Best Practices


Re-Inventing Employment Services

After decades of effort and a myriad of government-sponsored initiatives, people with disabilities are taking small steps toward the reality of employment and socio-economic integration. In the third installment of a series of articles stemming from the Canadian Abilities Foundation’s landmark “Neglected or Hidden” study, Alar Prost and David Redmond look at how employment service providers to Canadians with disabilities need to re-invent their trade.

The idea that most Canadian employers are reluctant to hire people with disabilities is not new.

With unemployment close to 70 per cent above the rate for able-bodied Canadians, little wonder that a large majority of unemployed Canadians with disabilities who are looking for work, and who took part in the Canadian Abilities Foundation’s nation-wide “Neglected or Hidden” study, support this view. Labour force participation rates are also significantly lower at 49 per cent for people with disabilities compared to 65 per cent for the general population.

All very convincing, except for the fact that some 800,000 people with disabilities are already employed in all sectors of the economy. This not only suggests that many employment opportunities exist, but that hundreds, if not thousands, of employers are willing to provide jobs for people with disabilities.

Indeed, many employers interviewed for this and other human resources management studies report they often have difficulty attracting workers with disabilities even when they make special efforts to do so. And what about the efforts of hundreds of community organizations across Canada who help people with disabilities find work? Many of these agencies even compete with each other, particularly in larger metropolitan areas. What contributions are they making, and what can they do to enhance their effectiveness in this area?

“Neglected or Hidden” found that community organizations deliver a plethora of employment-related services to people with disabilities. These may be grouped into three principal categories: intake (including vocational skills and interest assessment, career decisions, and referral for skills enhancement); worker preparation (including skills upgrading and job-readiness training, résumé preparation, job search techniques, and interview coaching); and worker marketing (including job-search assistance and referrals, attending client interviews, transitional supports and services, workplace accommodation advice, job coaching, and placement follow-up).

While larger or established organizations attempt to provide a full range of services to job seekers with disabilities, we found few service providers that actually have the capacity to do so effectively. Their efforts are often limited by the experience and expertise of staff as well as the financial resources available to the agency.

The key contributing factor for an organization’s employment placement success, however, does not appear to be dependent upon its size, or even its range of services, but on the relationships it has built with employers in the community.

From a self-improvement perspective, organizations that participated in the study were often most critical of their own services. For example, many feel that their job development process is weak and often leads to the wrong person being referred to employers. Of course, this not only leaves the employer with a bad experience, but it is a serious setback for the worker as well. Organizations also feel under a great deal of pressure from government funding agencies to move people through the system quickly. In their view, the focus should be on quality placements and not volume. (See the text box on this page for other activities and services frequently identified as requiring attention.)

The single most important area where organizations feel they need to make improvements is with the relationships, or lack thereof, that they have with employers. While some organizations feel they need to be more proactive with employers in such areas as awareness, workplace accommodation and worker support, many feel they also need to broaden their network of employers, to acquire a better understanding of employer needs and motivations, and to begin to build real and long-lasting relationships/partnerships with them.

It is said that some 85 per cent of jobs are never advertised. When vacancies do occur, employers often want to fill them quickly in order to maintain their production levels. In order to understand why organizations need to establish and maintain strong relationships with employers, one needs to consider how a typical employer may fill a job vacancy. Many may follow steps similar to the ones below until a suitable recruit is identified:

1) Hire someone already known to the immediate supervisor.
2) Hire someone known to, and referred by, another employee within the organization.
3) Hire someone previously interviewed.
4) Review and hire from the applications on hand.
5) Hire through an employer or an industry network.
6) Approach employment agencies or other community organizations for referrals.
7) Advertise opening in newspapers and on government job boards.

Clearly, each step down the list is more labour intensive and time consuming than the one preceding it. Applications will require more careful screening, and there are also likely to be many more of them as the search broadens. Little wonder that the hidden job market is so huge.

If employment services agencies want to tap into this hidden market, they need to be known to the supervisor and to be on the top rung of the hiring ladder. This means being in the supervisor’s mind before a vacancy even arises. It means researching the employer, meeting key personnel, learning about the business, its culture and its needs. The outcome of these efforts should be an established relationship with the employer.

Regrettably, most agencies we interviewed that provide employment services to people with disabilities have limited ongoing contact with employers and are typically reactive in their efforts – at step 6 or 7 in the hiring ladder. This situation is confirmed by the majority of employers interviewed who indicate they have little, if any, contact with local agencies serving the employment needs of people with disabilities.

Another strong case for employer/agency relationship development stems from the approach employers use to quantify their human resource needs. When employers have a position to fill, they first identify a need or a problem that needs to be addressed. Employers then determine what it would take to do the work, and typically define their needs through a listing of minimum qualifications characterized by such factors as education level, experience and personal suitability. This approach helps employers minimize the risks associated with hiring the wrong person for the job. Furthermore, with potentially hundreds of applicants in the community, minimum qualifications help keep the number of applications to a reasonable level, and thereby also reduces the time needed for their review.

