Friday, February 11, 2005

Defining Customized Employment

It's no secret that the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is a national embarrassment. Despite our best efforts at "rehabilitation," most national studies consistently show the unemployment rate for people with significant disabilities to be in the range of 60-70%. And it has been estimated as high as 90% for some disability populations including adults with serious mental illnesses (President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003).
Due to low job placement performance, there has been increased pressure on both public and private employment and rehabilitation programs to produce better outcomes for people with disabilities. Its not that traditional job placement services don’t work for people with disabilities. They do indeed! The problem lies in the fact that they do not work for all people with disabilities. The high national unemployment rates, coupled with high enrollment rates within center-based work and non-work programs for many disability populations, clearly document that traditional approaches are not very effective for people who have the most complex and challenging barriers to employment.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion and interest in the concept of customized employment. I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what customized employment is and why it is now viewed as a promising practice for unemployed and underemployed youth and adults with significant disabilities.
The term customized employment was first introduced by the federal government through the Department of Labor, Office on Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP). According to ODEP, customized employment means "individualizing the employment relationship between employees and employers in ways that meet the needs of both. It is based on an individualized determination of the strengths, needs, and interests of the person with a disability, and is also designed to meet the specific needs of the employer."
The guiding philosophy for"customization" of employment was taken from Title I of the federal Work Investment Act (WIA). WIA is the national legislation that authorizes the consolidation and provision of public job training and employment programs via One-Stop Workforce Centers throughout the United States. Among other core principles, WIA communicates the importance of "universal access and design" for all Americans who need assistance with their employment preparation and job search. Of course, this principle is critical to enhancing greater access to job resources, training, and employment assistance that is needed by most people with significant disabilities.
A common question I receive is this: Isn’t customized employment just like supported employment? Well, yes and no.
When supported employment is done well, it does indeed incorporate many of the principles of customized employment. This means that people are served one at a time, their individual interests and talents drive their job placement plan, their skills are carefully marketed to interested employers, they earn competitive wages and benefits, they are placed into integrated business operations, ecological factors are carefully considered and job accommodations are negotiated, and specific job roles or work tasks are designed to match the abilities and needs of the job placement candidate.
Unlike traditional job placement approaches, customized employment does NOT necessarily assume a competitive job application process. Of course, most job placement specialists working for traditional programs tend to speak with employers about their job vacancies and then match opportunities to a pool of job seekers who are in search of employment. While this process serves the needs of many individuals, the people with the most complex disabilities often get overlooked during the job screening process. Instead, customized employment examines the abilities of an individual and identifies potential contributions he or she can make within the workforce. Afterwards, these talents are marketed to prospective employers to meet specific business needs.
This change in approach is not so subtle and it makes the possibilities for obtaining integrated employment far more likely for the individual. Since the cornerstone of customized employment is the negotiation of job tasks with employers, the training and creativity of customized employment practitioners is absolutely critical to match the abilities of a worker to unadvertised opportunities.
Customized employment eliminates much of the debate about the suitability of specific individuals for community job placement. Why? First, the development of profiles and inventories about the abilities and potential contributions of people is a fairly simple process. Second, it is employers who ultimately decide whether the contributions of an individual worker has merit and economic value. When the right employment situation is found, almost anyone is capable of working with customization of job functions and responsive support.
Some examples of customized employment include new job creation, job carvings of tasks from structured job descriptions, launch of self-employment or microenterprises, use of assistive technologies, job sharing strategies, and other similar job negotiations.
Customized employment is not designed to operate as an ongoing job service, but it can be effectively linked with supported employment. With an appropriate braiding of program funding, customized employment and supported employment can be offered sequentially for eligible individuals.
The provision and funding of supported employment assumes some level of need for ongoing job stabilization services or follow-up to assist each employee with his or her job maintenance or career advancement goals. Supported employment services are also available to assist employers in managing any ongoing challenges associated with training, supervising, or supporting workers with significant disabilities. Of course, these services themselves are ideally customized to meet the specific and changing needs of the employee and employer over time.
Since customized employment is an initiative of the Department of Labor, it is presently available at some One-Stop Workforce Centers and their community partners who are operating employment demonstration sites. With success, it is hoped that these services can be extended to other service populations in the future such as refugees or immigrants with limited English proficiency (LEP), older workers, and other job seekers who have unique job barriers. Finally, it hoped that the concept of customization can be broadened to other venues such as post-secondary education and training, transportation, and other support service areas.
Customized employment offers great promise to people with disabilities who want to work by increasing opportunities and strategies to achieve self-sufficiency and success in our nation’s workforce. This blog contains some stories about people with disabilities who obtained job placement success by incorporating one or more customized employment principles.
Comedian George Carlin once told a story that I think best describes the unique qualities associated with customized employment. It goes like this:
Some say the glass is half-empty.
Some say the glass is half-full.
I say the glass is too big!


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