Sunday, August 07, 2005

Customized Employment: Making the Business Case


When I talk with groups on the topic of customized employment, many people want to know if businesses will truly agree to participate in this unique hiring strategy of people with significant disabilities in the competitive labor market. The answer is a resounding "YES!" A growing number of industries and businesses, both large and small, including public and private, are already participating as active partners in customizing job opportunities in support of youth and adults with disabilities throughout the United States and many other parts of the world.
The next question people ask me is this: "Why would an employer have any interest in customizing a job for someone who lives with a complex or significant disability?" In other words, can we make a business case for customizing employment?
Well, there are many compelling reasons why businesses are showing an interest in customized employment and forming alliances with youth and adult employment service providers. In the spirit of a David Letterman Top Ten List, I would like to share my top 10 reasons why customized employment makes very good business sense. OK, here goes....
10. Employers develop internal capacities to manage a more diverse workforce.
The fact that disability is fundamental to our shared human experience is now beginning to emerge in census data and disability prevalence studies conducted in the United States. The aging of America and its baby boomer population is ushering forward dramatic demographic changes and realities that will impact our emerging workforce. These studies document a growing trend line in the number of Americans who have disabilities in the workforce as well as many who are available to work in our untapped labor pool. When a business chooses to participate as a partner in customizing employment, it's honing expertise and building new organizational capacities to recruit, supervise, and support a more diverse workforce. This experience is not only valuable today but will magnify in its importance as the composition of America’s workforce changes over time.
9. Employers are introduced to universal design principles that benefit all.
The principles of universal design promote flexibility and open access to physical buildings, communications, education, community and civic events, and participation in the workplace for the maximum number of people possible. Although customized employment is planned around the specific interests, abilities, and job support needs of someone with a disability, proposed work setting changes or job modifications are often a benefit to all company employees.
To illustrate my point, consider how the use of curb ramps are helpful to elderly employees or even business customers with baby strollers or mobility limitations. How about the impact of other universal design concepts such as automatic doors, word captioning, talking calculators, voice-activated computer software, or even the simple comforts of wider work aisles? Although many of these products or ideas were launched in support of people with disabilities, each has made its way into mainstream America and benefits all citizens.
When a business chooses to customize a job for an applicant with a significant disability, it creates opportunities to re-examine accessibility of its workplace and business operations. In addition to its physical buildings and work equipment, this might also include its accessibility of job orientation materials, instructional methods, recruiting and hiring practices, or translating and simplifying written documents. In short, examining basic principles of universal design and making specific job accommodations is good business because good business is really about inclusion and welcoming a wide range of employees and customers.
8. Employers improve work efficiencies.
The strategy of customized employment gives businesses and industries an opportunity to reassess its work flow processes and maximize efficiencies. Many companies who hire people with disabilities in customized employment choose to restructure job descriptions and work tasks to capitalize on the abilities or talents of an individual. To illustrate, a customized employment technique called job carving enables employers to restructure a work flow sequence or reassign tasks with two objectives in mind: (1) to create a customized job for a worker with a significant disability; and (2) to refocus the work energies and maximize the strengths of other company employees to meet other pressing priorities.
7. Employers improve employee morale and customer service relations.
Most businesses are concerned about their employee morale, customer service relations, and corporate image. Employers who hire people with significant disabilities are often viewed as responsible corporate citizens who are committed to social responsibility and a betterment of the communities where they conduct business.
A panel speaker at the 16th Annual APSE conference in Mobile, Alabama in July 2005, shared with his audience specific research he was conducting on public attitudes and perceptions about the employment of people with disabilities. He said that more than 90% of all respondents in a recent survey identified the hiring of people with disabilities with being a progressive corporation and effective business! In addition to this research, many workforce studies offer solid evidence that companies hiring people with disabilities later report how this decision measurably improved the internal morale of their workforce.
6. Employers can add new services or product opportunities.
