are geared to helping participants secure competitive employment. In 1996, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center created Project SEARCH to provide marketable and skill-building opportunities that are geared to helping participants secure competitive employment.

The program’s administrators have helped replicate the program model at more than 540 sites around the world. Thanks to the program, more than 3,700 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities have received employability and job-skills training.

Fifth Third instituted its first Project SEARCH operation in 2005 at its Madisonville campus in Cincinnati. The program was expanded to downtown Cincinnati in 2007 and to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2008.

In all, Fifth Third has trained more than 325 young adults at those three locations, and more than 30 Project SEARCH graduates are now members of the Bank’s team. Mitch Morgan, vice president, diversity and inclusion, manages Project SEARCH at the Bank and explained why the program is impactful.

“We understood that people with disabilities can be trained and have many ways to contribute when employed,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success with the students landing full time employment at Fifth Third and various organizations in the community. The program has cultivated a culture of inclusion where it is clear that everyone is accepted and valued.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national employment rate for people with disabilities is 19%. Project SEARCH’s overall competitive employment rate is 73%.

“Seeing the Project SEARCH students go through the program and grow in confidence, leadership skills, and then graduate to become gainfully employed has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my job,” said Morgan.

For 13 years, Carolyn Rogers, a Great Oaks employee and Project SEARCH classroom instructor at Fifth Third, has helped to provide vocational training to the students to prepare them for long-term and full-time employment opportunities.

“I always wanted to help those who had to overcome barriers to learn, and there used to be so few programs for individuals with disabilities,” she said. “I am so thankful for how far we’ve come as a society and for the Bank’s support of Project SEARCH.”

“Sometimes we aren’t always aware of how to interact with individuals with disabilities,” she said, “but it’s important for us to know that you don’t have to be afraid of not knowing the ‘right’ thing to say. Being honest and yourself is OK.”

Rogers offered suggestions on how to talk with people with disabilities:

  • Be personal. When talking to a person with a disability, look at and speak directly to that person, rather than through an interpreter or companion. If you have a difficult time
    understanding, ask the person to repeat it. Do not assume you know what is being said.
  • Think about their abilities. When working with an individual with a disability, consider your approach and tailor it to the person and his or her abilities. Figure out how someone
    learns best and go from there.
  • Challenge them. You want the best out of everyone, including an individual with a disability, so expect that and don’t be afraid to push. Have high expectations; you can
    always adjust goals later if you need to.
  • Be inclusive. Include individuals with disabilities in all conversations and have the same expectations as you would of anyone else that is part of the conversation. Whether you are looking to enhance a current product offering or even looking at innovative ways to improve processes, individuals with disabilities have a unique and powerful perspective about adaptability and universal design.

For more information about Project SEARCH, visit

About the Author

Danielle Jones