Sunday, May 29, 2005

Customized Employment: A Supply & Demand-Side Workforce Strategy

Editor's Note:
One of the guiding principles of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is the importance of engaging "demand-side" employment strategies to support employers with their hiring needs. Guided by both policy and funding, our nation’s One-Stop Workforce System plays a fundamental role in supplying skilled workers for a dynamic and emerging labor force. This means implementing skills training programs and job placement strategies that are driven by employer input and guidance and responsive to local economies. Who can argue with these performance goals? They make perfect sense. Well almost, that is.
There is little doubt that conventional methods for filling job orders, referring skilled workers for advertised employment vacancies, and launching job training programs to meet the emerging skills or labor shortage needs of growing industries make great sense. These strategies are also good ideas for engaging responsive training and employment preparation for a majority of our nation’s job seekers.
However, demand-side service practices rarely lead to competitive employment for job seekers with significant disabilities and related challenges. Why? People with significant disabilities are seldom viewed as viable solutions to our community’s emerging labor needs. When trained job developers examine a pool of job candidates who are available to fill existing job vacancies, the names of people with the most complex disabilities and life challenges rarely rise to the top of the list. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that demand-side service strategies alone will eradicate the high unemployment or underemployment of people with disabilities.
National research studies document that two-thirds of adults with significant disabilities are not actively working in our nation’s labor force. In other words, people with significant disabilities do not frequently qualify or compete effectively in the open job market that features a competitive application process. People with the most complex disabilities are repeatedly passed over in favor of job candidates with more education, skills, and employment experience.
Customized employment was introduced to level the playing field and create opportunities to present the unique abilities and potential contributions of job seekers with significant disabilities in new ways. By its definition, customized employment assumes an active dialogue and negotiation with employers concerning job description duties, position tasks or functions, and/or supports that can result in integrated employment outcomes in the community’s workforce.
Customized employment, therefore, is a supply and demand-side employment strategy. Customized employment identifies the potential contributions a job seeker with a disability can make that is either necessary or helpful to the commerce of a community business. Customized employment is all about identifying, marketing, and employing the abilities of job seekers who are unlikely to experience success within a competitive job application process.
This story below about Chuck Johnson is instructive and illustrates this point.
Chuck Johnson is a 22-year old male who was referred to Anoka County’s Transition & Customized Employment (TCE) Program by his secondary education teacher in 2003. At this time, Chuck was enrolled in special education classes due to a significant intellectual disability that interfered with his academic achievement. As a 21-year old, Chuck and his family continued an ongoing dialogue with his individualized education program (IEP) team about his school-to-career interests and transition plans. One thing about Chuck was abundantly clear–-he had zero interest in enrolling in any center-based programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Not only did this special education student want to work in an integrated community job, he had already picked out his choice of employer! Chuck shared his desire to work for Medtronic, a large medical technology company that has its World Headquarters in Fridley, Minnesota, a city close to where he lives.
Medtronic is widely recognized as a progressive international corporation that conducts its business in more than 120 countries. The company’s revenues top nine billion annually and Medtronic was named to FORTUNE Magazine’s list of "The Best 100 Companies to Work For" six out of the last seven years. So Chuck’s obsession with working at Medtronic came as no big surprise to his transition team.
According to his school case manager, Chuck and his parents were routine visitors to the company. They would visit Medtronic’s corporate headquarters two-to-three times a month inquiring about job vacancies and filling out applications. Also, Chuck’s assigned job placement specialist from TCE was active in contacting human resources professionals at the company to inquire about job opportunities on his behalf. Not surprisingly, the response was always the same. Medtronic, a international company with 31,000 employees worldwide did not have any job openings that Chuck was qualified to fill.
From here, Chuck's story takes on an interesting twist. You see, Medtronic is a civic-minded corporation and its managers are encouraged to be active in support of surrounding communities where it conducts its business. To illustrate, the company maintains a high profile in the Minnesota Business Leadership Network (BLN), an association of progressive businesses who are working together to promote more job opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities. It was through a Minnesota BLN meeting that Nancy Hoff, an experienced marketing representative from my organization, met and shared the concept of customized employment with Medtronic’s corporate officials. Through these connections, Nancy was given the opportunity to tour the company’s headquarters and discuss the basics of customizing jobs for people with disabilities.
In fact, Nancy was able to identify specific work tasks that could be "carved out" from an array of job duties of several Medtronic employees. After much negotiation, and a promise of training & technical support from our agency, Nancy was able to assist Medtronic's managers in constructing a new position that matched the interests and abilities of Chuck Johnson. This new employment position was developed within the company’s Building Facilities Group and his duties would involve sorting and delivering corporate mail to departments and employees at the World Headquarters.
To ease Chuck’s transition, Nancy conducted a disability awareness workshop for department managers and employees to inform them about disability issues, customized employment, and our goals for full integration of their new employee. My organization, Rise, Incorporated, dispatched one of its experienced employment consultants, Mary Ann Erickson, to conduct the training of Medtronic’s managers, supervisors, and co-workers. Her goal was to introduce the idea of natural job support from the onset so Chuck would receive his primary supervision and guidance from Medtronic’s supervisors and co-workers. Mary Ann spent one full month at Medtronic coaching its managers and supporting Chuck in learning his tasks and job routine. A color-coded system of file folders was introduced to assist Chuck in carrying out his duties and help to identify specific department locations to deliver the mail.
Chuck has been working for more than one year now and he just loves his job. He is a very popular employee within the company due to his positive attitude. Chuck is paid $7.20 per hour but he works only 12 hours per week at this time. Rise staff have offered to supplement his current work schedule with another part-time job. Not a chance! Chuck is working in his dream job and has no interest working for another company. For this reason, Rise continues to work with the company to increase his work schedule by adding new skills and tasks to his routine. Presently, Medtronic’s managers are investigating the possibilities for increasing Chuck’s hourly work schedule by introducing his services to a new building on the corporate campus.
As Chuck Johnson’s story so clearly demonstrates, conventional pathways to integrated employment often lead to disappointing results for people with significant and complex disabilities. Demand-side practices are commonly insufficient by themselves in creating positive job outcomes for people who want to work. For these reasons, customized employment offers hope and possibilities for people who have unique work abilities. At the same time, customized employment practices provide exciting workforce opportunities for businesses like Medtronic who have enough interest and imagination to see unique abilities and employ it.
Just a few months ago, Mary Ann Erickson shared this heartfelt story with me about how Mrs. Johnson told her that she had prayed every day for Chuck to find a good job at Medtronic. "Now, Mary Ann," I answered her tongue-in-cheek, "why on earth did you have to go and tell me this story? I was just beginning to believe that you and Nancy Hoff were really this good!"


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