A history of colorful careers leads Johnston to find his fit with Goodwill Industries of Iowa

Michael Johnston’s career path has gone in a lot of different directions: Waiter. Bartender. Writing coach. Adult educator. Addiction services technician. And a short seven months ago, he began working as a job coach for Goodwill Industries of Iowa. But this job, he said, has felt different from the beginning.

“I’ve worked with marginalized populations for a long time,” Johnston said. “It’s not work for everyone, but you don’t know if it can be a good fit until you are there and see what kind of opportunities are available to you. As I found my way, professionally speaking, I saw a lot of similarities between this job coach role and aspects of other jobs I enjoyed in the past. For me, Goodwill is a place to put those things together and I enjoy the work.”

As a job coach, Johnston provides “scaffolding” to help adults in central Iowa who are facing employment barriers find and keep jobs with local businesses. He describes the role as backseat guidance as clients learn ways of the working world, including on-the-job skills and interpersonal skills.

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs and they’ve always given me a chance to see and understand people, even as a bartender, just talking to people and learning their story,” Johnston said. “When I was doing more work with adult basic education and addiction services, I saw how people interacted with marginalized populations and either coddled them or treated them with contempt. Over time, the work has become very personal to me, to help my clients be who they are and be treated with respect.”

Johnston has a four-year degree in humanities, which he said framed much of his academic work in social justice. At the time, he didn’t know about the kind of work direct support professionals (DSPs) perform, or the variety of roles in the human services field that hit upon his interests in serving underrepresented populations.

My degree gave me a theoretical understanding of social justice and how we approach things as a population,” Johnston said.

“But my career experiences have also provided me with a well-rounded view of the realities some people have in their lives and the work that needs to be done to get them back on their feet. I do see myself being able to grow in my role as a job coach to career specialist and perhaps on to something where I’m bringing in more of my teaching background. I see myself staying in this field.”

Michael Johnston

In addition to his formalized training, Johnston said skills in patience, empathy, dignity, respect and being nonjudgmental are key to turning a job into a full-fledged human services career. Recalling an early experience working in a homeless shelter, Johnston said a supervisor encouraged him to think how close most people, including Johnston himself, were to a place where they needed emergency help, shelter or brain health (mental health) services.  

“The need for brain health services has always been there, but it’s growing now and also becoming something we’re OK talking about. “It means we need more people working in this field. I don’t think careers like this come to mind very often, but they are certainly needed in every community. It’s a great experience for learning and getting outside of predefined notions of what a career is or isn’t.”

Michael Johnston

Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) Regions is proud to champion DSPs like Johnston as they find a career in the human services field. For more information on this career field, including educational requirements, a variety of job roles and more, check out IowaMHDSregions.org/careers.