Monday, August 07, 2006

Customizing a Niche in the Workforce

"No! I don’t think he is employment ready."
This was the professional judgment of a "collaborating" vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor in response to an inquiry from other members of the community support team. The VR counselor was responding to a request for funding assistance to purchase job placement services for "Bill." Bill, a middle-aged man who resides in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, was unemployed due to symptoms of a serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI). His Assertive Case Management Team (ACT) was now weighing the possibility of integrated employment in the community workforce as a goal.
The ACT Team supports adults who have the highest level of need for mental health treatment and community living assistance. This intensive support is designed to address the overall community living goals of its residents with SPMI and prevent the need for institutionalization. Bill had experienced multiple hospitalizations during his lifetime due to the debilitating symptoms associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
For my readers who may be unfamiliar with schizophrenia, it a complicated, incurable brain disease that influences the independence and functional capacities of people who are affected by it. Suffice it to say that Bill lives with a recurring thought disorder and receives intensive mental health treatment to manage his symptoms and daily living needs. To his credit, Bill wanted assistance in finding a good job.
Based on emerging research studies that identify the importance of employment to mental illness recovery, it was logical for ACT Team professionals to raise this possibility for Bill. One of these Team members is a bright employment consultant named Beth Evans. I am proud to say that Evans works for my organization, Rise, Incorporated.
Rebuffed by the "wisdom" of Bill’s VR counselor, Evans faced a challenging decision about offering job placement assistance without the necessary funding support. I still remember the internal discussions among our managers and staff at Rise about what to do. Tony Gantenbein, our Director for Customized and Supported Employment, gave Evans the green light to proceed without the VR case service funding in place. Tony would work to support Evans in finding the necessary funding through other means. After all, this is what Beth Evans is there to find jobs in the workforce for people like Bill who are considered long shots by the mental health system.
In just three weeks, Bill was offered a job in our community workforce! He was hired by Cummins, Inc., a corporation that designs, manufactures, distributes, and services engines and related technologies, including fuel systems, controls, air handling, filtration, emission solutions, and electrical power generation systems. Cummins is a global power leader serving customers in more than 160 countries through its network of 550 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 5,000 dealer locations. At Cummins, Bill would assume an important job installing safety alarms and other devices for fuel tank equipment.

Hmmm. A job placement outcome in only three weeks? Was it really that simple? Was this VR counselor completely out to lunch? Let’s examine a little closer what happened here.
Make no mistake about it, Bill’s job placement was not a simple cake walk. It took creativity, marketing skills, and technical assistance from several Rise staff to make the employment possible and viable. After Tony Gantenbein had approved Evans’ plan to place Bill, she enlisted support from Rise’s marketing department. Evans secured job development assistance from Nancy Hoff to help find the right job situation for Bill. A seasoned marketing professional, Hoff has worked with many challenging-to-employ individuals during her 25 year career at Rise. With Hoff and Evans in Bill’s corner, it was a question of time not possibility.
Bill’s VR counselor had considered him unemployable because of strange behaviors and his inability to participate in a traditional job interview. To illustrate this point, Bill was unable to sit and participate in a structured interview. Rather he would stand up and walk around the room. If a serious job applicant cannot sit through a structured question and answer job interview, how on earth could a business find him employable? Of course, Bill’s odd behavior was an issue and it could not be diminished through traditional thinking. However, Hoff and Evans chose a job development strategy that showcased his talents not his limitations. They educated employers about Bill’s abilities and challenged them to consider his candidacy through a hands-on job tryout approach.
Rather than coerce Bill to participate in a job interview process that would likely highlight his odd behaviors, they talked with community employers about his mental illness and using a trial work assessment instead. A job tryout approach would allow Bill to showcase his abilities without the need to communicate in a one-on-one job interview situation that was highly stressful for him. Hoff approached business representatives from Cummins about this possibility. The company was willing to use a temporary, no obligation job assessment in the workplace in lieu of using a standard, structured job interview procedure with Bill. This was an accommodation they were willing to make to observe and measure Bill’s capacities to contribute and be a valued member of the company.
Hoff and Evans worked with Cummin’s managers and employees to prepare them for working with Bill. The department manager arranged for a disability awareness seminar and Rise staff presented detailed information about mental illness symptoms, helpful job accommodations, using customized employment strategies in the workforce, and the importance of working to Bill's mental illness recovery. A progressive employer, Cummins took Hoff’s and Evans’ challenge one step further. They talked with Bill’s prospective co-workers about helping to define his job tasks and encouraged their active involvement in his daily job support. Before Bill had placed one foot into Cummins, this department was fully prepared to accept and work with Bill’s employment candidacy. And importantly, Bill’s department manager was open to participating in his training and committed to making the employment arrangement work to everyone’s benefit.
Hoff and Evans also played an active role. They participated in Bill’s orientation to Cummins and his immersion within the internal workforce. They offered guidance and coaching to Cummins’ managers and employees during the early, critical learning stages of Bill’s employment. And they offered encouragement to Bill. Hoff and Evans were accessible to assist with training and consulting about Bill’s job support in every way possible. With each passing day, Bill’s immersion was taking hold and Cummins’ employees were slowly becoming more comfortable in managing his daily supervision with less external consultation.
Bill has been working at Cummins now for more than four months and has bridged from a temporary job tryout situation to regular employment status. He works 20 hours a week and earns $9.50 per hour for his contributions. Bill is a dedicated employee who attends work regularly and his performance is valued by his supervisor and other company employees. Cummins is gradually adding more duties as Bill becomes more productive and proficient at his job. In short, Bill has become a customized employment success story.
Demand-side employment is a central theme in today’s workforce development system. Employers are looking to hire talented workers to fill important roles in a highly competitive economy. It’s hard to argue with that. Yet too often, the talents and gifts of people with disabilities, especially those with significant disabilities, are either overlooked or underestimated. Most employers have no clue how to tap the work capacities of people with the most significant disabilities. And they rarely try. Sadly, the job candidacy of adults with significant disabilities is also impeded or viewed negatively by so-called experts and well-intentioned insiders as well.
I recognize that we live in a time where public resources are rapidly diminishing and difficult decisions are being made about who to serve and who not to serve. But let’s be honest here. There are many unemployed citizens in our communities with job barriers similar to Bill’s. And when all is said and done, people with the most significant disabilities rarely hear their names called in competing for jobs in the workforce. Job candidates like Bill are often considered too challenging or too expensive to employ in our community’s workforce. Yet we seem to be comfortable supporting these same individuals year-after-year in long-term disability service programs, welfare systems, and social security disability benefit programs. Now that is really challenging and expensive!
The emergence of customized and supported employment is changing the playing field. It is now possible to market the abilities of youth and adults with significant disabilities who rarely succeed in more traditional job placement programs. We can succeed in improving employment outcomes by changing our methods and approaches.
Is customizing a job easy work? Of course not. It is labor intensive and it means working with people one-by-one. However, we are getting better at it and employers are beginning to understand its potential. Our community workforce often seems a like a giant jig-saw puzzle when we are trying to find just the right opportunity and situation for someone who has unique abilities and job support needs. We now have the potential to help create a piece of this puzzle for anyone who has the motivation to work and access to customized employment.
Is there really a potential niche in the workforce for everyone? So you’re still not convinced?! Well, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can ask Bill’s VR counselor.


Anonymous Daniel Haszard said...

Well said,i applaud your blog, mental health consumers are the least capable of self advocacy,my doctors made me take zyprexa for 4 years which was ineffective for my symptoms.I now have a victims support page against Eli Lilly for it's Zyprexa product causing my diabetes.--Daniel Haszard

12:44 PM  

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