Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reformulating the "Job Ready" Formula

Last week, I was invited to participate in one of several stakeholder focus groups being hosted by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The purpose of this focus group was to gather public, staff, and consumer testimony concerning possible changes and improvements Minnesota should consider to maximize the use of its resources and increase employment outcomes for Minnesotans with disabilities. This information will be used to guide public policy and decision making concerning future directions our State's public VR program will take.
The facilitators representing DEED posed several questions to my group to gather feedback about what makes Minnesota’s VR program unique. They quizzed us about what types of services VR should be providing and not providing to avoid duplication of effort. They also asked us how the VR program should redirect its service priorities during this period of fiscal austerity.
A number of lively discussions were engaged by the group on a broad array of subjects. However, one specific topic of discussion continues to stay with me even a week after our meeting. This was my group’s divergent views as to whether or not Minnesota’s public VR program should engage services for people who were not considered job ready.
"Well, I don’t think our State VR should be working with and referring people to us who aren’t job ready," said one advisor from my focus group. "It’s just a waste of money when people don’t have the necessary job skills, don’t want to work, or just don’t follow through with their plan of services," she continued. Many of the group's participants agreed with her assessment and there appeared to be some consensus that perhaps establishing new guidelines concerning the "job readiness" of Minnesota's VR applicants could be helpful to conserving our limited resources.
Wow! Here I was listening to a group of well-intentioned advisors who really did care about people with disabilities and they were suggesting that VR consider turning away a lot of "undeserving" folks. Gee, I guess we should let someone else worry about their welfare and job placement needs? So where shall these unemployed individuals with disabilities go and what we will become of them? If they are not suitable candidates for VR, then what programs are best able to support them in their pursuit of competitive employment?
When we begin going down this slippery slope of choosing who can best benefit from the public VR program, we are galvanizing an order of selection (OOS) process. We are picking winners and eliminating potential losers from the crowd. Neither the VR system nor people with disabilities are well served when classes of people are categorically blocked from participation in the services they badly need. This is certainly true when the groups we choose to exclude are people with the most complex disabilities and job barriers.
As my focus group began to identify possible criteria for what VR’s job readiness formula might look like, I could think of so many people my own agency has already placed with the same characteristics. For example, one participant suggested that maybe Minnesota’s VR program should exclude people with criminal sexual histories. Now, I have no love or affection for people with criminal sexual histories, but frankly, I can’t think of a group of people who need VR services more desperately. Can we agree that our communities are probably safer when these individuals are engaged in productive, carefully selected jobs with active, ongoing job and mental health supports? Is our alternative releasing people with criminal sexual histories into our communities with too much time on their hands because they have no job or vocation? No thanks!
My focus group was also willing to give up on people with disabilities who have low work skills, poor work histories, and a lack of follow-through. You know, I have no interest in forcing anyone who doesn’t want to work to do so. But, why on this good earth do we want to limit access to anyone who expresses interest in getting a job? If certain people are not demonstrating sufficient job interest, progress, or follow-through, then let’s systemically tie our level of public funding to their participation.
For the record, let me be clear here-- I am a strong believer in being a good steward of public resources we are entrusted to spend in support of unemployed individuals with disabilities. We should not be wasteful. And I fully understand our need to spend money where it will have the greatest impact and benefit. With that said, I found myself in a minority viewpoint within my focus group. I argued that introducing a universal job readiness formula was downright bogus.
In my judgment, the OOS policy observed by our federal-state VR program is already a bust. Any policy that limits public service access to unemployed people based on some magical number of functional limitations associated with one or more disabilities is arbitrary by design. If an unemployed person doesn’t have a job due to a disability, then does it really matter how many functional limitations a disability imposes? It seems to me that one limitation is just about enough if it means not having an earned income. The OOS policy also ignores the fact that many people with multiple, complex barriers may already have access to other public and private dollars to support or partially support their employability needs.
We need to be smarter than this. And the public needs to understand that as taxpayers we have and will continue to pay dearly for the unemployment of all people with disabilities. Ultimately, what matters is where the public chooses to invest its resources. I am voting without hesitation for investing in employment and self-sufficiency programs and reducing long-term welfare options or social security disability benefits wherever possible. For me, this is a no-brainer.
In 2005, the timing is right for communities in America to study and map new pathways to employment for all people with disabilities who want to work. Further, the federal-state VR program ought to be playing a leadership role in building bridges with employers and other collaborators to encourage workforce development strategies so anyone with a disability who chooses to work receives the services and support they need.
I would offer a suggestion that we consider implementing a zero exclusion policy. And I would suggest further that we consider reformulating a definition of job readiness. For example, it might look something like this:

