What Does Customized Employment Look Like?

/ October 6, 2020

By David Scott

Customized employment is a flexible process designed to personalize the employment relationship between a job candidate and an employer in a way that meets the needs of both. It is based on an individualized match between the strengths, conditions, and interests of a job candidate and the business needs and culture of an employer. It is one of the more advanced forms of supported employment. Supported employment is the broader term that includes all of the unique employment services available for individuals with various disabilities, such as intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness or traumatic brain injuries, who require ongoing support services, such as job coaching, to succeed in competitive employment.

In my opinion, there are three indicators of an effective job coach that will typically lead to successful employment relationships and outcomes and that are the foundation for customized employment services:

  • Availability
  • Communication (especially active listening)
  • Creativity

I’ll explain more about these factors and their relationship to supported employment later and hope to exemplify their use through a couple of personal success stories. Right now, I’ll outline what competitive employment is, how it differs from typical supported employment services, and for whom it may be beneficial.

Supported employment starts with educating individuals with disabilities on the culture of work while supporting them in gaining and keeping competitive employment.  Through pre-employment, job placement, and post-employment services, job coaches from provider agencies meet the individuals where they are and support them and their families to identify and meet their employment goals.  Many times, this is accomplished through job sharing and/or job carving.

Job sharing/carving are processes of identifying specific aspects of a job description or certain tasks that another employee is responsible for to pull out and create a new ‘carved’ position for an individual with IDD who might struggle with fulfilling every responsibility of a previously outlined role.  These concepts were part of the beginning foundations of what would become customized employment.  When done correctly, this alleviates a certain amount of pressure from a current employee, allowing them to focus on other aspects of their job, while creating an opportunity for a job seeker with a disability to get their foot in the door and begin developing their professional skills and habits – thus, improving the culture and service delivery of the organization, increasing job satisfaction of staff, and potentially lowering turnover costs.

A great example of this is the dining room attendant position at most fast-food restaurants.  When I began my employment journey at a local fast-food joint, it was the responsibility of employees manning the cash register and taking orders to also attend to the dining room: bussing and cleaning tables, stocking and cleaning the drink station, emptying trash, cleaning trays, etc.  Often during lunch or dinner rush, this would lead to an unattended dining area or customer, creating stress for the employee and a poor dining experience for the consumer. Many individuals we support struggle with aspects of customer service, especially taking orders and making change when it gets busy.  So, by carving out a separate position that focuses on the cleaning and stocking responsibilities, you free up the cashier to focus on the customers, improving service while maintaining a cleaner, more hospitable environment.

Finding That Right Fit

Take Jon, for instance. I began working with Jon back in 2016 when TennCare’s Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver services were being launched.  ECF was a significant step for employment services in Tennessee, as it took the focus off of just getting “any” job and shifted the focus to getting the “right job.”  This gave service providers the opportunity to spend time getting to know the job seeker while building a relationship and employment profile, another foundational element of customized employment.  Jon had some developmental and intellectual challenges and a very limited vocabulary.  We worked for three months on his Discovery process, visiting employers that aligned with his identified interests, taking tours, job shadowing and volunteering.  Through interviews with Jon, his family, and his support staff, I noted several areas of interest – being around people, working with children, art, his pets, food – so we scheduled experiences with a day care, an art supply store, a pet supply store and shelter, as well as some observations at the programs that Jon was participating in through his day facility – one doing piecework on traffic lights and another with Meals on Wheels.

What I discovered was there was a significant gap between what Jon said he wanted to do and his actually doing it.  He did NOT want to interact with the children at the day care or help clean; he did NOT want to play with the cats or feed them; he did NOT want to stock supplies; and his productivity levels with the partner programs of his day facility were quite low while his support needs were high.  Jon also struggled with controlling the volume of his voice and had a tendency to give a negative response if he was asked if he would like to try something.  He would yell, “NO, MAN!!” at sweet older ladies, who genuinely wanted to help him.  It was funny because I would discuss this with Jon and his family/support team, and we would role-play.  Jon would answer appropriately during the role-play, but as soon as he was in a work setting, he would respond the same negative way.  Of course, I always warned employers, and for the most part, they were understanding.  But this was going to make competitive employment challenging.

