By Rebecca Kasey, CQL Director of Special Projects
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) have been left out of competitive and integrated employment opportunities for far too long. For this Capstone, CQL worked with six employment services (ES) provider organizations across the United States to bring some helpful tips and actions steps to develop a successful ES Program. These providers share how they discover what people want to do for careers and offer tips to other providers on how to build a successful ES program.
A special thanks to all of CQL’s partner organizations that contributed to this article:
- Emily Myers, Region Director, Briggs & Associates (Georgia)
- Gerald Bernard, Chief Executive Officer, and Lois Durrah, Senior Vice President for Community Support Services, Charles Lea Center Inc. (South Carolina)
- Miranda Kelly, Workforce Innovation Director, Emory Valley Center (Tennessee)
- Amanda Carroll, Director of Community Services, and Brandy Muntean, Assistant Manager of Community Services, Kreider Services Inc. (Illinois)
- S. Michael Chapman, Director of Employment Services, UNC TEACCH Autism Program (North Carolina)
- Heidi Moser, Assistant Director of Employment Services, Sesdac, Inc. (South Dakota)
Part II, Innovative Employment Services Strategies, has been released separately and focuses on how these providers have implemented innovative strategies to find and retain ES staff, to utilize technology to improve employment outcomes, and provide other innovative ways they have supported people in these programs.
Discovering What Careers People Want
Discovery is a major component of any ES program, but it can only be achieved when people have been provided the Three E’s – education, experience, and exposure, so they may make informed decisions about their careers. Each CQL provider partner has shared great suggestions and practices that they implement to truly discover a person’s career interests.
Emory Valley Center
“Ask questions! Start by having a conversation and then show people what is out there. Ask the person to show you their hobbies, what activities they like, and where they hang out. You can find out a lot about a person by taking the time to have a conversation and listening.”
Kreider Services, Inc
“Education and Exposure. Many times, when asking a person supported what they would like to do, it’s an automatic ‘I don’t know.’ Don’t be satisfied with that answer. Be positive and ask, ’Well, how about we try to find out what you would like to do?’ Explore the businesses around you, ask for tours and for someone to explain the careers at their business. Go to job fairs to see the diverse fields that are hiring. Connect the dots, what are they good at? What do they like, dislike, and find something will bring them happiness and success. Once [people] start to get jobs, have them share with one another. Host a job club for all who are currently employed or are interested in working. Having exposure from peers can be the tipping point for many to want to try it as well.”
Briggs & Associates
“We spend a lot of time with the people we serve and focus on getting to know them as well as we can. This includes time out in the community, in their preferred environments, and intentionally observing people at their very best. We expose people to unfamiliar settings in order to broaden their horizons and introduce possibilities they might not have considered for employment. We also believe in the value of a career path and follow along with people to ensure they continue to grow and advance and have opportunities to evolve in their status at work. People should never be stagnant in employment, and just like anyone else, will be more satisfied with their role as they are more informed as to what is available.”
University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program
“We recognize that not every person that comes to us may have a career plan in mind, or even know what they want or need out of a job. We work with them to help them understand and identify their preferences and strengths. We take the time to understand the [person]… and to provide experiential opportunities that help them to understand the various careers in which they have shown an interest. This may involve taking a person to a work site and giving them a chance to experience the work being completed. This may be through an internship or apprenticeship, or just a quick job shadow. Either way, this is a valuable opportunity for the job seeker and the employment professional supporting them. From these experiences and conversations with the person, we develop a profile and help lay out a career path with them.”
“Recognizing that each business and [person] seeking employment is unique is pivotal. Success in employment begins with understanding the [person], including their job preferences, preferred working hours, and desired workplace. By knowing their personal preferences and attributes, you can identify the most suitable work culture, environment, and tasks conducive to their successful employment. This understanding can be achieved through formal evaluations, situational assessments, or informal conversations that delve into their interests, likes, dislikes, and work history, allowing for a personalized approach to finding the right employment fit.”
Charles Lea Center Inc.
