Skip to main content

Cracks in ‘Talent Pipeline’ Pose Risks for Employers, College Students With Disabilities

The following previously appeared in the Huffington Post and has been reprinted with permission.

National Organization on Disability logoAs the leader of a national organization focused on employment for people with disabilities, I routinely have the privilege of visiting places that are doing some remarkable work to advance the issue. My travels of late took me to two notable college campuses: Edinboro University, just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, which has committed to excellence in accommodations for students with disabilities; and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York, which has dedicated itself to helping students with disabilities access jobs upon graduation, better ensuring their long-term economic security.

Frankly, America’s colleges and universities would do well to examine what RIT and other leaders in career services are doing right, because many, if not most, are getting it wrong. Nationally, students with disabilities take twice as long to secure a job after graduation. And of the 1.4 million college students with disabilities, about 60-percent of them can expect to not find a job when they graduate. Talk about a harsh dose of reality for young people who simply want to contribute.

Man working on a laptop with coffeeWhen I talk with employers, which is just about every day, they tell me their inability to hire new graduates with disabilities is not due to a lack of qualified candidates, but rather a lack of access. We at the National Organization on Disability decided to take a closer look at this issue recently, which resulted in a white paper titled Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities.

Our research, along with guidance from partners such as Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities and the National Association of Colleges and Employers, resulted in a series of recommendations that colleges and universities can take right now. Chief among them, and it’s one that RIT is executing quite well, is better coordination and communication between each school’s career services and disability offices, which respectively have access to “disability-friendly” employers and job seekers with disabilities. It may seem simple, yet so few schools get this right. At RIT, students engaged in this new model of information sharing report excellent results, with all early participants obtaining employment.

MicroscopeA closer look at this issue reveals that, while as a nation, we have become increasingly proficient at creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities in entry-level positions, employers have yet to build a robust talent pipeline for professional positions. This is a particularly pressing problem for employers looking for candidates with STEM backgrounds. One would think our institutions of higher education would be the ideal place to fill up that pipeline.

However, most professional-level jobs require not only a college degree, but frequently up to five years of work experience. This is a Catch 22 for the majority of all college-educated jobseekers, not just jobseekers with disabilities. But what we’re learning is that these experience requirements may be overly restrictive and are inadvertently screening out graduates with disabilities that could perform well in professional jobs with the right training.

This was underscored in a new study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in which employers evaluated students in skill areas such as being innovative, solving complex problems and working with others. Employers did not rank college grads highly in those key categories. Yet, talk with a person who has navigated the streets in a wheelchair for ten years or dealt with the medical establishment on a daily basis, and you’ll find a job candidate who excels in all three areas. Employers should reexamine requirements that might be unnecessarily restrictive – particularly federal contractors who must now seek to satisfy new federal disability employment targets – and potentially gain new sources of inventive and resourceful talent.

Inclusion drives innovation posterThis summer, our nation will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA. We have taken tremendous strides forward in improving access to employment for people with disabilities. But if we cannot solve the issue of how to connect talented young people with disabilities to meaningful employment, we will have not only wasted an historic opportunity to close this seemingly intractable employment gap, but we will yet again be wasting the talents of people who have much to contribute and deserve the opportunity to participate in the American Dream.

 

Taking the Long View

Eight years ago a young man named Miguel was in his last year of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School when his teacher referred him to the Marriott Foundation’s Bridges from School to Work (Bridges) program. Like thousands of public school seniors across the country receiving special education services, Miguel’s postsecondary options seemed both daunting and uncertain. He needed the targeted interventions that a program like Bridges has mastered over nearly three decades of serving more than 22,000 youth. He needed an adult mentor who would steer him through the complex process of school-to-work transition. He needed help bridging the gap between high school and the world of work.

Bridges logoAs with all Bridges participants, Miguel availed himself of job readiness and employability skills instruction aimed at preparing him for what to expect in the competitive workforce, a milieu that sometimes tolerates fewer mistakes and grants fewer second chances. But Miguel was committed and earnest in his pursuit of employment, so with the assistance and encouragement from Bridges, he was successful in landing his first job with a Walgreens as a customer service associate. Miguel’s punctuality and dependability at Walgreens demonstrated his potential for the demands of fast-paced production environment with Philadelphia’s Union Packaging, a company that manufactures containers for fast food and casual dining restaurants.

At Union Packaging Miguel proved himself able in keeping pace with complex machinery as it churned out food containers to be packaged and shipped to restaurants across the country. He received both pay increases and increases in responsibility. But Miguel’s story doesn’t end there. Not only did he keep in touch with Bridges over the years by sharing his job and career updates he continued to press ahead with efforts to grow and better himself. Miguel recently completed training qualifying him to join Philadelphia’s SEPTA’s Police Department. Now 26, he’s pictured here…..

Miguel Cuevas Police Academy graduationA story like Miguel’s is timely. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) when programs like Bridges shine a light on the great work of many in business, philanthropy, and government alike in efforts to break down barriers for persons with disabilities to achieve their employment and career aspirations.

