Cornhusker Auto Center

HUNTER MEWIS works on vehicles at Cornhusker Auto Center in 2020. Mewis is employed at the center through a Norfolk Public Schools work-based learning program, Operation 'N' Ployability. Cornhusker Auto recently received a state education award for its efforts to employ students with disabilities from area schools, including other districts in Battle Creek and Stanton. Mewis was hired at the conclusion of the program and still works at Cornhusker Auto.

Cornhusker Auto Center in Norfolk has been recognized by the Nebraska Department of Education for its efforts to provide work-based learning to students with disabilities.

The center was the small-business recipient of the 2021 Disability Employment and Inclusion Awards, which highlights the partnership between businesses and Nebraska VR, an organization that helps people with disabilities find and maintain employment. They were among five businesses around the state to be honored.

“We are pleased to recognize an entrepreneur and these business partners during October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month,” said Lindy Foley, Nebraska VR director, in an official statement. “Their dedication and persistence are a model for others. … The recognition they are receiving is well-deserved.”

Cornhusker Auto has partnered with Nebraska VR since 2019 by employing area high school students through a work-based education program.

Al Rajaee, president of Cornhusker Auto, said he is coordinating with students from Battle Creek Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and Stanton Community Schools.

“We actually allow the students to have work experience, not only shadowing our employees, but also being able to work in the actual work environment,” he said. “It allows them to get a flavor of what our dealerships have to offer as far as future employment or possibilities for their future.”

Rajaee said Cornhusker Auto is the perfect place for students to work through Nebraska VR because of the variety of department jobs. Students interested in fields like auto repair, customer service, finance or sales have worked with the center since it started the program.

“It’s amazing the eye-opening experience these students have when they come to our program,” Rajaee said. “I think it’s really going to build a lasting impression on a lot of these students to decide if this is a career for them.”

Partnering with Nebraska VR isn’t the only way Cornhusker Auto is reaching students.

The center also works with Northeast Community College to give auto technology students on-the-job experience through a cooperative program. Students can become level one certified Chrysler technicians through Cornhusker Auto’s Chrysler Career Automotive Program.

Rajaee said he is also starting a Ford Automotive Student Service Educational Training Program to offer hands-on internships with Norfolk High School and Northeast Community College. The programs should start in 2022 if there aren’t any delays.

Rajaee said work opportunities offered through Nebraska VR aren’t just open to a specific school. Any schools or students around the area can get involved if they have an interest in specific fields.

Tami Kaup is the vocational skills coordinator at Norfolk High School and manages Operation ‘N’ Ployability, the program that Cornhusker Auto partners with at Norfolk Public Schools. It matches students who are either graduated or near graduation with local businesses for on-the-job learning.

Kaup said students in Operation ‘N’ Ployability are independent working adults who might need an extra year of support and resources. Students have been asked to come back to work full time after their time is done with the program — including one student who was recently hired at Cornhusker.

“If it wasn’t for businesses like Cornhusker Auto, we wouldn’t have this program,” Kaup said. “Some problems we have is that businesses won’t let us try — they say, ‘They don’t want to babysit.’ But let us just come and show you and you’re going to want us back. Our students are so reliable, they are here every day and they never want to miss work or school.”

Rajaee also encourages local businesses to employ students with disabilities.

He said the work he does with Nebraska VR and local schools “plants a seed” and gives students a path to graduate with degrees or certifications with Northeast to keep people working and living in Norfolk.

“I think that’s the future of employment, as businesses now more than ever struggle to fill positions. I think this would be a phenomenal opportunity for a lot of businesses to plan early,” he said. “We have had really positive responses from the students, and that’s really encouraging. We love the program.”