By Elaine E. Katz, MS, CCC-SP Senior Vice President, Program Center Kessler Foundation
Another new year – a new time of hope for persons with disabilities who seek work. While national employment figures haven’t changed much over the past number of years, let’s use 2014 as the catalyst for considering out-of-the-box ways to change placement strategies to gain immediate jobs for candidates with disabilities. It’s time to seriously consider employment opportunities that place larger numbers of people now, while we simultaneously pursue longer-term solutions to high unemployment. Many best practices exist and influence increased employment. However organizational and policy changes, such as improving vocational rehabilitation systems, eliminating disincentives and increasing graduation rates are slower to achieve. Private funders, such as Kessler Foundation, are investing in initiatives that establish collaborative public/private partnerships, recognizing that corporations often use pilot programs to provide return-on-investment data and proof of concept before engaging in larger-scale hiring programs. For example, OfficeMax is entering its second year of an experimental pilot to establish training sites to prepare candidates with disabilities for positions within their distribution centers or stores. “Maxing Out Diversity” Centers are being established in Chicago, Columbus, Dallas and Las Vegas, and work with local providers and vocational rehabilitation offices serving potential candidates with disabilities. The goal is to create replicable training models that can spread across the company and increase employment opportunities nationally. Other companies, such as Toys R Us, Pepsi American Beverage, and United Postal Service, to name a few, are jumpstarting new programs to hire larger numbers of people with disabilities throughout their companies. Social enterprises are particularly promising in creating new opportunities for individuals with disabilities in emerging industries such as the green movement. These ventures are defined as being social minded businesses run by nonprofit organizations that generate new revenue, provide jobs, and benefit their communities. Many are being run by groups that already provide employment services to individuals with disabilities – a key element to their success. Kessler Foundation has provided $2 million in seed funding to launch three such ventures over the past few years. Arthur and Friends (hydroponic farming), Hudson Community Enterprises (document management) and Destination Desserts (food truck), are successful social enterprises that have created more than 175 jobs for people with disabilities while providing needed services. Our newest grantee, Easter Seals serving Greater Washington-Baltimore-Virginia, will utilize our investment funding to develop a social enterprise aimed at hiring more than 200 wounded warriors over two years for positions in a temporary staffing enterprise Public/Private partnerships and social enterprises are just two approaches that can open opportunities on a larger scale. Let’s use 2014 as an opportunity to jumpstart innovative strategies for employment that will alter the landscape of employment for people with disabilities.