It’s the stories of young men and women like Miguel that help the Marriott Foundation’s Bridges program earn a reputation for practicing evidence-based strategies that lead to jobs that build self-esteem, maturity, and independence. Stories like Miguel’s — and there are thousands of them — demonstrate to stakeholders and funders the value of our work. Stories like these attest to the return on investment for grantors who want to see quantifiable and tangible results.

Inclusion drives innovation poster

Taking the long view, showing commitment and building trust — these are key characteristics essential for young workers to learn in the world of competitive work. They are equally essential to building successful partnerships with program supporters in the competitive world of grant-making and grant-seeking.  Similar to our work with youth, the funding and support partnerships begin with assessment and the readiness of parties to enter into a partnership. And these stage-setting steps cannot be shortchanged. Openness on timing, deepening knowledge through site visits, collaboratively scoping plans, to the benefit of all, are essential to the long-term success of the partnership. And taking the employment analogy one step further, the genuine commitment to long-term partnership allows both grantee and the funder to look at the partnership as an investment with an expected return.

In real terms, the long-term matching grant from Johnson Scholarship Foundation to Marriott Foundation Bridges allows the organization to position our school-to-work services as social impact seeking added capital to grow, expand and deliver a return for investors and clients alike. This approach is leading to the expansion of Bridges services in Ft. Worth, Boston, and New York City in addition to the nine other cities already serves.

NDEAM celebrates ability and value people with disabilities bring to the workforce, and let us further acknowledge that the lessons learned from successful employment experiences parallel the relationships and partnership we build together.

A Recipe for Success, Part 2

In honor of National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, we bring you the second in a two-part series on the Johnson Scholarship Program. Now in its 26th year, the program provides scholarships for students with disabilities and a network of support services to enhance student success.

Research shows that there is a great gap between educational expectations and reality for students with disabilities.

A 2006 National Longitudinal Transition Study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Institute of Education Sciences showed that 85 percent of youth with disabilities plan to complete some form of post-secondary education (26 percent expected to complete a post-secondary vocational, technical or trade school; 34 percent expected to graduate from a two-year college; 25 percent expected to graduate from a four-year college). However, the same study also indicates that only one in 10 of these students actually complete any sort of post-secondary education (5 percent graduated from a post-secondary vocational, technical or trade school; 4 percent graduated from a two-year college; 1 percent graduated from a four-year college).

Group of students pointing towards Disability Resource CenterThe Johnson Scholarship Program helps to narrow the gap between expectation and attainment. Data kept by Florida Atlantic University finds that 66.1 percent of the students receiving at least one scholarship disbursement have graduated and another 20 percent are still enrolled in post-secondary education. The role of the Disability Support Services (DSS) office in helping students through this process cannot be overstated.

The good work of the DSS in delivering the scholarship program to students is enabled by its partnership with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and the Florida Board of Governors’ office. The scholarship program depends upon a unique collaboration among the philanthropic, higher education and legislative sectors.

State university system of florida board of governors logoThe Board of Governors Office performs essential leadership functions. It serves as a liaison between the Foundation and the universities, disseminates information on best practices, and helps to standardize processes. It manages and distributes the scholarship money to the various SUSF schools and it also provides expertise on legislative and policy changes that might affect students with disabilities.

The Board of Governors scales the support of students with disabilities to a state level, providing a greater platform for advocacy and building allies across sector lines in Florida. Such allies are invaluable as students with disabilities graduate from college and pursue employment.

At the heart of the partnership among JSF, the Board of Governor’s Office and the campus DSS is a one-day annual meeting, convened by JSF. The purpose of this meeting is to review the performance of the scholarship program, discuss developments affecting students with disabilities and best practices and opportunities for learning and collaboration. Professionals from outside the SUSF are sometimes invited to attend the annual meeting and speak on issues relevant to students with disabilities and their educators.

Group photo of peopleThe underlying reason for JSF’s mission in education is to facilitate meaningful employment. Unfortunately, there is huge underemployment of people with disabilities, even those with university degrees. According to the Current Population Survey (CPS) data released in June 2017, the unemployment rates for people with disabilities is more than double the rate for people without disabilities. The under employment of students with disabilities has been a recurring topic of discussion at JSF Scholarship annual meetings.

The Johnson Scholarship Program for students with disabilities is based upon a unique working relationship among JSF, the State of Florida, the SUSF and the university campuses, particularly the DSS at each campus. It is this partnership that has made the scholarship program successful. We have repeatedly noted that the real value of the program is in the work of the people involved (rather than the money).

Graphic saying "we're all able to do anything!"The program builds on infrastructure, expertise and resources that are already in place in the state of Florida.  The Board of Governors is the governing body for its 12 state universities and DSS are well established at each campus. The delivery of the Scholarship Program causes additional work for these partners but the incremental cost is small compared to the benefits.