“We believe that a large part of the employment process needs to be engaging the person and learning as much as possible about their likes, dislikes, strengths, aspirations, and goals… While we use assessment tools to gauge skills, we find learning about the person is critical in finding the right match for a job. This can take some time to complete, however, we believe that this work is necessary in order to be effective in providing employment support. We engage in a person-centered assessment process that involves talking to the [person] and their circle of support that can include their family and friends.”
Establishing Community and Employer Partnerships
Finding the careers that people receiving ES want, means that provider organizations must diligently work to establish community and employer partnerships. The tips below share how to build strong partnerships.
Tip #1: Educate Employers and the Community
When building partnerships with employers around your local community, consider spreading education on ES and how the program works. As Heidi Moser, from Sesdac, Inc. explains, “When meeting with new employers, transparency regarding the role of supported employment services is essential…with clear explanations of the various programs offered and the roles of each participant.” Heidi also shares that providers must maintain “open communication by regularly checking in and addressing successes, needs, and concerns.”
UNC TEACCH Autism Program uses similar approaches, explaining that employment services are not just for the people they support but are also for the employers. Providers must “be sure to educate them and give them tools to effectively work with their new employees.”
Charles Lea Center suggests to educate employers and “seek every opportunity to do a presentation to business groups on the employment services that you offer.” Educating employers is a foundational component of successfully establishing partnerships.
Tip #2: Join Community Organizations and Network
Partnerships with employers do not occur from sitting at a desk or making calls, it takes action to form strong connections.
Charles Lea Center explains how important local community organizations and presentation opportunities are in forming partnerships, sharing that “we believe that being part of the local chamber of commerce, or other civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Club, etc. are important first steps in building relationships with the business community.”
Kreider Services recommends to “have staff be present in your community, go to networking events, get to know your Chambers, attend Business after Business hours in your community; ask people what they do and in return tell them about your agency’s employment program! Kreider recently presented to a local HR group how the employment program works, and the HR team thought it was very informational. Build relationships with non-profits.”
For many providers, forming partnerships with their state can lead to better employment outcomes. UNC TEACCH Autism Program is in partnerships with their Governor’s office, the state government, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, local colleges and universities, and employers, adding that “we have created a pipeline that helps connect neurodivergent college students and graduates to internship opportunities. These internships have led to employment for over 100 people in just the last 4 years.”
These tips are focused on creatively finding partners and building a strong network with employers and other providers across local communities and the state.
Tip #3: Be Aware of Employer’s Needs
It is imperative to show potential employers and partners in the community that the agency is aware of the employer’s needs. Briggs and Associates puts it best when they suggest providers “spend time exploring and examining the needs of each individual business in order to ensure a successful fit for the employer. As you build positive relationships, use these connections to expand into partnerships with other businesses through referrals/recommendations/word of mouth.”
Knowing the needs of the employers allows you to build on a shared foundation and work to benefit everyone. UNC TEACCH Autism Program explains, “when you reach out to community partners, make sure you let them know you are working for them. Take the time to learn their needs and challenges. Once you know that, it makes it easier for you to show them how you can help them meet their goals.”
Tip #4: Describe the Benefits
Each of the providers that CQL interviewed mentioned the benefits to the employers. Charles Lea Center suggests that you “present yourself as an employment agency that can help with their employment needs…when you engage them using the language that they understand it can be easier to develop those connections.”
Briggs & Associates describes some of the language that is used to relate to employers by suggesting, “keep track of cost savings, improved quality processes, and other returns on investment (ROI) data,” to “make the case for additional partnerships in the future.”
Emory Valley Center shares that the best place to begin is to “start with a conversation [and] explain clearly what your goals are and the incentives for hiring a person with a disability.” They also use a matching tool so that they can present possible candidates to employers when having these conversations.
Tip #5: Be Patient
Each of the tips provided above focuses on different ways to get support from local communities. You should remember that it is also important that you do not rush the partnership. Take it slow as you try to provide information to employers.