Some customized employment strategies can help a business add new service lines or product opportunities thereby increasing company productivity and sales. For example, the strategy of job creation can help an employer improve customer relations and sales through newly defined activities that increase value. In other instances, a customized job can be structured to address a presenting problem that the company specifically identified during the job development process. By design, specific proposals to create a new job must be compelling enough so an employer is willing to invest competitive wages and benefits in return for the proposed strategy. That said, many customized employment providers have been successful in creating new job opportunities by focusing on demand-side business sales and operational needs.
5. Employers gain a competitive edge in recruiting labor.
Despite America’s recent economic slowdown, virtually all workforce prognosticators identify significant labor shortages in the coming years ahead of us. For this reason, it only makes good sense for progressive businesses to develop access to all potential labor pools and available talent to insure a stable and reliable labor force today and in the future. Many businesses are looking into untapped labor pools, including people with disabilities, to address specific labor shortage needs. They are also exploring new and creative ways to do work since traditional ways of doing business will likely be strained by significant job skills and labor shortages.
4. Employers can tap an emerging consumer buying market.
According to U.S. 2000 Census data, there are 50 million Americans living with a disability in the United States. Wow! Businesses are only beginning to recognize that people with disabilities are an emerging consumer market with significant buying potential. It has been estimated, for example, that people with disabilities collectively represent $200 billion in aggregate income! It is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to ignore the collective buying power of America’s largest minority population. For this reason, employers who demonstrate a visible and active interest in the hiring of people with disabilities are likely to attract the loyalty of "buying customers" who have disabilities as well as their families.
3. Employers increase performance reliability.
Job performance studies involving employees with disabilities document they are just as reliable, and sometimes more so, than many of their company peers. To illustrate this point, the Dupont Corporation has conducted research for many years concerning the job performance and reliability of its employees with disabilities. Dupont concluded that their workers with disabilities were rated as average or above average for performance, safety, and attendance records. Their study also showed that many employers without direct experience had unfounded fears when it came to the hiring of individuals with disabilities in such areas as productivity, absenteeism and turnover, interpersonal relations with co-workers, safety, costs of job accommodations, and increases in insurance rates.
The Dupont study revealed that supervisors who had direct experience with workers who have disabilities were far more likely to report an interest in hiring future workers with disabilities than those who had no direct experience. In other words, myths and perceptions associated with work and disability were abated through direct experience.
2. Employers can extend new opportunities to underrepresented workers.
Customized employment is not a completely new idea. Of course, it is not unusual for employers to build job duties and responsibilities around the unique talents of individuals inside their workforce. Actually, it happens all of the time. However, there is a greater tendency to encourage customization of job duties for more tenured employees to capitalize on their known skills and assets.
This idea of customizing employment for people with significant disabilities who are not already members of the workforce is somewhat new. However, the core concept is fundamentally the same. It is all about building a job description with defined duties that emphasize the specific interests, strengths, and needs of a job candidate who is unlikely to succeed through conventional business hiring practices.
The decision to customize a job is a completely voluntary gesture and based on the mutually assessed needs of both a job seeker and host business. To support this process, employers can take advantage of training and technical assistance from a customized employment consultant to help ease the inclusion of a hired worker into the company's workforce. In sum, customized employment promotes the inclusion of job seekers who are woefully and statistically underrepresented in our nation’s workforce.
1. Employers make money.
Customized employment is not about corporate charity or volunteer work. It's about real work for real pay. Customized employment is designing and negotiating a functional and meaningful job role for someone with a significant disability that adds measurable value to a company’s business. When negotiated work tasks are functional and meaningful, they should have a measurable economic value. For this reason, employers should only consider hiring people in customized employment when the proposed work tasks add functional or economic value to their business operations. Needless to say, a customized employment position must help a company to do its work better and make money. After all, how many jobs will last that don’t positively impact on the bottom line?
The National Center on Workforce Disability (NCWD) for Adults at the University of Massachusetts said it best in its newly published brochure: "Customized employment offers the chance for a job to fit who we are, what we need, and what we have to offer." Customized employment, therefore, is a voluntary win-win strategy that helps employers reach business objectives and creates jobs in the workforce for applicants who have complex lives and have been unable to benefit from traditional job development approaches.

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