The JSF SUSF Scholarship Program is a proven winner that is easily replicable in other states. The administrative machinery, DSS and a philanthropic sector are already in place. All that is required is an individual or group of individuals to champion the program.

For more information about Johnson Scholarship Foundation, visit www.jsf.bz.

A Recipe for Success

In honor of National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, we bring you the first in a two-part series on the Johnson Scholarship Program. Now in its 26th year, the program provides scholarships for students with disabilities and a network of support services to enhance student success.

What if scholarships weren’t really about the money?

As a private philanthropic foundation, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation invests to obtain the highest possible rate of return. The return on its scholarship grants is defined by the rate of successful matriculation and completion of post-secondary education.

JSF has learned that scholarships that include wraparound support are more likely to help a student to succeed. Money provides the financial stability and opportunity for post-secondary education, but it is not what gets a student through. Non-monetary supports attached to a scholarship contribute more to post-secondary success than money. This is especially true for students with disabilities.

state university system of florida board of governors logoJSF’s scholarship for people with disabilities attending a school within the State University System of Florida (SUSF) delivers both scholarship and non-monetary support by way of a collaboration of JSF, the SUSF and the Florida Legislature. Scholarships are awarded to students with disabilities who enroll at any one of the 12 SUSF campuses.

The program was founded in 1991. It began with an agreement between JSF’s founder, Theodore Johnson, and the State of Florida, which was expressed by an Act of the Legislature entitled “…The Johnson Scholarship Program.”  This Act provides for a scholarship program for students with disabilities to be funded by JSF. It also provides for a 50 percent state match for JSF grants and charges the Department of Education to administer the program.

Over the past 26 years JSF has made grants exceeding $9 million, which have all gone to student scholarships, together with the state match. However, the State’s commitment to administer the scholarship program has proven even more valuable than its matching funding.

Johnson Scholarship Foundation logoThe Florida Board of Governor’s office and each campus of the State University System form the backbone of a comprehensive student support system, which accompanies the scholarship. This is the secret sauce that makes the scholarship work. The award of the scholarship may capture a student’s attention, but the real magic of the scholarship lies in the mentoring and assistance that goes with it.

This is not to downplay the importance of money. Without it, JSF has no mission and there are no scholarships. Money is assuredly the main course. But it is the secret sauce that enables students to sit down and stay for dinner. And it is the secret sauce that students remember long afterward. Scholarships plus Supports equals Achievement ($ + S = A).

Secret sauce can be defined as the personal, non-monetary support, wrapped around the scholarship. The Disability Support Services (DSS) at each campus plays a critical role. It advertises the scholarship, receives the applications, leads the selection process, makes the award and provides ongoing support to scholarship recipients. JSF believes that the DSS’ ownership and control of this scholarship process and the support that they provide to each student throughout their college careers is central to the increased persistence and graduation rates of students with disabilities on each campus.

inclusion drives innovation posterThe scholarship program provides reciprocal benefits to the DSS offices, one of which is enhanced awareness of disability issues in other areas of the university. Ten of the 12 DSSs surveyed indicated that they use a selection committee to determine scholarship recipients. The selection committees are comprised of faculty and professionals drawn from various university departments. This increases knowledge of the special aspects and requirements of students with disabilities, thus producing allies for these students across campus. Another enhancement of the DSS profile within the university stems from a supplementary matching grant for scholarships that JSF offers to each SUSF campus. The local DSS office typically takes a leadership role in negotiating the grant and advocating for the matching funds within the university and the development office.

The most important reciprocal benefit that the scholarship provides is the enhanced opportunities for students to connect with the DSS staff and services. Eight out of 12 DSS offices report an increase in the use of services because the scholarship has heightened awareness of the office and the services it has to offer.

The enhanced relationship between the DSS and scholarship recipient gives the DSS access to the recipient’s academic progress. Some schools take advantage of this to determine when they need to offer appropriate guidance, support or to consider or reconsider accommodations. Even the act of applying for the scholarship can help students form social and support networks.

Ability Not Disability Graphic

The benefits of mentoring and support for post-secondary students, particularly those at risk, seem self-evident. Anecdotal evidence abounds. However, there is not much reported research. In Mentoring Individuals with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Literature, Brown, Takahashi, and Roberts find distinct themes in the research that was available:

Within these 10 articles, however, several themes did emerge, including: a) the positive role of technology; b) the desire to use current mentees to become future mentors; c) a focus on specific disability groups, such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and disabilities perceived as mild; d) the usefulness of mentoring for academic, career, and social skills; and e) the value of establishing long-term mentoring relationships.

The DSS at each SUSF campus responds to most of the themes identified by the authors. These offices typically provide adaptive technology, expertise and focus on specific disability groups, academic and social mentoring and long-term relationships. The JSF Scholarship Program also strengthens long-term relationships between the DSS and scholarship recipients. In addition to the annual application and award process, local DSS offices organize recognition events attended by students, parents and faculty. Many times, JSF representatives are in attendance as well.

Next week: Bridging the gap between educational expectations and reality for students with  disabilities.