Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Heart of the City" Works at Circuit City

In the past month, I learned about a customized employment arrangement negotiated with Circuit City by one of my organization's brightest and skilled job placement specialists, Ms. Melissa Reller. Reller works with our talented team in St. Cloud, Minnesota called Central Minnesota Works. Reller and I collaborated on this feature below.

As part of a growing trend to employ Minnesotans with significant disabilities, Circuit City - St. Cloud has tapped into an unconventional resource and is partnering with Rise Incorporated’s Central Minnesota Works (CMW) Office in St. Cloud, Minnesota. This unconventional workforce strategy is called customized employment.

In 2006, Circuit City rolled out its new Heart of the City corporate campaign. And General Manager, Shawn Pettigrew, had been looking for an opportunity to help his St. Cloud store connect with the community. The national electronic retailer is encouraging its individual stores to facilitate their own community outreach and integration plan. The Heart of the City campaign encourages store managers and associates to volunteer and become involved in local charitable and community causes. Volunteering is not compulsory, but is encouraged through district and store management.

Each Circuit City store has a monthly budget that it can use for donations to charitable causes or community purposes. In addition, stores organize events such as softball games, car washes, and bake sales to raise money for charities in their local communities. This broad initiative includes corporate-wide donations and partnerships to support individuals and organizations nationwide. For example, Heart of the City includes an "umbrella program" supporting mainstream organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, United Way of America, and a newly created Associate Relief Fund. The Associate Relief Fund was originally developed to help store associates directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. The Fund has now evolved and helps any associate in need of assistance who wouldn't otherwise receive any financial support.

With Circuit City's Heart of the City campaign in full swing, Shawn Pettigrew was looking for just the right opportunity to suit his St. Cloud store and employees. It was timely and good fortune for a St. Cloud resident named Jacob Larsen. Larsen was seeking a customized employment opportunity and at just the right moment.

Larsen is a young man who uses a wheelchair and lives with complex, multiple functional barriers associated with his disabilities. Larsen came to Rise’s CMW program in St. Cloud to seek assistance in finding the right job. Before coming to CMW, he had virtually no work history due to perceived barriers and stereotypes associated with his disabilities. And despite Larsen’s motivation to work, he was experiencing difficulties connecting with potential employers and getting them to see beyond his disabilities. Larsen heard about CMW’s customized employment program and wondered if this strategy could help make a difference in locating a job well-matched to his interests and abilities in the workforce.

After interviewing Larsen, Melissa Reller, a Rise Placement Specialist at CMW, learned more about Jacob’s interests, hobbies, and unique talents. She decided it might be a good idea to begin looking at businesses where Larsen could use his interests and skills best. At CMW, we call this process career exploration and discovery. During the discovery process, Reller learned that Larsen spends much of his spare time playing video games and listening to music with friends. Initially, Reller contacted Circuit City with a hope they might be interested in hearing a proposal about creating a job opportunity customized to Larsen’s interests and skills.

According to Reller, it took some perseverance but she finally connected with the busy general manager at the St. Cloud store, Shawn Pettigrew. He shared early on that he was familiar with programs like CMW because a family member had once hired someone with a disability and it had been a very positive experience. After an initial meeting with Pettigrew, it was clear that Reller had found a highly positive and nurturing business setting. Now the question was this—Would Circuit City, a major national electronic retailer, be interested in taking a closer look at how to customize a job so Jacob Larsen could work at its local St. Cloud store?

Here is how the partnership unfolded in Pettigrew’s words: “Melissa came to us with this proposal. We discussed her idea of hiring a guy with very little work history. In all likelihood, he wouldn't be able to perform Circuit City’s standard sales duties. She shared that this job candidate had some significant physical challenges, used a wheelchair, and he was only able to work on a part-time basis. However, Melissa did her homework beforehand and screened the job candidate very well. She knew he loved video games, understood a lot about our products, and was highly motivated to work in a store that sold them. She asked me if we would consider creating a job to fit this young man’s abilities. And I was thinking--this is a different way of looking at the qualifications of a job applicant.”

When asked about this idea of bringing an employee with a significant disability on board, Ryan Faith, Circuit City’s Operations Manager replied: “In all honesty, I only saw the obstacles at first and felt some trepidation about the whole idea. However after some discussion, it didn’t take long to convince us that this proposal would be good business for Circuit City.”

