When Ed Carney first started as director of job development at Chapel Haven, he spent his first months on the job pounding the pavement, trying to get local employers to hire Chapel Haven clients.
“No sooner would we place an individual in a job then we would find out that the individual did not really have the skills to sustain the work and the match was just not compatible,” Carney noted. “Even before the tough economy hit, we were aware that we needed a new approach.”
A decision by management at Chapel Haven to think outside the box, to sharpen its job assessment tools and to put a premium on building relationships with local employers has paid off. Of the clients who take vocational services from Chapel Haven, 85 percent are working, with jobs at more than 30 companies and agencies, either competitively for employers like Lowe’s, Staples and Bed and Bath, or in supported, or team, employment situations. Chapel Haven has found particular success in one fulfillment project at a local paper factory that has blossomed into steady work for more than 20 clients in an integrated work setting.
“We have been so impressed with the work record of our Chapel Haven team, we have significantly increased the quantity and skill level of the work we ask them to do,” said Richard Wilk, owner of Hudson Paper in Stratford, Connecticut, where Chapel Haven clients perform small hand assembly jobs. “I wish all my staff had the same positive attitude toward their work.”
Founded in 1972, Chapel Haven is a New Haven, Connecticut based residential transition program that teaches adults with cognitive disabilities, Asperger’s Syndrome and those on the autism spectrum to live independent and productive lives. An important part of Chapel Haven’s program is to help adults with disabilities transition into work. Considering the old adage that the person with a disability is often the last to be hired and the first to be fired, the nation’s recessionary climate clearly presents challenges but some see a silver lining.
“Don’t let the tough economy turn you away from your job search,” counsels James T., 24, a Chapel Haven graduate who loves his job as a mailroom clerk at NewAlliance Bank. “Be vigilant, tough and diligent and hopefully you will find the perfect job that suits your life. Don’t let your disability turn you away. Just press on with your job search and you will be lucky.”
Much has been made of the current economic downturn. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the first time in its history, has begun tracking and reporting statistics on employment of persons with disabilities. In January 2009, the unemployment rate of persons with a disability was 13.2 percent, compared with 8.3 percent for persons with no disability, not seasonally adjusted.
While that may seem discouraging, Martin Horan, President of Production Providers, Inc., who has helped connect Chapel Haven clients to jobs, said especially now, employers are eager to find ways to cut costs but still get basic tasks done.
“Using clients with disabilities for less skilled or entry level work has been a winning formula for the employers I deal with, who are watching the bottom line,” Horan notes. “They may not need to pay a legal secretary $25 an hour to shred documents, when we have people who are delighted to do that work for less. There are many benefits. Employers gain a competent corps of people who work reliably and with enthusiasm, whose attendance record is superb and who are so pleased to have a steady job, they don’t make nuisance claims. We have seen time and again where employers are able to lower disability insurance rates because our clients are committed and help the company meet its bottom line.”
Carney and staff have learned some lessons about how to navigate during a recession and are pleased to offer these job tips:
Expectations for employment: Know thy client! – At Chapel Haven, the job development department developed a tool called Expectations for Employment to assess the skills of clients, based partly on established models but fine-tuned for clients with disabilities. The assessment tool uses 100 variables to measure each individual’s ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills. “This gives us a realistic template and has been invaluable in finding the right kind of work for our students and graduates,” said Carney.
Follow the money: many federal and state government contracts have a provision requiring subcontractors to hire persons with disabilities – Companies doing business with the federal and state governments have contractual obligations to provide job opportunities for persons with disabilities. That sounds good on paper. But following the paper trail of work and knowing which companies will bid on them is all about relationship building. Who will get the work when the state police squad cars need to be washed? Who will help maintain state transportation buildings? Get to know the businesses bidding on those jobs and when the contracts will be awarded. “We spend a great deal of time tracking where the work needs are, getting to know employers in this region and then training our clients to fill those needs,” said Carney.
Start with volunteer placements – they may grow into a paid job – Many Chapel Haven clients start out in volunteer, unpaid positions, to gain some experience. Sometimes employers are so pleased, they extend an offer for paid work.
That’s what happened when John D., who is enrolled in Chapel Haven’s Asperger’s Syndrome Adult Transition Program, landed a volunteer internship helping Yale University’s athletics department maintain athletic equipment for the university. The internship was so successful, Yale offered to pay the intern for his work during the football season.
“It was a great experience for the student and for us,” said Jeff Torre, an athletic attendant with Yale Athletics. “He was at every home game. He made friends and got to know a few of our coaches. Along with having a working relationship, we had fun talking about video games, music and sports, and many other common interests that we shared. We would love to do this again next year.”
Look for opportunities to employ many – Finding fulfillment work where clients can work together as a team is helpful. Chapel Haven’s highly successful supported employment placement at Hudson Paper has 22 clients gaining valuable knowledge about work etiquette in a professional factory setting while fulfilling work needs of various companies who contract out their projects. Chapel Haven job developers provide transportation and ongoing job-coaching at the site, and graduates are paid commensurate wages. The fulfillment work is a great launching pad for Chapel Haven clients looking to move on to competitive work.
Don’t underestimate the ability of your job seekers to find work – James T. had lots of help from Chapel Haven’s job development department in developing a resume and learning the etiquette required to successfully interview for a position. But he also had drive and spent all of his free time actively looking for jobs online. When he saw an opening in the mailroom of a local bank, he immediately called the human resources department to land his first of two interviews. After the first interview, he promptly fired off a thank-you note. “I was honest and concise in my interview plans. And I dressed up nicely,” Trimble says. He also credits “honest, good looks” for helping him land the job.
Simply placing a client in a job is not enough. Follow-up by informed staff, monitoring and job coaching, especially in the first week, are critical – Landing work is important, but even more important is following up, providing some on-site job coaching and checking back in regularly with the employer. In the beginning, Chapel Haven’s job coaches are onsite to observe and to help the new employee acclimate. He or she also will communicate with the employer. “We use both scoring and intuition to help decide if a placement is working out. Sometimes additional training is needed,” said Carney. “Job monitoring is crucial.”
Network, network, network – even purely social engagements can lead to job opportunities – Carney and his staff put a premium on personal connections. He attends business networking functions, works closely with Chapel Haven board members who can open doors to work, and even found a number of significant jobs while schmoozing with a business owner on a cruise along the Connecticut River.
“In this wonderful world of ours, there is a job match for everyone,” says Horan. “We know of a college student who got a summer job at a pen factory. He was assigned to Quality Assurance on the assembly line. Specifically, his job was to pick up pens and check the ‘clicker mechanism’ by clicking the pen twice. The student quit at lunchtime, he couldn’t take it anymore. We know people who would happily do that job day in and day out for years, and do it better and faster than anyone else. Probably they would only be upset if we changed the job!”
For more information about Chapel Haven, please call the Office of Admissions at (203) 397-1714, X113.