Kreider Services recommends to “be comfortable with hearing no and don’t let it slow down your momentum – keep moving forward.” They suggest taking a ‘3 Cups of Tea’ approach:
- 1st Cup, introduce yourself and purpose and ask to meet at their convenience.
- 2nd Cup, build rapport with the employer, research before, and ask if you can contact them in the future about potential job applicants.
- 3rd Cup, return with the person and their resume, advocate with the person. If they are not interested, ask the business if they have any connections with other companies that might be a good fit.
Building a Successful Employment Services Program
Based on feedback from ES providers, here are some specific tips to build a successful program:
Briggs & Associates
- Approach services one person at-a-time.
- Encourage your staff to take time getting to know people and explore their likes/dislikes/talents and ways they can contribute.
- Focus on meeting the needs of a given business to best match a candidate.
- Spend time building relationships and networking to grow and expand over time.
- Always keep the focus on what is best for the people in service.
Charles Lea Center
- Leadership must be in a clear consensus that [people] with disabilities have the same right to gainful employment as anyone else does.
- Ensure that teams receive the necessary training and education.
- Visit with other providers who have a great reputation in ES to learn from them.
- Begin connecting with employers who you already have a relationship with.
- Use your connections and relationships to begin developing your employment process.
Emory Valley Center
- Get creative and keep the services person centered. Think outside the box.
- Spark interest for the person supported by showing fun work opportunities.
- Ensure the person is at the center of planning and ask lots of questions.
- Don’t just think about it as meaningful employment, it is important to help the people you’re supporting have a successful career.
- Provide plenty of education to your community/employment partners on the value persons with disabilities bring to the table. Make them aware of the potential people with disabilities possess, that they are more than the typical ‘entry level’ positions.
Kreider Services Inc
- Educate those in your company to think outside the box and be open to new ideas…Invest in your staff. Training staff appropriately is key.
- Begin your conversations with people supported and see their interests in employment. Start the exposure now; walk around town with [people] and see what stores are in town. Think aloud: what type of jobs do they have there? Is that something that you might be interested in learning more about?
- Celebrate! Celebrate the small successes and the big ones! It makes the job fun to see and share progress.
- Connect, connect, connect! Connect with your local Vocational Rehabilitation office…Connect with your local high schools and community colleges, independent service coordinators, families, Chamber of Commerce, attend local events in your community.
- Hire the right people…You can teach knowledge and skill, but you can’t teach personality.
- Have patience and faith that everything will come together with the right team and training.
University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program
- Start small…make sure to understand the funding streams within your region.
- Consider the whole life of the person and provide support when and where needed. Outside factors influence all our successes in any job we do.
- Find jobs that fit the needs and expectations of the job seeker. We do not place people in jobs; we find jobs that people want and can thrive in.
- Don’t be afraid to encourage someone to keep looking, and not take the first offer. That means that we may suggest that a job seeker does not accept an offer that does not match their skills and needs.
- You may need to develop more programs to assist job-seekers, we have developed online manager training…we are developing more robust mental health services for those on the autism spectrum in our employment services program and are in the process of creating a formal autistic self-advocate advisory board.
- A successful ES program hinges on dedicated staff willing to go the extra mile.
- The provider should be building strong relationships with local businesses through networking and collaboration is essential. It’s crucial to make your program known within the community by participating in events, ribbon cuttings, and gatherings attended by employers.
- Providers must commit to actively engaging with businesses, their owners, and employees by visiting their establishments, shopping in their stores, and showing interest in their day-to-day operations and career path.
- When meeting with businesses effective communication is key, with clear explanations of the various programs offered and the roles of each participant.
- Ensure that you are maintaining open communication by regularly checking in and addressing successes, needs, and concerns with people receiving services and employers.
Featured Capstone Article
Part II: Innovative Employment Services Strategies
In this Capstone, part one of two, CQL worked with six employment services (ES) provider organizations across the United States to bring some helpful tips and actions steps to develop a successful ES Program.Continue Reading