MONTGOMERY, Ala. – For some high school seniors, landing a job means more than extra cash for the movies or the mall — getting a paycheck means a chance to graduate.
Yet many schools that place special education students in paid jobs leading to so-called "occupational diplomas" are finding their work cut out for them: soaring joblessness means restaurants, small businesses and retailers that for years provided jobs to students with disabilities are increasingly hard-pressed to help in a sour economy.
"Times are different than they've ever been," said Butch Starnes, director of a career technical center who regularly places students in jobs in northern Alabama.
"A lot of systems are having this problem where you have teenagers competing for jobs with 40- and 50-year-olds now that are back in the job market looking for anything to help put food on the table," Starnes said.
The occupational diploma programs emerged in recent years across some Southern states — Alabama and Mississippi included — to help young people with disabilities enter the work force through paid jobs while they complete high school. Hundreds have used the programs to acquire the skills employers demand, often landing permanent jobs after graduating.
Yet this isn't a normal economy, and the work force is shrinking daily.
Tommy McWhorter, who owns a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in east Alabama's Chambers County, has employed three occupational diploma candidates on average each of the past eight years. He didn't take any students this year as his staff shriveled from 22 to 15 workers.
"When minimum wage went up, and gas went up, and plastic went up ... everything hit us at one time," he said. "We had to take cuts, and in retail the first cut is naturally payroll."
Diane Sheriff coordinates the occupational diploma program for the county, where the jobless rate is approaching 18 percent. Students in her watch were among those McWhorter had to turn away.
"We had seven students eligible and only three of the seven have been able to find jobs," she said. "So many businesses around here are laying off; they just don't need extra help."
Never mind that many would-be employers see the occupational diploma as a sign of skilled workers ready to deploy.
A 2008 survey published in the Journal of Disability Policies showed 80 percent of employers were inclined to hire those with occupational diplomas, while only 55 percent were likely to hire those with mere certificates of completion or achievement — the most common option for special education students.
Most in special education qualify under federal guidelines because of some life-impacting physical or mental impairment.
Thus when Wal-Mart recently announced that layoffs could be in the future of the world's largest retailer, those who run occupational diploma programs began worrying their students could become eventual casualties of the downturn.
"My first thought was 'Oh my goodness, I hope this isn't going to affect us,"' said one special education director, Susan Currie, in Alabama's Madison County system.
She said nearly all the county's occupational development program seniors — 20 out of 25 — have been placed in jobs this year, mostly at Wal-Mart. But she's worried about those who come next. "Our kids will be the first to go," she said.
In Mississippi, special education bureau director Tanya Bradley said school districts where jobs are scarce are providing the jobs themselves — putting the students in cafeteria posts and in-house child care work.
"It is critical that these students have this opportunity," Bradley said. "If they cannot pursue a standard high school diploma, this is the next best thing for them."
No national agencies or organizations keep track of the number of special education students seeking the occupational diplomas, nor even how many are unable to find work in the recession. Alabama and Mississippi are believed to be the only states offering those diplomas statewide this academic year. Similar programs are scattered across school districts elsewhere.
Alabama's occupational diploma requires 270 hours of paid employment and Mississippi, 580 hours. But Mississippi students also have the option of taking a two-year vocational training program starting in 11th grade and taking a test at the end to bypass the hourly work requirement.
Becky Dean, director of special education for Mississippi's Tunica County Schools, said she often encourages students to take the two-year route because it can be just as helpful in gaining post-graduation employment while avoiding problems finding work in a dismal job market.
"To me, those vocational classes carry a lot more weight," she said. "A lot of times in say a building trades class, word gets around who can do the work and who's a good performer. They get set up for jobs that way."
Some schools have suggested waiving some of the required work hours until the economy improves.
But David Johnson, who directs the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, said easing requirements isn't the answer. The institute aims to improve services and support for the disabled through research and training.
"There's no easy solution to this," said Johnson, who called on schools to work more with employers and their state labor departments on the issue.