The Niche Hunt, Part 1 by Duncan Macdonald

My name is Duncan and I have been a member of the Alliance House Clubhouse for 17 years.  I feel that it is vital for each member to find their professional niche and get a job that they love doing and can do well.  After all, people will spend over half of their lives working (from ages 18-67, which is 49 years). For some people a job like dishwashing makes them happy, but in the end what is important is that you find a meaningful way to spend your life and, if possible, contribute to society.

Before joining the Clubhouse World, I spent a number of years doing manual labor and became bored with it.    I needed something more challenging than the manual labor jobs that were often thrown my way.    I tried working extra shifts and covering for co-workers, but that didn’t make me happy.   I needed a new challenge to achieve a sense of accomplishment, which I knew would make me happy.   The best example of this was my HomeTown Buffet job as a Dishwasher/Line Server.   I would regularly work my shift and then be asked to work an extra one in return for getting an hour or longer break in between the shifts.  This made me popular with the staff and allowed me to earn extra money to spend on myself and my friends.

I found that happiness in becoming an extremely valuable member of the Alliance House   Clubhouse and discovering that I was a person with strengths, talents and abilities in Accounting and other areas.  My first task that I did in the Clubhouse’s Business Unit was tracking member hours in Alliance House’s billing system where I met one of my best friends, Kent.  Another thing I did was the Clubhouse’s statistics, which taught me new computer processes with one of my favorite staff members in the same unit, Sue H.   One day while working in that unit, our director asked me to come into the administrative office.  I thought that I was somehow in trouble, but instead he wanted me to learn how to reconcile the Alliance House’s checkbook that was something that I loved doing on a bi-weekly basis.  I also learned to socialize and I gained leadership skills that I use to this day.   During this time, I focused a lot of my energy on the operations of the Clubhouse instead of focusing on myself.  In mid-2007, I took a course called, “The Campaign for Self-Advocacy: Training the Trainers” which taught me about taking care of your own needs first.  During this course, I realized that I wasn’t happy with where my life was going and needed a change.

After my brother graduated from college, I realized that it was my turn.  My adventure into Accounting started in the summer of 2007.   It began during a road trip to visit my family.   I was sitting in the car and declared that I wanted to go back to college and study Accounting.   My mom was amazed, pleased, and very supportive of this decision. A number of factors went into my decision.  One was a high school elective class in Accounting, and on an aptitude test I took in Wyoming where I scored highest in Accounting.  Finally, my love of doing projects around numbers made my choice clear. However, this decision presented a personal dilemma.   How was I going to go back to school and retain my status as a member of the Clubhouse?

This was resolved in two ways.  My Clubhouse family helped me to realize that I needed to stop taking care of everyone else and take care of myself first.  As I started classes, I figured out that with a little creativity I could retain my status at Alliance House.  I did this by spending a certain amount of time each day helping the Clubhouse and the rest of the time utilizing the Education Room with staff members who would assist me with my homework during the day.  A great example of this was an agreement that I made with our director, Jeremy, which was every other Friday morning I would reconcile the checkbook with him on my day off from classes.  He also assisted me with my Windows XP class and allowed Amber and Katie to work with me during the work-ordered day.

In February 2008, I joined the Accounting Clerk Program at Salt Lake Community College.  I have experienced the change of going from a job that didn’t make me happy to finding a place in my career.  These experiences afforded me the understanding I didn’t need to remain in a job I considered mind-numbing and boring.  I found my place where I fit in and can contribute best to society.  My experience at Salt Lake Community College was invaluable to me.  My first Accounting class was really challenging.   It was Ten-Key which is a special calculator that has a tape on it that puts every entry on the paper.   With my hand tremor, it made the class work very difficult but with each class I took, I became more and more interested in rejoining the workforce in Accounting.   It quenched my thirst for more knowledge.  It also made me realize that you can go to school at any age like my friend that was in her mid-60s and taking classes.  I was also able to show my classmates and teachers that I was capable of doing well in my courses even with my mental illness. But enough about me for the moment, let’s talk about the process for finding your professional niche.

There are different ways of figuring out what you like doing and what you are good at.  You can go online and read about the jobs that fit with your interests, or that contain your skillset.  The best bet in my opinion is taking an interest test either at an employment assistance program or online.   I took one of these and it recommended my skillset.  Your next step is determining if you have all of the skills necessary to do the job that you come up with.  In some cases, you may need schooling to acquire the necessary skills.

There are many barriers to going back to school, yet there are also many avenues for help. Often money is one the largest barriers to returning to school, but luckily there are options for dealing with that.  In my case, the local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation paid for my entire education.  I also had to get hooked up with the college’s Disability Resource Center which meant a bunch of doctor’s appointments and information releases.

I also know that the commitment to school in itself is not an easy one, you have to focus on the prize at the end, a career that you love.   Don’t let me mislead you, there will be days when you want to quit, but if you do, you will only be hurting yourself.  I was fortunate enough to have great tutors that helped me to keep my eye on the prize, Amber and Katie.    Amber helped me with my Remedial Reading and Business Communications (English) classes.    She helped me with the vocabulary area.  On a couple of occasions, she helped me to tell the difference between two words that had really close definitions.  When I took my placement test, I scored in the 4th Grade reading level.  Lucky for me, I was able to start my accounting classes at the same time as taking this class.  Katie assisted me with Excel and Corporate Accounting.    She spent countless hours helping me with my homework in the Education Room to learn the ins and outs of both.  She even took time on weekends to help me.   Some members helped me as well, Jeff who would tease me by calling me “Education” and our staff members were also keeping a constant watch on me as well.  My mom and older brother were a significant help also.  Sometimes it was just letting me talk about what I was learning and other times it was helping me to study.

There will also be days when you are so grateful for sticking with it.  One of my best days at Salt Lake Community College was when I got a 97% on an Accounting test. I was jazzed because when I left school after taking the test I was positive that I had flunked it.  I know that you will also have times that are really challenging.   One of mine was taking an Excel test on formulas.  My brain totally froze and I couldn’t remember anything.  I got something like a 30% on that test.   I felt unprepared and I didn’t know where to go next. After I talked to my Disability Resource Center Counselor at Salt Lake Community College, Jake, I realized that I needed to dig into my studies and really focus.    What stopped me was the fact that I had put in almost a year and didn’t want all that time and energy to go to waste.  After that experience, I really started studying at home as well as at Alliance House with the support of tutors.  In preparation for my final, I was given a simulation where I was on the job for a month and one of my favorite staff tutors, Katie, helped me with it and even worked with me on the weekends.

In February 2010 I earned my Accounting Clerk Certificate which was super exciting!!!!

(To be continued)

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