Unfortunately this approach often eliminates job seekers with disabilities from the process, since many may never have had the opportunity to acquire the qualifications sought.

What happened to hiring a person based upon their ability meet a need or solve a problem, and not upon some minimum qualifications?

Where relationships are already in place, agencies can help employers identify what is needed to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and overall success of the enterprise, rather than focusing on the criteria used to define existing vacancy needs. After all, a good job match is best measured by the results produced rather than by comparing applicant skills and abilities to a list of duties and qualifications that define the employer’s needs.

Many job seekers with disabilities are unlikely to win the qualifications challenge because they simply cannot compete with able-bodied workers on an equal footing. Assuming most employers will also be slow to change well-established hiring procedures, we believe agencies need a strategic approach to overcoming or circumventing the employer qualifications challenge.

The strategy should include the following key elements:

– Research employers from a variety of business sectors in the community, meet with them to share information and ideas, and begin to grow relationships with them.
– Through the employer meetings, identify any potential opportunities to enhance an employer’s operational efficiencies, cost-effectiveness, new product or service lines, etc. This can be anything from an assistant to higher paid workers to noting what the employer’s clients may appreciate in terms of enhanced services. Imaginative individuals with sound business experience would be particularly suited for this agency role.
– Become familiar with the employer’s culture and its human resources needs.
– As closely as possible, match job seeker skills and abilities with the needs of the employer. Given that workplace experience is often lacking, one needs to look at the job seeker’s total life experiences in order to assess their skills and abilities. If no suitable match is found, look to other agencies for potential clients in order to satisfy the employer’s needs and give reason to continue the relationship.
– Present a proposal to the employer that:
a) defines the employer’s needs (or the problem the agency is attempting to address on behalf of the employer);
b) describes how these needs would be addressed by working with the agency and hiring one of its clients;
c) outlines what opportunities would be available to the employer; and
d) illustrates the value and benefits that hiring a worker with a disability would bring to the employer.

This need for closer ties between organizations and employers was captured by many people with disabilities who took part in Neglected or Hidden. They described how they need help breaking down employment barriers even before they submit their job applications, and that this is not an appropriate role for someone seeking employment. They also suggested that many of the organizations that provide employment services for people with disabilities are in the best position to build employer awareness and assist with workplace accommodation concerns.

One study respondent captured the essence of the relationship issue: “We need to build strong partnerships with employers. They [employers] need to experience what we have to offer, and to see how it benefits them.”

Organizations we interviewed genuinely want to help any employer willing to open its doors to workers with disabilities. From their perspective, employers need to learn more about the abilities and capabilities of people with disabilities. While constrained by “other priorities,” once this hurdle has been overcome, employers are seen to be much more amenable to flexible and creative hiring practices. They are also more likely to address accessibility and workplace accommodation issues.

For organizations, however, identifying employers who are willing to make this paradigm shift to partner for a more inclusive workforce remains one of their greatest challenges – and opportunities.

Throughout this article we have attempted to make the point that agencies should be in search of opportunities, and not job openings. Longstanding relationships with employers hold much more promise than one-off, “flash-in-the-pan” openings. They offer opportunities for the agency to provide services and resources that enable the business community to grow and prosper. In return, more and more job seekers with disabilities gain valuable work experience and can become productive members of an increasingly vibrant community.

Employing people with disabilities is not about good corporate citizenship and social responsibility – the traditional advocacy approach to employment. It’s about where an employer’s workers will come from in the future, and the contribution these workers will make to the employer’s prosperity.

Many employers may have not yet recognized the opportunities associated with hiring people with disabilities because they have had such little contact with community agencies. It’s up to these agencies to build relationships with employers and to present them with compelling reasons to employ people with disabilities. Otherwise, the perception of employer reluctance to hire people with disabilities is likely to stay with us for many years to come.

Alar Prost and David Redmond are Ottawa-based researchers and consultants who lead the Neglected or Hidden study.

– Increased public and employer education on worker capabilities, discrimination issues, stereotyping, hiring barriers, etc.
– Increased service provider awareness of employer needs
– Specialization in services provided
– Development of service standards and a code of ethics
– Provision of workplace information to clients during their formal education to ensure their post-education employment expectations are realistic
– Focusing skills enhancement on workplace needs and less on client ideals
– Ensuring clients are fully job-ready
– Ensuring service provider facilities are accessible
– Network development with employers
– Responsiveness to employer HR concerns
– Enhanced workplace accessibility and accommodation services
– Reinforcement to worker clients
– Partnerships with employers and government

(This project is funded by the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program. The opinions and interpretations in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.)


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