Faith reflected a little more about Reller's job proposal. “In retrospect, when Melissa shared this idea about carving out job duties and creating a new position, it started to make a lot of sense. After all, why wouldn’t Circuit City want to free up its sales associates so we can spend more time making sales with our customers. In hiring Jacob, Melissa convinced us this new position would be helpful to organizing, straightening, and dusting our music, video game, and computer software departments. At the same time, Jacob could offer helpful and enthusiastic services and direct store customers to our products. It was a win-win situation.”

“Melissa helped to put my mind at ease, said Faith. “She shared how this idea about customizing jobs could work by sharing the combined expertise and resources at Circuit City and CMW. Melissa made it clear from the beginning that it would be in everyone’s best interest to treat Jacob the same in every way including the interview and training process,” said Pettigrew.

Circuit City has a standard interview process that includes two separate interviews and “e-learning” training. Larsen had his first interview and was then was called back a couple of weeks later for a second meeting. Afterwards, he was offered the position of PST Assistant. Larsen's job was negotiated and includes customized duties! These job tasks were negotiated by Reller with Circuit City’s management team at the St. Cloud store. When Larsen learned about the job offer, he was so excited that he called his mother first and then each of the friends listed in his cell phone directory!

Immediately, Jacob Larsen felt an integral part of the Circuit City family and was touched by the inclusiveness of store’s leadership and sales associates. At times, he was overwhelmed by the thought of finally working in his dream job.

“Now that Jacob has been on board with us for a month or so, I see only the benefits and values he brings to the Circuit City team and our customers,” said Faith. He continued: “Our experience in working with Rise has helped to make Jacob’s orientation and training to the job go smoothly. Melissa Reller’s consultation with us regarding Jacob’s job placement has been just great. Her willingness to answer our questions and offer technical job support has really helped to make Jacob’s transition a success.”

According to Faith, he is somewhat surprised by the impact that hiring Larsen has had on his associates and store customers. He indicates that he has heard only positive comments from customers who were helped by Larsen. Also, Faith beams with a manager's pride when sharing how his sales associates have shown nothing but respect for Larsen and have accepted him as a member of their team. “They just treat him like the rest. I’ve got a good bunch here and they think Jacob is really cool,” said Faith.

Faith shared an interesting insight of his own and the universal benefits in hiring someone with a significant disability. “There was a time when I had completely forgotten about Jacob’s obstacles during a recent holiday sales event and our customers were camped out on the sidewalk waiting for shipment of our Sony Play Station 3’s. I didn’t realize they were blocking the ramp to the sidewalk and Jacob had to find an alternative way to get onto the sidewalk and enter our building. I felt just terrible. And then suddenly I realized this was potentially keeping disabled customers from entering our store!"

"I immediately went outside and asked the campers to move down the sidewalk and away from our ramp access. And so it goes that having Jacob working here has helped to raise my own awareness to everyday obstacles that people with disabilities face on a daily basis. I now find myself keeping a sharper eye out for potential obstacles and working a little smarter to remove them around the store for everyone’s benefit and safety.”

According to Ryan Faith, hiring Larsen has been a very positive experience for everyone at Circuit City. However, the store’s managers are only beginning to understand Jacob’s abilities and realize they are not tapping his full job potential. Faith recently said: “I sometimes worry about running out of things for him to do and look to Melissa to help identify additional tasks for him to handle in the store. With that said, Jacob is a true asset to our team. He is always here on time and ready for his shift. He is task-oriented and remains alert to Circuit City's customers who need friendly assistance.”

Jacob continues to grow daily in his independence and needs less job support from Megan Fessler, an AmeriCorps member assisting Larsen through CMW. According to Faith, Fessler has been an important key to Jacob’s success because he (Faith) has been unable to offer the attention he would ordinarily give due to the busy holiday shopping season. Fessler supports Jacob regularly with his e-learning training, job transitions between various store departments, and making connections with other Circuit City sales associates. “With Megan’s support, Jacob is prospering and his learning his job even though I have been somewhat absent from some of the training,” Faith shared.

Faith was asked directly about what he might say to business colleagues and corporate leaders at Circuit City about customizing jobs for more people with significant disabilities. He stated without hesitation: “I would say it’s important to look past the obstacles or hurdles you see at first and try to recognize the benefits you will gain in the long-run. After my positive experiences with CMW, I would definitely hire another candidate from them. It’s been a wonderful experience and effective business partnership for both parties.”

Circuit City-St. Cloud took a chance and chose to customize a job for an employee with significant disabilities. According to Reller, this progressive national retailer has become Jacob’s ladder to success. From time to time, Jacob is still heard saying--“I can’t believe that I really work here. I love my job at Circuit City!”


Blogger Julia said...

Hooray for all involved! What a great story!! :)

3:21 PM  

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