Toward the end of his Discovery process, we went out to lunch at Taco Bell to discuss some of the challenges and see if we could come up with some creative solutions, while also learning about fast-food work.  Jon seemed like a completely different Jon. He was suddenly open to trying new things and responding positively.  I modeled bussing our table and wiping down the table and chairs.  Jon immediately did it.  It wasn’t busy in the dining room, so we talked to the cashier and got an impromptu tour from the manager.  Jon was attentive and continued to respond positively.  “YEAH, MAN!!”

Despite this, the family and support team still wanted to focus on jobs working with children or with animals.  They just didn’t think fast food would be a good fit, and Jon tended to be swayed by friends and family. Unfortunately, we continued to have the same issues.

As I was running out of ideas, I got notice of a multi-employer job fair.  At this point, we decided it would be good for Jon to meet with employers to see if anything sparked. There were 15-17 employers at the fair, and we talked with each one. For the most part, Jon was respectful but disinterested once the conversations started. It wasn’t until the next-to-last booth we visited that Jon really opened up.

It was a McDonald’s booth, and we sat down with the regional manager/recruiter for the area, Josh Juracich. Now, I bet I know what you’re thinking … ‘McDonald’s? Really?! This whole story is supposed to be about customized employment, and you’re talking about a young man with disabilities getting a typical, entry-level position at McDonald’s?!’

Hear me out.

Josh was great. Jon let Josh know that he wanted to come work at McDonald’s–right now. After dozens of person-centered, interest-related, goal-oriented experiences that Jon supposedly wanted but rarely engaged in, this was what he wanted.  I was surprised at the resolve of Jon’s response and also very nervous because we were back to fast food.  I didn’t want to be the job coach who just gets his guy a job at the “typical” place, but I did and do want to be the job coach who listens to the job seeker and who honestly advocates for their interests.

We identified an opening at a location near Jon’s home and started negotiations on a position.  Josh was even open to further carving out the dining room attendant position, focusing on tasks that Jon does well. We exchanged contact info, and Jon was ready to go to work.  I pumped the brakes a little, explaining that it would be good to get perspectives from Jon’s family and support team.  I made a list of the few employers from the fair that Jon “perked” with, and I asked Jon to rank them. McDonald’s was at the top of the list.

Long story long: Jon took the job at McDonald’s.  I created a visual task checklist with his duties and worked with Jon’s supervisors to structure his schedule and with his parents to improve Jon’s pre-shift routines.  Jon still required a lot of coaching supports, but the focus was no longer on encouraging him to do something that he did not want to do. As I am writing this, Jon will reach his three-year anniversary soon.  He has regular customers whom he gets a kick out of seeing each week, and he loves having an iced coffee in the morning and a chicken sandwich during his break.

Now the question: was this customized employment?

Experts would probably say “no,” and I would tend to agree to a certain extent. But I also believe that it is more complex than that.

Customized employment takes the strategies listed above a few steps further, and the goal truly is to secure an individualized position that aligns with the identified interests and goals of the job seeker and the needs and culture of the employer.  CE is a refinement of supported employment but varies in key areas.

The most common identifier separating the two services is that supported employment tends to react to the labor market.  The job search process is largely driven by what jobs are available and/or easy to find in the area. Approaching employment services solely from this mindset will inevitably lead to a higher proportion of entry-level retail, food service and custodial positions for job seekers.  With customized employment, a job seeker’s employment profile is created without consideration of what might or might not be available for work in the community.  It is meant to highlight the process of getting to truly know the job seeker and skipping the focus on “appropriate work” or “realistic goals.”