1 IE

In other words, a customer’s work interest (CWI) plus access to customized employment (ACE) over one interested employer (1IE) equals job ready.
In truth, the federal-state VR program needs to recognize that it is no longer the tail wagging the dog. In the year 2005, we are operating services in a completely revamped program landscape. The emergence of job training and employment programs for youth and adults with disabilities in both the public and private sectors offers opportunities for forging new collaborations and blending or braiding funding streams to maximize opportunities for a greater number of people than in earlier years.
In other words, the public VR program needs to be managed in completely new ways so that it stimulates the formation of funding partnerships with other One-Stop workforce programs, secondary and post-secondary schools, community rehabilitation agencies, supported and customized employment programs, adult day training & habilitation programs, adult mental health day treatment centers, welfare-to-work agencies, refugee and minority mutual assistance agencies, employer and business associations, and other organizations who are interested in the job placement and employment of youth and adults with disabilities.
Today, the public VR program is in an excellent position to broaden its vision and services through meaningful collaboration with a variety of public and private organizations that have mutual interests and goals. If we are willing to give VR managers and counselors this authority to manage and leverage services through regional and local partnerships, I believe more people with disabilities will have opportunities to go to work.
Finally, we need to stop this silly and arbitrary process of barring people from the opportunity to work. Let’s redefine what "job ready" means by casting the widest net possible and welcoming all people who choose to work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to "Reformulating the 'Job Ready' Formula", I applaud you for seeking new ways to improve the current VR system in serving persons with disabilities. While it can be very tempting to some to just accept the "norm" and remain politically correct by not "making waves", it is only through individuals like yourself who are willing to face the honest challenge of continual improvement, that change can occur. Where would we be today if Martin Luther King, Jr. did not speak out against the racial prejudiceness, despite the majority view at the time that "there isn't really a problem."? Who would argue that society has not benefited from his voice? I respect your courage and committment to advocate for those who are not "advocate-ready".
As a person who makes every effort to keep an open mind, I still have some concerns surrounding just a few of your points. I would like to first of all establish some foundational principles that I feel are crucial in deciding about the delivery of vocational rehabilitation services.
The first couple points I believe that both of us would mutually agree upon:
1) Motivation is a much stronger indicator of "job readiness" than any other element including transferable skills, aptitude, work history and "severity" of disability.
2) Measuring motivation is a complicated process and our society has not even scratched the surface in identifying a truly objective assessment tool. While the lack of following up on certain activities MAY be an indicator of a person's motivation, it is not necessarily directly related.
3) A person's desire or ability to participate in job search activities does not necessarily negate their ability to be productive in the workforce. As the staff in a One-Stop
Career Center primarily responsible for providing in-house training on disability issues, one of the challenges that I faced was broadening the staff's perspective on the issue of employability. There is a myth that is floating around that says, "A person that is unable to actively participate in job search is not job ready." The thousands of testimonials of consumers who have been productive within supported employment settings would squash that myth in a second. Obviously, those of us who are familiar with the supported employment process can also testify of the ludicrousness of this myth.
4) Every person is responsible for their own life. Their scope and degree of responsibilty is contingent upon their God-given gifts, talents, abilities, aptitudes and skills. I am not responsible for things that I am not capable of accomplishing.
5) This brings us to the question of individual rights. Does a person who has the capacity to participate in job search activities, but refuses to do so, have the right to the same level of services as a person who is not capable of participating, such as an SE client. The spectrum for this scenario can include clients who have the ability to participate in JSA, but their level of interviewing skills is still restricted due to any number of factors. Does this person have the right to the same level of service as an SE client, or will the VRC wait indefinitely for this person to "follow through" to become "interviewing-ready"?
My view is that if an individual has the capacity to participate in JSA, they should be given the responsibility to do so. While we live in a world in which individual rights are so adamently defended, I believe that more emphasis needs to be placed upon individual responsibility. The challenge is determining what level of responsibility each person should carry. And who has the authority to make such a determination?
There are a few comments that you made that need to be put in perspective.
First, you stated that "If an unemployed person does not have a job due to a disability, then does it really matter how many functional limitations a disability imposes?" My answer to you is Absolutely, YES. First of all, a more objective approach is NOT whether a person's disability is THE cause of their unemployment, but rather HOW their disability affects their employability. And to answer that question, a comprehensive understanding of the total PERSON needs to take place.
Take for example, a person with carple tunnel syndrome. Their disability may signficantly affect their capacity to work as an Admin Assistant; whereas, a person without any limbs may NOT be signficantly impacted in performing the same duties. This can occur if Person #2 has the aptitude to learn voice activated software, but Person #1 does not possess the same aptitude.
While one may, on the surface, view the loss of limbs as being more severe than CTS, the key is identifying the quantity and scope of the functional limitations.
Again, I agree with you at core of your view that careful consideration needs to be made before excluding anyone from services. A paralell that can be made is practically anyone can be allowed inside a store, given they are not being a threat to themselves, others or property. A person does not need to purchase an item in order to remain in the store. In fact, they do not even need to have the intentions of buying anything, and still be allowed in the store. If we can establish a system that is similar to retail stores, that may be more productive for both the community and the individual. In theory, that is what the One-Stops are intended for, but there still exists some major flaws that exclude individuals that actually demonstrate a greater need.
Due to the hour, I need to wrap this up. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and again, I truly appreciate your service to the community.
God bless,

