Uniquely Abled Academy Graduate Fitting in Just Fine in the Working World

Student with autism is a machining assistant at West Allis manufacturing firm

Mark Feldmann, feldmam1@matc.edu

October 18, 2023

Eric Gama
Eric Gama
Eric Gama

Every business is looking for people who can show up on time, take pride in their work and are always asking what more they can do. Eric is proving all the time that he can do that. He’s committed to us, so we are committed to him.

Peter Rathmann CEO and owner, Allis Manufacturing

At work, Eric Gama is just one of the guys.

He punches in at 9 a.m. as a machining assistant at Allis Manufacturing Corp. in West Allis and starts his scheduled tasks on one of the company’s computer numerical control (CNC) machines. He reviews blueprints and programs machines that produce an array of metal parts. Sometimes he eats lunch with some of his co-workers and talks about some of his favorite things: his cats, world history, video games, Lego blocks.

“I love going to work,” said Gama, who has autism and recently graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA). The program is designed to give students with autism the hands-on training needed to prepare for a career as a CNC operator. 

Gama was in the second group of students to participate in the Uniquely Abled Academy, which started in 2021, and one of the first to get a CNC job. 

“Every business is looking for people who can show up on time, take pride in their work and are always asking what more they can do,” said Peter Rathmann, the no-nonsense, straight-talking president, CEO and owner of Allis Manufacturing. “Eric is proving all the time that he can do that. He’s committed to us, so we are committed to him.”

During the summer, Gama worked six hours a day, three days a week at Allis Manufacturing. This fall, he’s working as many hours as he can there while taking CNC grinding courses at MATC and serving as a tutor for the third cohort of students in the UAA. In the spring of 2024, he plans on taking more CNC classes.

In MATC’s UAA program, students get more than 500 hours of instruction over two semesters. They learn to interpret industrial and engineering drawings, to precisely measure parts so they pass inspection, to perform basic machine tool equipment setup and operation, and to practice machine shop safety. 

UAA students also take career readiness and social skill classes, learn how to build resumes and go on interviews. They visit prospective employers and watch employer presentations, said Goldhmong Vang, coordinator of the college’s UAA program.

See TV coverage of the Uniquely Abled Academy

“Eric is an amazing student and has a huge interest in machining,” Vang said. “We really enjoyed having Eric in our program. He flourished.”

At his job, Gama has continued to grow, personally and professionally, Rathmann said. “Since he started he has really opened up. He is a fun guy,” he said. “His first day we had him do some things to see where he was and he was knocking out parts on day one.”

While a student at Nicolet High School, Gama said he considered being a welder or an electrician. He had helped his father renovate a bathroom in the family home, repair a dining room ceiling and paint. 

“I thought about attending a four-year college for mechanical engineering; but the more I thought about it, I realized I would be better off in a trade,” Gama said.

He met with a career counselor at MATC’s Mequon Campus and discovered he would make a good fit in the CNC program. He enrolled in the UAA program.

“I really enjoyed it. I was always happy to go to class,” he said. “I learned a lot and found it fun.” 

Gama and his family met Rathmann at the academy’s completion ceremony. Gama talked with him again a few weeks later and started working in June.

Rathmann is keenly interested in neurodiverse disorders. His oldest daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, when she was 12 years old. He has helped her navigate life, secure several jobs and become more independent. 

“Many places don’t know what to do with these kids,” Rathmann said bluntly. “They bring them in but have no ability to manage them or grow them. So they end up kind of hiding them. They might be working third shift in the stockroom.”

He found out about MATC’s Uniquely Abled Academy a few years before the COVID-19 pandemic and has been an ardent supporter and evangelical advocate for neurodiverse inclusion ever since.

According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with autism. Many are either unemployed or underemployed. 

Rathmann said he believes there are about 100,000 people with autism in Wisconsin who can help companies alleviate labor shortages if those businesses are willing to be flexible and accommodating. 

“Getting over the fear of the unknown is key for many businesses,” Rathmann said. “They need to create a committed ecosystem where leadership, management, other employees and family members are on the same page. If businesses give this chance, I believe they will see the value.”

MATC’s program is a partnership with the Uniquely Abled Project, which is based in Los Angeles and was established in 2013 by Ivan Rosenberg, an aerospace industry consultant and parent of two children with autism. 

“Our program is another innovative approach where MATC is working to nurture the talents of individuals in our district while meeting employer demands in an industry that needs skilled workers,” said Laura Bray, MATC vice president of College Advancement and External Communications. “This is a clear win-win for students and employers.”

Rathmann agreed. “I love what MATC has done with this program,” he said. “I applaud that they have integrated it and I will do whatever I need to do to help support it.

Learn about MATC’s Uniquely Abled Academy. Individuals who can participate in activities without the assistance of a caregiver (DSM-5 terminology: Level 1 Autism) are welcome to apply.

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 28,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.