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Tapping into talent

October 26th, 2017

By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

With northeast Indiana’s unemployment rate hovering between 3 and 4 percent, many of the region’s businesses are struggling to find and keep good workers. However, there is a population of skilled workers that has remained largely untapped – Hoosiers with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“When you hear the word ‘disability,’ a lot of people think of the individuals who need the most assistance,” said Thomas Summerville, vice president of employment and community supports at Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana.

However, many of Easter Seals Arc’s clients can drive, have high school diplomas, are in college and just need a little support while they’re on the job, he said.

Easter Seals Arc has several programs designed to help these individuals find employment in the community, including their Employment Readiness Academy. The 18-week mentorship program was launched at Lutheran Hospital in 2015, and it has grown to include additional sites at Sirva, Ivy Tec Community College and St. Joseph Hospital.

Workforce experience

The program works with employers in the community to prepare individuals for the workforce. Participants gain skills and experience that help them find employment in the community.

Employment Readiness Academy places small groups of four to six individuals on site to work under the guidance of a job coach. So far, 28 clients have graduated from the program.

The program has many benefits for the participants like gaining skills, experience, independence and confidence, Summerville said. However, providing this kind of opportunity isn’t charity – it’s just good business, he said. Employers who hire clients gain an employee who is reliable, who comes to work on time, who can pass a drug test and who loves what they do, Summerville said.

“A lot of businesses are struggling to hire and retain employees. I really think that individuals with disabilities can be the catch to that. If you hire an individual with a disability and you train them and coach them, you’ll have a lifelong employee,” he said.

A rewarding partnership

At Lutheran Hospital, clients rotate through different departments so that they can learn different skills that they can add to their resumes. The goal is to have the clients leave the program and start applying for and interviewing for work. Clients work side-by-side with hospital staff in areas including inventory, housekeeping, nutritional services and customer service.

“The staff probably gets just as much out of it as the students do because they know the value that they’re giving the students to be able to go back out into the community and find employment,” said Carmen Ballard, manager of volunteer services at Lutheran Hospital.

She said that some employers might have reservations about hiring people with disabilities because they worry that they might have to allocate additional resources toward their training or that it will distract other members of the staff. However, that really hasn’t been the case, she said.

“Here at Lutheran, we’re a teaching hospital to begin with, so we see lots of students and other people integrated into our everyday environment so it really hasn’t been a disruption,” she said.

The program is like an internship in that it’s an opportunity for the business and the individual to get to know each other and see if they’re a good fit, Ballard said. She added that Lutheran Hospital recently hired one of the clients who completed the program.

Enriching the workplace

Pathfinder Services in Huntington offers similar opportunities for people with disabilities to gain experience with area employers.

Angie Beauchamp, owner of Modoc’s Market, a coffee shop in Wabash, has worked with Pathfinder to provide opportunities for individuals to get work experience. Through that relationship, the coffee shop gained two employees who have worked there for several years on a part-time basis. They have since become a part of Modoc’s Market’s “work family,” she said.

“We try to be a place that is for everybody, so it’s only natural for us to have employment for lots of different people with different abilities and with disabilities,” Beauchamp said.

The employees who came through Pathfinders have duties that include cleaning, folding towels, food preparation and greeting customers. Beauchamp said a common misconception is that hiring people with disabilities will be more work, but a supervisor from Pathfinders worked with the individuals to provide training.

“I would just encourage other businesses to take a second look at employing a person with disabilities. The benefit is greater to us than it is to them,” she said.

Any business interested in partnering with Easter Seals Arc to provide work experience for people with disabilities can arrange that by calling Summerville at (260) 456-4534 ext. 269 or reaching him via email at tsummerville@esarc.org. For more information about Pathfinder Services’ employment programs, visit pathfinderservices.org and click “Job Placement.”