For 50 years, Pioneer Vocational Services has been making things better

By Robin Hart

Pioneer Vocational Services is celebrating 50 years of providing employment for disabled workers through production contracts with local factories, businesses and the military.

“We are basically a factory, however, not the kind of factory that designs, develops, markets, produces and sells a specific product in hopes of generating a profit for its owners,” said Pioneer’s director of marketing and production Steve Lovell.

“Instead, we offer our labor to assemble, package, sort, label, rework or inspect various products needed by factories and businesses in our area to generate income for our team members.”

Pioneer’s mission is to “provide vocational development and extended employment programs to people who are disabled and/or disadvantaged,” Lovell said.

By having a job and earning an income, Pioneer employees gain a sense of independence thus enabling them to obtain better quality of life, he added.

Lovell said he is extremely thankful for the community’s support of Pioneer’s mission over the past 50 years.

“I once read that ‘Every small town should strive to have a strong local community, a strong local economy, and a strong local culture.’ Given the fact that for the last 50 years, our community has included its most vulnerable citizens in our local economy, it says a whole lot about our local culture,” Lovell said. “We’ve got to be proud of how we support our most vulnerable citizens.”

Employees are also extremely proud to be working at Pioneer, Lovell added. “They are proud to be working every day. … They love to come to work. And they love getting a paycheck on Fridays. It’s very much a big part of their life.”

“Pioneer doesn’t exist to make money. But we have to pay the bills,” said Pioneer Executive Director Mike Pittman. “We exist to offer employment to individuals with disabilities. So the more work we get, the more people we can make a difference in their life.”

Pioneer receives money to operate in only two ways — through Medicaid reimbursement and by the work team members do for Pioneer’s customers. “We don’t get any grants or money from fiscal court or the city,” Pittman said.

Over the years, several business have come to reply on Pioneer’s work. “It’s gone way past, ‘Let’s do Pioneer a favor'” Lovell said. “We’re now a key supplier” to several local industries, he added.

Pioneer employees work for Liberty’s Tarter Farm & Ranch by assembling its fertilizer and seed spreaders, as well as its industrial mower chain guards. Tarter’s corporate manager Keith Tarter said his company also produces 30 to 40 different parts for several models of John Deere products.

“We wouldn’t be one of John Deere’s vendors without Pioneer Services,” Tarter said. “… I love giving them work. It helps everyone.”

He added that he depends on Pioneer’s high-quality work.

“They take pride in it, and it’s pretty delicate work,” Tarter said.

Hobart Manufacturing relies on Pioneer to assemble its wash tubes used in its production of commercial dishwashers,” Lovell said.

Hobart’s plant manager Keith Henry said he’s used Pioneer’s services for several years. And since Hobart is growing, being able to send work to Pioneer has freed up floor space at the Hobart plant so their labor force can work on other projects, Henry explained.

“They provide a quality service … at a competitive price,” Henry said.

Other area companies that use Pioneer’s services include American Greetings, TransNav, Meggitt Industries, WestRock Packaging, Pittman Creek, Fastenal, Central Forms, Corning, AdKev Inc. and the U.S. Army and Marines.

The military contracts are for cold weather sleeping mats, which at one time accounted for 90 percent of Pioneer’s income. “Back in the day … the military was buying 300,000 mats a year,” Pittman said.

Currently, there are 35 employees at Pioneer, with 23 in the day training program and the remaining employees working in production, Lovell said. Workers are usually paid above the minimum wage and their benefit package includes paid sick time, paid vacation time, life insurance and 100-percent medical insurance if they aren’t already covered, Pittman said.

“Our day-training individuals have an IQ of 70 or less and have some type of mental and/or physical disability. Our production workers generally have average to above-average skills, however, (they) may have a limited disability or have other issues in their past making employment difficult.” Lovell said, “We are a place to give people second chances.”

He added, “Pioneer’s main goal for these individuals is to be integrated into the workforce along with teaching them pre-vocational skills, social skills and safety skills.”

By working at Pioneer, employees “enhance their skill set” by learning appropriate social skills, safety practices, problem-solving and team-working. They also are able to practice their fine and gross motor skills, said Day Training Director Nicole Kirkland.

“We’re trying to prepare them to get a job at Hobart or McDonald’s. That’s our ultimate goal. However, that’s not going to happen with all of them,” Pittman said.

“Our most rewarding success is when an individual comes to Pioneer with little prospect of being hired by another local business due to their disability, and through work and training, they are able to move on to another business that provides them better pay and benefits,” Lovell said.

Kirkland said she thinks the main difference between Pioneer and other factories is that “we accommodate their needs. We are working for them, really. We help them learn these skills that they need outside of here. So they’re doing the work and they’re producing the work, but we’re going to them and saying, ‘What do you need help with? What can we do to help you?”

If an employee at any other factory isn’t “exactly sure of how to do that job or the steps they didn’t quite understand, there’s not going to be somebody over top of them, talking to them saying, ‘Calm down, let me help you. Let’s work through this together.’ And that’s what we do here,” Kirkland said.

A lot of Pioneer’s workers aren’t able to read or count, Lovell said, so the staff devise creative or unique ways to help employees understand their job duties.

“If you’re putting a bag of fasteners together and it takes four nuts, four bolts, six washers and you can’t count, how are you going to do that?” Lovell asked. “Well, you put four pieces of tape out and you put a screw on each piece of tape and put it in the bag. You have to think up ways to get the work accomplished when a person can’t count or read.”

“Quality is incredibly important to us, so we really double, triple check everything,” Pittman said. “Almost every company we work for at some point in time says, ‘Your guys do better work than ours do.'”

Kirkland said Pioneer employees are thankful “to have their jobs, to get their paychecks, to be able to come somewhere five days a week instead of sitting at home doing nothing, which is what would happen if Pioneer wasn’t here.”

Their employees are proud of the work they do and the independence it allows them, she said.

“They want a car, a house, a girlfriend, a boyfriend,” Lovell said. “They want a normal life.”

“They want everything we want,” Kirkland added.

Several years ago, a young man in his senior year of high school was allowed to work at Pioneer before he graduated, Pittman recalled. “His memory was bad. Even in the middle of a job, he would forget what he was doing. But he kept progressing.” After three years at Pioneer, he eventually landed a job at a Bardstown factory making $21.50 an hour. He now has a young son, Pittman said.

Another example of a Pioneer success story is about a young man whose mother forced him to try working at Pioneer, Pittman said. He cried everyday, but his mom made him stay. His skills improved and he became comfortable with the job. The young man became a supervisor and team leader. “And, he’s still here,” Pittman said.

A sad, yet inspiring story is about a man who worked at Pioneer for 41 years, Pittman said quietly. He loved to play Santa Claus every year. The man had a serious heart condition and was transported to the hospital from Pioneer a few times over the years. Twelve months ago was the last time he was taken to the emergency room — he didn’t survive.

The man had lived with his sister and after the funeral when she came to Pioneer to pick up his belongings, Pittman said she and her other siblings all agreed “they hated it for us, but were glad that he died here because that was where he was the happiest.”

“It’s a unique place,” Pittman said.