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Programs aid to connect companies with workers

Rochester Business Journal
October 18, 2013

Jonathan Dewhirst vividly remembers helping one young man find his calling.
Dewhirst works as the associate director of the Employment Alliance program, a part of Heritage Christian Services Inc. that helps people with disabilities assess their job skills and connect with potential employers. The goal is to find work for people who want to work, giving them independence and a steady income.
For one young man, a conversation about job skills turned to his love of motorcycles.
"It was his hobby and his passion, but he hadn't thought of it much for employment," Dewhirst said. "In the process of getting to know him, he showed me his garage, where he had his motorcycle in pieces and was rebuilding the body over the winter.
"It was a light bulb moment for me, and I saw that this was more than just a hobby. We put together a portfolio of work he had done on his own motorcycle, and he used that to show shops the work he could do. He eventually got two offers for motorcycle repair places in Webster."
Aided by state and federal incentives, local non-profit groups have intensified their efforts to find employment for people with disabilities. Employers can receive incentives to hire individuals with disabilities, and an increasing number of companies in the Rochester area are looking for these job seekers.
"There's a real push at the state and federal levels to increase employment levels, and as we continue to provide employment support that's innovative and meets business needs and the needs of the person, word gets out," Dewhirst said. "When they see success from the program, they're more likely to talk to other business owners."
The program is personalized for both worker and employer, said Marianne Barton, director of Employment Alliance. The program team works closely with job seekers to learn their skills and with businesses to determine what their needs are.
Finding the perfect fit can help ensure a successful placement, she added.
"We're not doing anyone any favors if they want to work with children and we place them at McDonald's," Barton said. "Our job is to connect the dots between the parties involved."
Employment Alliance and other groups working with people with disabilities are drawing focus to their work in October, dubbed National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Many groups are working on employment for people with disabilities. Heritage Christian Services supports efforts outside of Employment Alliance, offering other programs where people can learn job and life skills.
The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes, which operates several programs that place and train workers who have disabilities, is using National Disability Employment Awareness Month as an opportunity to encourage private- and public-sector employers to hire from this group.
Christopher Frank, employment and technology services team leader at ABVI, said advances in technology have given people with disabilities greater access to jobs.
"We work with employers from all different industries-food services, human resources, retail and everything from entry-level jobs to accounting professionals and drug and alcohol rehab counselors," Frank said. "I think resistance to hiring these people is going away, and a big part of that is the advances in technology."
The situation has benefits for employers, local officials said. The national Job Accommodation Network found that 58 percent of employers said accommodations needed by employers and job applicants with disabilities bring no extra cost to the company.
Individuals placed by Employment Alliance also come with a built-in training and support system, Barton added.
"When we help someone find a job, we partner with that business to come up with a training program that works," she said. "Some of these people learn a bit different than other employees, and we can provide support right at the job to facilitate that learning and help retention."
ABVI also offers specialized training for the employees it aids, working closely with employers to ensure they have the skills needed.
"A lot of what we provide has to do with technology services," Frank said. "It's making sure that people have the training they need to do things like use a computer or access text documents for someone who has no vision."
Like Employment Alliance, ABVI also sends this support right to the job site.
"When the employee goes in, the team goes in behind them," Frank said. "We'll tell them in interviews about the team that will help from ABVI and identify the accommodations and work with them to make sure they are put in place."
Another aspect of training focuses on the company's other employees, Barton added.
"We also offer disability training and sensitivity training, and we're willing to come in and facilitate discussion and answer questions," she said.
To help beyond the immediate job site, ABVI has pulled together a business advisory council that assists in identifying potential employers and building new relationships.
ABVI also hires many blind and visually impaired workers at its own stores, where they learn skills on the job. The number of people with disabilities employed in the organization has expanded as new Goodwill stores have opened, with plans for more to come.
"Our store managers are encouraged to get people with little experience in retail a chance to prove they can do the job," said Jennifer Lake, director of people resources at ABVI.
There remain hurdles to overcome. The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy notes that the unemployment rate for adults with disabilities is 14.1 percent, roughly twice the rate for people without disabilities.
But increasing employment levels among people with disabilities will have benefits beyond the employer and job seekers, Dewhirst said.
"If you can work, you should, you absolutely should be working," he said. "There's a big push now to think of employment first rather than other support or services, which usually tend to be more costly."

10/18/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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