Saturday, June 07, 2008

It's all about the Benjamins baby!

As Minnesota’s Employment First movement carries forward, my colleagues and I are faced with addressing an historical, logistical problem. In this demand-driven workforce development system, how do we capture the imagination and creativity of the private sector? How do we create interest and high demand for our product? How do we encourage employers to take charge and drive our current system of employing people with disabilities?

My colleagues and I recognize the high importance of engaging Minnesota’s corporations and businesses, both large and small, to get behind the fundamental idea of full employment of adults with disabilities. Yes, it’s a tall task. The employer education, business marketing, and technical assistance efforts of employment providers serving youth and adults with significant disabilities have been weak and fallen far short of the mark. In 2008, there are still too many adults with disabilities either unemployed or not working competitively in the local economy. And we know many employers are still not actively engaged in recruiting, hiring, and employing adults with disabilities.

If we want to improve future outcomes and performance results, we certainly need to consider changing our strategies. Here are just a few of the ideas Minnesota's Employment First Coalition is considering to increase employer involvement in our work.
  • We need to rebrand to business and strengths-based practices. Why would a private business really want to do business with a rehabilitation organization anyway? For charitable purposes? The outcomes suggest this approach hasn’t worked very well. Many of us think we need to rebrand to a business model and change communications about the work we do. The people we support are far better served when we focus our attention on their strengths, skills, and interests in working. The concept of “rehabilitation” is outdated and it tends to imply we are “fixing” people who are less than whole. I say let’s “forget rehabilitation and customize!” A new presentation about customizing employment and work supports around the interests and talents of an individual is a much more dignified way of talking about the important work we do.
  • We need to initiate a statewide media campaign promoting the employment of adults with significant disabilities. There are many public myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities and employment. Changing these perceptions will take time and a strong, effective public education program. Many of us believe our cause is better served through a powerful multi-media campaign that showcases the work capacities of people with disabilities. My colleagues and I have discussed the need for such a public education program that features powerful images and messages.

    To illustrate, a statewide media campaign might include creative TV spots and ads of people with significant disabilities working in unexpected jobs and situations (no food service or cleaning positions please!). We need to showcase people with disabilities in productive roles that harness their work capacities and document their competencies. Also, we believe it makes sense for the State of Minnesota to be actively involved in this campaign at the highest levels of our State government. Hey Governor Pawlenty, you got game?
  • We need to teach businesses how they can readily access people with disabilities and the resources they need to support their employability. In a number of studies conducted with business leaders, many indicate they don’t know how to recruit or employ adults with disabilities. And many are not aware of the technical assistance and job support services they can access when they do. We need to do a better job of simplifying this process so business leaders know of and can gain access untapped resources with confidence and competent support. Of course, this means coordinating better with local workforce centers and employment providers so employers recognize how to recruit job candidates with the skills sets they need to do the job. However, it also means creating new pathways to employment for individuals with complex job support needs who will likely need customized and supported employment services. The goal is to create access for all and effective procedures so no available worker is screened out or left behind.
  • We need to educate businesses about economic opportunities associated with customizing employment. Most businesses are not aware of the possibilities that exist to hire adults with significant disabilities through the use of customized employment practices. Customized employment is a form of negotiated employment where job descriptions and duties are “customized” or created around the identified interests, talents, and strengths of an individual. Customized jobs are also negotiated to add economic value to the operations and performance of a business so these jobs are sustainable.

    In other approaches, customized employment is created through self-employment or launch of micro-enterprises that do commerce with other businesses or the local community. In all cases, customized employment offers real work, social integration, and pay at minimum or prevailing wages and benefits for all tasks performed. I like to tell people that customized employment is changing what it means to be qualified in the workforce. This is true because jobs negotiated with companies are custom built on the identified strengths and skills of individuals to be employed.
  • We need to deploy “business-to-business” marketing events. We are talking about the strong possibility of launching a series of mini-summits in the State of Minnesota in the coming year. These business mini-summits will be driven by and for local business communities. Under a business-to-business marketing strategy, companies with direct experiences in the employment of adults with significant disabilities will be asked to serve as hosts of these regional mini-summits. Working with local employment providers, these lead businesses will develop a list of companies from each local region to invite to the mini-summit. These invitations will go out on the letterhead of the lead business and all scheduled events will be held either at the host business site or perhaps a public venue in each region.