9:33 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hi Steve,

Thank you for your kind words and well thought out response to my post. You have indeed added a richness to this discussion on “job readiness” issues and access to the VR system. Steve, I think you and I are in fundamental agreement on most major points.

Just a point of clarification. On the matter of the importance of the “number” of functional limitations, you make excellent points and I do not have any issue with what you are saying. I am not saying that all disabilities and their limitations are "equal" in terms of the challenges they present in going to work. You example is a perfect illustration of this point. What I was trying to say is this—whether we total the sum of multiple limitations or measure the dimensions of just one limitation, the end result is the same to the individual–he or she doesn’t have a job. When an unemployed person with a disability comes to VR for assistance, I am assuming that most (or advocates supporting them) have made a judgment that VR is the best place to provide the assistance they need to get a job. It is certainly possible that other mandated partners of the One-Stop system could be of help or that this person could find a job on their own. I just think it’s shame that VR would not welcome anyone who would choose them as the resource to receive their support.

In your post, you made a number of additional points that are often lost in any discussion concerning job readiness and access to VR. Disability barriers are just one side of the coin. An individual’s motivation and behavior, job preference, wage income goals, occupational outlook for the job goal, eligibility for other available service funding, and access to customized employment services can all play a critical role in both the costs and ability to serve someone with a disability effectively. In other words, when we count disability limitations alone, we may be denying access to very worthy individuals who can benefit from the VR services they badly need.

Finally, the end of your reply is exactly what I was trying say. Your example of the open store is an excellent analogy of how we can keep services in play for people who need them (whether they recognize that they need them or not). I recently started a service at Rise that uses this philosophy. We do not close cases of enrolled individuals unless they ask us to. We left people drift in and out of services based on their motivation and preparedness to conduct a job search. When they don’t show up or follow through, we ignore them. We do encourage them, but we let them determine the level of service they receive by the level of their follow-through. It’s interesting to see how people who we would have closed as not “job ready” reappear, make better choices, and begin to become more actively involved. It is by no means a perfect system, but it does leave an open door for people with complex service needs and issues.

Thanks again for writing and sharing your wisdom. Best wishes Steve!

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, why are factors such as emotional stbility still used when you consider staff's ability to supervise or mange. Plus emotional stability is an old fashioned term which does not reflect on the state of the art process of psychiatric rehab. just like a person with a spinal cord injury would not go directly from the acute care to living life with a disability, why do we assume all people with disabilities have the same needs when it comes to employment. At the same time practices do not meet the concept of being equal except for the disability.

2:40 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

"why do we assume all people with disabilities have the same needs when it comes to employment?"

I agree with your viewpoint. When person-centered employment approaches are used, people are viewed as job seekers who have unique support needs.

"emotional stability is an old fashioned term that does not reflect 'state of the art' methods in psychiatric rehab"

You are right. The idea of recovery from mental illness is an individualized process that involves effective mental health treatment and responsive community support. There is definitely a need for more education with employers and the general public so the core principles of psychiatric rehabilitation are better understood. Too frequently, people with serious mental illnesses do not have access to the customized support they need to recover from their illness and be effective on the job. Herein, lies the real problem.

8:48 AM  

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