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Working the Connections: Abilities First matches employers, employees through apprenticeships

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A Springfield-based nonprofit is capitalizing on a $1.3 million grant to help connect employers and prospective workers with disabilities through the Missouri Registered Apprenticeship program.

Abilities First collaborated last year with the U.S. Department of Labor, Missouri Division of Workforce Development and the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation office to develop its apprenticeship model, said J. Gibbs, the nonprofit’s director of employment services. Since July 2018, the organization has placed 20 individuals with disabilities with seven area employers. He’s forecasting another 10 people will be placed within four to six months.

“It’s a new approach for us,” Gibbs said, citing Abilities First’s desire for inclusion and diversity in the workplace. “It is a process of education. It’s a new way of approaching the marketplace.”

Providing a boost
The U.S. Department of Labor’s apprenticeship expansion grant aims to boost state-level apprenticeship programs, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development. As of July 2019, Missouri had around 500 registered apprenticeship programs and nearly 15,000 active apprentices.

As the apprenticeship program sponsor, Abilities First connects local employers with registered apprenticeships in career paths including culinary, materials handling, clerical support, information technology and environmental services. Julie Jones, assistant executive director, said the organization staff interviews prospective employees in advance to gauge who may be the best fit for various job openings.

Gibbs said the apprenticeship model balances what the employer needs and employee wants, with Abilities First serving as the facilitator.

“It has the education component; it has on-the-job learning. What I really love about it is it takes the employer and puts them right in the model along with the employee and us,” he said. “So it’s really a unique way to collaborate. This is all about fulfilling what you need as an employer.”

If hired, the employee is involved in a two-week period of classroom training by Abilities First.

“It allows the employer to work with us as the third party to really custom design these jobs that better fits and fulfills their needs,” Gibbs said. “But at the same time, it also benefits that employee because of the on-the-job learning and the additional training we’re providing them. From an employer perspective, there’s value because they know this individual has gone through and understands some of the basics as you’re coming into the position.”

One of those employers is SeniorAge Area Agency on Aging. The senior citizen programming and advocacy organization hired an individual with developmental disabilities to work in the kitchen at its Northview Center.

Chris Thompson, director of field operations with SeniorAge, said she was “100%” for getting involved with the program. She said the Abilities First staff has been helpful with training SeniorAge employees on how to best work with people who have disabilities.

“Everybody has abilities and everybody has disabilities,” she said, adding their hired apprentice has worked at the center for around a year. “It’s turned out to be a great partnership.”

The labor pool
Both Gibbs and Jones say the conversation about individuals with disabilities in the workforce has been an elevated topic.

The labor pool for those with disabilities is a large one, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of July 2018, only 29% of Americans with disabilities of working age – considered ages 16-64 – were part of the workforce. That’s compared with 75% of Americans without disabilities.

Hiring more people with disabilities could make a significant economic impact, according to a 2018 study by professional services firm Accenture (NYSE: ACN). In the study, Accenture reported the U.S. gross domestic product could get a boost up to $25 billion if just 1% more of people with disabilities joined the workforce.

O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC is on board with the Abilities First program’s impact. The two parties visited earlier this year, resulting in the hospitality group hiring Erik Paulson and Gary Dehamer, two employees with developmental disabilities. Both have worked at DoubleTree by Hilton for the past six months, Paulson as a maintenance technician and Dehamer in grounds maintenance.

“We got talking about this apprenticeship program and saw it as a really great opportunity to provide some work opportunities to individuals who might not have come into this type of work before,” said Kirk Baumann, O’Reilly Hospitality’s team member experience manager.

As to the cost of employing people with disabilities, a study by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy shows 59% of accommodations cost nothing to make, while the remainder typically cost $500 per employee.

The Abilities First apprenticeship carries a national credential, with employees graduating and earning a certificate from the Labor Department at the end of the program.

“It’s an incredible confidence builder for the individuals,” Gibbs said of the five graduates locally so far.

Three others are expected to graduate by the end of the month.

Thompson said she didn’t have a set expectation when SeniorAge got involved with the apprenticeship program. But gaining a hard-working employee was all the proof she needed.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “I don’t have any qualms about it.”

At O’Reilly Hospitality, Baumann said the company’s top core value is “do the right thing,” adding that applies well to utilizing the program to find employees in a largely untapped workforce of those with disabilities.

“If we can provide opportunity, then let’s provide opportunity,” he said. “If it works, wonderful. If it doesn’t, we’ll learn from it and move on. But this was really just about going to our core roots and doing the right thing.”

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