Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996 by Erin Riehle, the Director of the Emergency Department.  It now has almost twenty years of proven success with business partners such as hospitals and banking institutions.  There are currently over 450 sites in 42 states, as well as in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Project SEARCH was brought to Iowa in 2011 when Iowa Health Systems (now Unity Point) of Des Moines collaborated with Optimae Life Services to start the first site in the state at Methodist Hospital.  Other sites have now been established across the state, including Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, Mercy Hospital in Mason City, Jefferson County Regional Health Center in Fairfield, DMACC in Ankeny, Hy-Vee in Des Moines, Child Serve in Johnston, and UnityPoint St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

2023 Project SEARCH Application

How It Works?

Project SEARCH utilizes a combination of classroom instruction coupled with workplace internships to prepare individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities for competitive employment.  The training program is nine to ten months in length with an employer serving as the training site.  Many Project SEARCH sites are located within a hospital but can be done with any large employer where there are a variety of jobs. A typical day includes:

  • 8:30 to 9:30 AM  Classroom instruction in employability and independent living skills
  • 9:30 to 2:00 PM Unpaid internship in a department
  • 2:00 to 2:30  Feedback from instructor

Project SEARCH interns complete three different workplace rotations over the course of the program.  The first internship or rotation is typically assigned by the Project SEARCH staff with input from the interns.  The remaining rotations are a joint decision of the intern, Project SEARCH staff, and the employer.

Who Is Served?

Project SEARCH serves young adults (18-30) with disabilities who have graduated from high school or the equivalent with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Generally there will be 6-12 individuals enrolled in a Project SEARCH program.

How Is It Funded?

Funding for the adult Project SEARCH program is usually provided through Pre-Vocational Services/Medicaid and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS).  There is no charge to the employer or to the participants.

Responsibilities of the Partners

Provider responsibilities:

  • Provide a coordinator and 1 or 2 job coaches to staff the program.
  • Assist with job development upon completion of the training and provide ongoing support after placement.
  • There is always a staff member on site throughout the day.


  • Provide a classroom and permit interns to do workplace rotations within different departments of the business.
  • Designate an employee to serve as the liaison to the program
  • Be willing to hire a person from the program if they have the skills necessary to do the job.

Case Management organizations or IVRS Counselors:

  • Provide referrals to the program and arrange funding for each individual.
  • Help develop goals and provide ongoing support.

Benefit to Participants

Project SEARCH allows participants to engage in a variety of internships at a business. They are also given the opportunity to obtain and secure employment in non-traditional jobs for people with disabilities, increasing their self-esteem, confidence and level of independence.

Benefit to Employers

Project SEARCH gives employers access to a new, diverse talent stream with skills that match their labor needs. Job rotations at the host site are non-paid internships with on-site support from Project SEARCH staff, meaning there is low cost and low risk for participating businesses. When the program is complete and if a Project SEARCH graduate is hired, employers may also find that performance and retention in some high-turnover, entry-level positions will increase dramatically. Additionally, Project SEARCH is changing corporate culture and helping to add diversity to the workforce.

Benefit to Funders of Services

Project SEARCH training is conducted in an integrated setting that is physically located within a business. This allows for training in a real work place with contact throughout the day with people without disabilities. The Project SEARCH program is time-limited with individuals completing their training in nine to ten months.  Presently, people with disabilities experience unemployment rates of 70% or greater. The Project SEARCH programs across the United States have had great success over the past 15 years in assisting individuals with disabilities to obtain employment. Cumulatively these programs have placed over 70% of their graduates into employment. This is due in large part to the employability skills they develop over the course of the training.