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By Marco Santana

Melissa Bradley Career Center Director
Melissa Bradley

Melissa Bradley has a mantra that she has helped spread across Beacon College’s Juan & Lisa Jones Center for Career Preparation.

“All ways. Always.”

That approach to helping students as the office’s new director means understanding that each case is different, especially at a school like Beacon College, which specializes in students with a variety of learning disabilities.

“It’s a charge for me and my team to help students really develop a blueprint for what happens next,” she said. “We want to do this in all types of ways, and we want to do it consistently.”

Bradley, who took over as director in the spring, is quickly moving toward the start of her first full school year in the position.

She has spent a good part of her time thus far building relationships with employers in Central Florida and across the country.

She also went on what she called a “listening tour” with her team both across Beacon College and the department’s external partners to discover what was needed and how she could help.

“What is important to Florida or Central Florida is different than what might be needed in other parts of the country,” she said. “We wanted to listen and learn from industry leaders. We didn’t want to arbitrarily change the way things were done.”

Bradley’s arrival into her new position comes at what could be considered a crucial time for workforce development professionals.

The field has undergone a bit of a transition from the past, she said. “Career services is not a job-placement office,” she said. “It’s a resource center to empower students. It’s changing the mindset from, ‘Aren’t you going to find me a job?’ to introducing you to the pipeline and teaching you what’s out there.”

Industries almost across the board will likely soon face a shortage of qualified professionals to fill an ever-growing number of skill-based jobs.

Some industries are already facing that prospect, with new technology jobs far outpacing the number of people with the required skills.

The result is more businesses seeking partnerships with education programs. For schools such as Beacon College, that’s an opportunity.

If they can create a pipeline into a specific sector, it could mean boosting an already-high success rate (83.5%) at placing graduates into jobs.

To do that, it sometimes means having close relationships with employers.

“They want to know our candidates because they want to be sure they are creating a successful environment for them,” Bradley said. “They know talent comes from all abilities and styles.”

Traditionally, career-readiness programs spent a large part of their time helping students with paperwork, such as writing cover letters and resumes. Increasingly, however, that has shifted beyond documentation and into training on what employers now look for.

“We need to help them learn what the workforce expects from emerging professionals,” Bradley said.

Exactly what that is depends upon the industry, of course.

But maintaining close relationships with industry gives Beacon College a leg up because officials can ask directly: “What is it that you need?”

It’s a strong approach that Bradley said is a combination of the previous executives in her office and her own input. “We are blessed in that we inherited a strong foundation of a program,” she said. “Our role isn’t to replace but support students’ learning and, as a program, lean into what real-world employers are looking for.”

For Bradley, it means deploying her 29 years of experience in doing something that she loves: helping students launch successful careers.

“I keep saying that I won the employment lottery,” she said. “Every position I have held I have been fortunate. As long as I can keep helping others help themselves, that’s been my currency.”

Traditionally, unemployment levels of neurodivergent job candidates have far outpaced the rate of the overall workforce.

In June, for instance, the federal unemployment level stood at 3.6 percent. For neurodivergent adults, however, that number is usually up near 30-40 percent.

But Bradley says there have been some positive trends.

As Beacon innovates and tries to remain a leader in the space, other programs have come around to realize how important neurodiverse students are to the workforce.

That, she said, has been encouraging.

“Where Beacon has been the leader, now the world around us is catching up to us,” she said. “These are individuals who are part of our community across the nation and world.”