Similar to Jon’s journey, the job seeker and employment staff begin with Discovery, a three-month pre-employment service that focuses on building a relationship, interviewing the individual’s allies, identifying interests/strengths, coordinating experiences to further explore those interests/strengths, observing skills, support needs, and preferences to environmental factors. They target fields of employment and employers/positions in the areas that align with those findings, and then determine personal goals and steps to increase the chances of obtaining and sustaining that “perfect fit” job or at least one that’s close.  We ARE talking about work here, and it’s called “work” for a reason.

Griffin-Hammis Associates, a pioneer in customized employment services for people with disabilities, refers to this process as “Discovering Personal Genius.”  It starts with the idea that everyone can work, plain and simple, and is the basis for all job development planning. This plan is driven by the “themes” of the job seeker:  their strengths, needs, interests, and conditions of employment – with the goal to “create lasting, satisfying, person-directed employment beyond the confines of traditional job development.”  This is where things get a little sticky in regard to whether Jon’s placement, although person-centered and satisfying, meets the expectations of customized employment, which aims at creating opportunities outside of the typical entry-level fields: custodial, fast food, grocery stores, etc.  Griffin-Hammis and I do agree, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these fields, but many times they are simply based on availability, not personal preference.

This brings us to another important aspect of customized employment and the other key piece in this equation, the employer.  Customized employment means that in order to identify an individualized position outside of an Indeed.com job description, you are going to have to spend time gaining trust with an employer.  So, as we are building relationships with the job seeker, we have to build a relationship with that employer to identify their work culture and needs.

Overcoming Significant Barriers

Let’s take a look at Maurice. We began working with Maurice in 2018.  Maurice had just been released from prison after a 20-year sentence.  His employment experience and known interests were tied to what he had done, custodial work, food prep and landscaping.  Maurice was a very thoughtful, soft-spoken individual. He had a mild intellectual disability that sometimes made it difficult for him to think more abstractly, and he tended to focus on what was in front of him. Maurice knew that he needed a full-time job, and the most likely job for an ex-felon was working in a warehouse and/or cleaning.  Despite this, we focused on getting to know Maurice. We found that Maurice enjoyed being outdoors, enjoyed working with his hands, and was simply willing to do just about anything that was asked of him.  So, we had a great place to start.

We completed experiences at a farm, at a pottery studio, with a local landscaper, and at a local church. Maurice’s skills and willingness to work were evident, but he never seemed very engaged.  After each experience, he didn’t seem to have much of an opinion about the work or his preferences.  He was simply doing the work that was in front of him.  And while this can be an excellent trait in an employee, we were hoping to identify something that Maurice would look forward to doing every day; something that he could turn into a meaningful career.  But Maurice was ready to go to work, and he just wanted to find a place that would give him a chance, considering his history.

We were able to identify multiple employers that Maurice was interested in who did, in fact, hire ex-felons and set up several interviews, but when it came time to disclose the particulars of the offense, we hit a wall.  Maurice had served his time and was fully rehabilitated, but the crime was a doozy.  Most employers’ hiring policies didn’t extend to overly violent offenses. So, we had a lot of initial excitement at possible opportunities that was then followed by extreme disappointment. It wasn’t until a couple months later, when Maurice and I were touring his neighborhood, that he pointed out an auto-detailing shop. He talked about how he used to help out at a detail shop before he went to prison.  He talked about how he had always wanted to learn more about auto repair and enjoyed working on cars.

We immediately expanded our job search!  That night, I researched car wash/detail job openings in the area but also looked into entry-level positions that could lead to a career as a mechanic.  As I began reaching out to mechanics’ shops, the story was the same – if you wanted to begin a career as an auto mechanic, you should start at a quick lube/oil change garage or work at a tire shop.  But we continued to run into the same issue previously noted.  Maurice was beginning to lose hope.