    The Employment First Coalition will then help to recruit panels of experienced employers from each local area who agree to participate and share their business story. All invitations to the events will come directly from business champions identified from each region. By design, each regional business panel will discuss their direct experiences with other companies who are invited to attend. The panels will share their challenges in hiring employees with disabilities as well as how they worked to successfully integrate these workers into their workforce. Each panel will also answer direct questions from other employers in the audience who are invited to attend.

    Our proposal is that each event will include a breakfast or lunch as well as a program that will run no more than two hours. Our ultimate goal is to engage the leadership of local businesses and to make new connections thereby promoting an expansion and widening workforce development opportunities within each region. Our events will include a plan for follow-up with businesses attending to explore opportunities for future business partnerships and job development.
  • It’s all about the Benjamins baby! This slang phrase was popularized by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs in his hit single released in 1998. "Benjamins" are $100 bills and a reference to Benjamin Franklin's image on the bills. You know, no matter you look at it, it really is all about the Benjamins. We need to do a much better job of marketing and educating employers about the fact that hiring people with disabilities is just good business. People with disabilities are not often viewed as economic assets–but they are. Or if they are unemployed, they certainly could become economic assets when placed in the right job with the right supports. And businesses will learn to make money when they hire the people with disabilities and work to integrate their talents inside their workforce.

    In an earlier post on my blog, I shared the results of a national Gallop Poll study designed to measure the relative strength of opinion about employing adults with disabilities. In this national study co-sponsored by America’s Strength Foundation, Gallop indicated that 92% of the American public held a “favorable” or “much more favorable” opinion of businesses who hire people with disabilities. Further, 87% of the poll’s respondents said they would prefer to give their business to companies who hire people with disabilities with one-third strongly agreeing with this statement! Many people, including the researchers themselves, were shocked by the outcomes of this study.

    When you add millions of Americans with disabilities and their families as potential business customers to the mix, the economic impact of this Gallop Poll study is considerable and worthy of attention. Of course, we need to communicate this information to businesses that spend billions of dollars annually researching consumer attitudes, preferences, and spending patterns.

A few of our local critics have voiced concerns that the goals of Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition are too lofty. OK respectfully, so what is our alternative? In my view, plodding along the same old tired road and employing the same old strategies will only yield the same disappointing results. The coalition’s goals are bold indeed but they are not unreasonable nor are they unattainable. Sooner or later, disability employment providers need to recognize that private enterprise needs to be driving the bus. They need to be the central driving force in our future goals for organizational and service systems change. In Minnesota, we have the talent and know-how to support private industry in addressing many of the systemic barriers that are preventing adults with disabilities from joining the workforce. What we really need is to set aside our fears, knuckle down, and get to work.

Let me end this post by offering a story of hope. Recently I was speaking with a few of my colleagues from Wisconsin. I learned that a large group of business leaders from the Sheboygan area attended an event sponsored by a local ARC uninvited. These business leaders were at this event to express their concerns about local workforce shortages in the Sheboygan region and were asking for some assistance in filling them!

Wow! Can you imagine that?! Business leaders are beginning to view adults with disabilities as economic assets and coming independently to the source looking for answers. With the right focus, preparation, and building of economic partnerships, this is our future. We need to court business, not with our charitable intentions, but with a new message they truly understand– “It’s all about the Benjamins baby!”


Blogger Kelly said...

Wow, that little inspiring story about the business leaders from Sheboygan was great to read! Now can you only imagine the sort of impact a situation like that can leave? If these business leaders have a good experience and their businesses grow from this form of outlet, they are only going to pass the word on to their colleagues. There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Kelly, you are absolutely right. There is no form of marketing more powerful or convincing than real business people talking directly to their colleagues about their positive experiences and overcoming natural fears or hesitations about hiring people with disabilities. This is why Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition is calling for the launch of mini-business summits in various regions of our State. We are hoping to call upon business leaders who have hired people with disabilities at competitive wages and benefits to share the positive impact these workers have had in their company’s operations, morale, and profitability. If we can get the right business people to “drive the bus” we are more likely to get more passengers (other businesses) on board to achieve our goals.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments.

8:52 AM  

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