The workforce shortage in northeast Indiana has employers tapping into resources that may have been overlooked in the past. This hunt for qualified employees is shining the spotlight on workers with disabilities.
To help bridge the gap between employees with disabilities and business leaders, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has implemented a new Employing People with Disabilities Initiative.
The program is funded through a three-year, $245,000 grant from the AWS Foundation to create a hub connecting employment opportunities with workers with disabilities. This new collaboration by Greater Fort Wayne Inc., Old National Bank, Sweetwater Sound, and AWS Foundation, provides support and access to resources as well information on accessible workplaces.
“To build a nationally recognized economy, everyone in Allen County has to win,” said Eric Doden, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. “This initiative is a huge win because it will help open pathways to employment for people of all abilities.”
Last month, GFW brought Kevin Morse onto its staff to implement the initiative as disability employment services coordinator. He will serve an employment recruiter in the business community, working with nonprofits and relevant community resources to help businesses that are interested in hiring work-ready candidates who can successfully meet their employment needs.
“Informally, we’re going to call it a matchmaker position,” Morse said. “I’m going to get to know the Fort Wayne businesses and what their struggles are with hiring. I’m going to get to know the agencies and the individuals in the community who have disabilities — the people with disabilities that can and want to work. I’m going to learn what these folks can do and what these folks need and we’re going to meet in the middle. My job is to help both sides come out ahead on it.”
Morse will focus on three issues: paid employment, internships and volunteer opportunities.
“I’m sitting in the middle of that right now with my sources, my contacts, my resources,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading, spent a lot of time looking at unemployment numbers within the area and just trying to do my best from there. We are literally inventing this position from the ground up.”
His first step is building an inventory of names and current skill levels, and what programs they’re working on to increase those skill levels. Morse is also meeting with local business leaders, starting with some of the investor businesses that already have relationships with GFW, but will expand to others in the are to see what their hiring needs are.
“One of the questions we ask right off the bat when we visit is, ‘What is the greatest challenge you face right now in your business?’” Morse said. “Most of the time, that answer is: ‘Finding enough employees, finding enough loyal employees.’”
Morse claims people with disabilities are eager to work. Having spent 14 years at Walmart as a co-manager before joining GFW, he has seen the loyalty and enthusiasm people with disabilities have for their employers.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there by the employers and I know that first hand because I was involved in a lot of hiring decisions,” he said.
His goal is to remove the roadblocks standing in the way of opportunities for workers as well as unmet needs of employers.
“We have to teach those employers, especially those who have never delved into this before, that the roadblocks really aren’t roadblocks, that there are some things they don’t realize they don’t see,” he said. “My experience has been that people with disabilities are extremely loyal employees. They want to come to work. They work their scheduled shifts and they do it with a smile on their face, and they will do their job to the best of their ability.”
Employee enthusiasm and loyalty are important in curbing personnel costs.
“Turnover rate has gotten so bad in the retail industry that every major retailer I know has some type of retention program fully in place now, trying to make those numbers more reasonable,” Morse said. “They want to find good employees or associates, find ways to get them well trained, find ways to want them to stay rather than just having them pass through every 90 to 120 days.”
Not only is employee retention good for the company’s bottom line, but it’s good for the employees to have career aspirations, “rather than just passing through from job to job to job,” he said.
From the nonprofit perspective
Donna Elbrecht, CEO of Easterseals/Arc of Northeast Indiana, worked behind the scenes to help develop the Employing People with Disabilities Initiative.
“We’re excited to meet with (Kevin Morse) and get him started with his new efforts,” she said.
“What’s really nice is it’s business to business,” Elbrecht said. “We work with businesses directly, of course, and have for years, and will continue to work with businesses directly, but a lot of business people really want to go business to business, and having Greater Fort Wayne Inc. as the place where a business can call and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in expanding my offerings to people with disabilities. How does that work?’ This will help centralize the process for business leaders instead of having to sort through all the nonprofits that are doing similar work.”
Easterseals/Arc has approximately 200 people with disabilities placed in its various work programs.
“The goal is to make it as risk-free as possible for employers to see if it’s a good fit for them,” said.
Easterseals/Arc features an employment-readiness academy that sends small groups of individuals on 18-week rotations to try different jobs.
“That’s just a nice way for our individuals to see what they like and if they feel like they’re good at it,” Elbrecht said. “We’ve seen a great percentage of those individuals that go through that get directly hired because it’s a nice opportunity for the company to see if our folks can be an asset to their workforce.”
Easterseals/Arc also helps people prepare for work, whether it’s resume drafting, interview practice, soft-skill development, and other ways to build confidence.
“Any of our individuals that are able to get a job or to have one of these work experiences in the community, our staff is there to offer support, depending on the company’s needs,” Elbrecht said.
From the employer perspective
Sweetwater Sound was one of the flagship employers kicking off the new program.
“Sweetwater looks forward to working with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. on its Employing People with Disabilities Initiative,” said Christopher Guerin, vice-president of corporate communications. “We already employ several people from Easterseals/Arc. We believe that it’s crucial that businesses in the region, as a matter of policy, provide opportunities for meaningful employment for people with disabilities.”