But then we had a breakthrough. I was getting my oil changed at a local Jiffy Lube.  I was impressed by the staff’s teamwork and the excellent customer service from what appeared to be the manager, so I struck up a conversation with him.  I complimented him on his well-run establishment, introduced myself and the work I do, and mentioned my client who was interested in pursuing a career working on cars.  The manager, Ronnie, mentioned having an opening for a full-time lube tech. I disclosed that this client had a felony record.  The manager smiled and pointed to the other lube techs who were working so well together and said, “So do they.”  He went on to explain that he was the owner of this franchise and he focused on hiring ex-felons because he believed that everyone deserved a second chance.  My heart started beating a little faster. I explained that this particular felony was considered excessively violent because I didn’t have the heart to get Maurice’s hopes up again. Ronnie didn’t bat an eye and simply said that he would love to meet him.  I explained that Maurice didn’t have experience working on cars.  Ronnie said a lube tech position was a great place to start. He went on to describe the online training requirements for new hires, but he said he would be willing to give Maurice as much support and as much time as he needed to do the training.

We set up a meeting and informal interview.  Maurice was excited but really nervous. We reviewed the job description, beforehand, to identify any aspects of the position that he felt he was unprepared for or unable to meet.  He did not have a driver’s license and was concerned with his ability to complete online training, enter information into an online database, perform more advanced vehicle maintenance, and read and interpret documents such as safety rules, operating and maintenance instructions and procedure manuals, not to mention his anxiety at speaking with customers and fellow employees.

We brought these concerns to the interview.  Ronnie explained to us the typical process for a new lube tech, and we identified specific areas in which Maurice might require additional time and support.  Maurice was concerned about his ability to run diagnostics, replace brakes, and service engines, so we carved the position to focus on customer service, cleaning, and basic tire pressure/fluid level checks to start.  Ronnie was willing to accommodate us and explained to Maurice that he could take this position as far as he wanted.  After talking with Maurice about his history, current situation, and goals, Ronnie offered Maurice a full-time position on the spot. True to his word, Ronnie provided direct support to Maurice to help him complete his online training and gave him extra time to do so.  He started Maurice out slowly at the greeter post and began slowly introducing him to different aspects of the lube tech position.  As negotiated, Maurice was able to delay more advanced certification requirements to focus on improving his customer service skills and understanding of basic maintenance requirements for all types of vehicles.  After a few months, Maurice had cleanly carved out his role, was a key member of the team and was getting regular overtime hours, which he loved.  He has been successfully employed for almost two years and is continuing to work toward some of those additional certifications.

This brings me to my three indicators of an effective job coach:  availability, communication, and creativity.  It takes time to get to know someone.  It takes engaging questions and active listening, and sometimes requires challenging assumptions. It takes creating situations where individuals are given the opportunity to explore their interests, learn more about themselves and their community, and discover where they want to be.

Customized employment taps into this philosophy in a practical way.  It prioritizes building an employment profile that challenges service providers to not point out why it’s not going to work but to ask, “why not?”  It allows opportunities for both job seekers and employment support staff to discover answers to difficult questions and pathways to success that may not have become evident through a typical job search.  I believe that it’s only through a commitment to service and the search for those answers, that the aims of customized employment can truly be achieved.

I appreciate David’s willingness to take the time to write and explain customized employment. I think this is a term we hear, but we may not have a clear understanding of the concept. October is, as many of you know, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and our hope is that this awareness leads to greater levels of employment for those with disabilities. If you’re reading, you are probably aware of our Hire My Strengths social media campaign. If not, please see http://hiremystrengths.org/ for how to be a part of this campaign! If you have questions, please contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!

David Scott smilingDavid Scott is the director of supported employment for MillarRich, a service provider in Middle Tennessee for individuals with IDD and has worked in supported employment for nearly seven years. Growing up on a farm in rural West Tennessee, David developed a passion for working with plants and animals. After working toward a biology degree at Middle Tennessee State University, David shifted his focus to working with in-need populations in his community. Joining the Outreach Thrift Store in 2001 in Murfreesboro, David helped build partnerships with more than 40 organizations in the area to get clothing and household goods to people in need. David’s wife, Jenny, joined MillarRich at its inception in 2008, and he began working with individuals with IDD. In 2014, MillarRich broke ground on the Old School Farm, and with a career that blended David’s most-deeply rooted passions and experience, he joined the team as a supported employment job coach.

October 6, 2020

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