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Vocational training programs connect people with disabilities to employment opportunities in their local community

New focus on individualized employment is showing success

9/13/2017 3:00:00 PM

For media inquiries only
Sarah Berg
Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper visited Brainerd today to see firsthand how the department has begun transforming the vocational services it offers to more than 600 clients with disabilities statewide.
“Our programs are placing a greater premium on employment in the community at minimum wage or better,” says Piper. “And we’re focusing on the individual interests, talents and personal employment goals of clients as we help them find and keep jobs.”
In the past, vocational programs favored providing work at day treatment and habilitation facilities, where clients did jobs like sorting or light assembly and were most often paid less than minimum wage. Clients with disabilities worked together in crews or alone and had little opportunity to interact non-disabled colleagues.
While those facilities are still appropriate for clients who prefer them, DHS and many other vocational programs across the state also recognize the need to provide better vocational options for clients who want to work in the community. The new approach places strong emphasis on direct employment at businesses in the community at competitive wages and in integrated settings.
With that in mind, DHS launched the Vocational Opportunities and Individualized Community Employment (VOICE) program in the Brainerd area in 2016. VOICE was specially designed to help clients explore job opportunities with local employers, build their base of skills and implement a customized employment plan to help them reach employment goals.
During a tour of GreenForest Recycling Resources in Brainerd, Piper saw how the program is benefitting vocational clients and employers alike.
“I felt like I could fit in there,” says Donny O’Brien, who works four days a week at GreenForest, where he operates a baler and does other jobs. “I like it very much … I get along with people.”
DHS clients who are interested in working at GreenForest are invited to an informational interview at the facility, where they learn about the job – and can even try it out for a while. It didn’t take company owner Jeff Grunenwald long to realize that he wanted O’Brien on the team.
“He’s happy, enthusiastic and he really wanted to learn more things,” says Grunenwald. “That’s what made me want to hire him. It’s so refreshing to have someone who actually wants to come to work.”
Grunenwald, who is in the process of hiring more DHS vocational clients at facilities he operates in the communities of Hutchinson and Virginia, says programs like VOICE are especially important in a tight labor market.
“These employees do a great job. They take a lot of pride in what they do. And they take their jobs seriously,” says Grunenwald. “They’re an untapped source of great workers. (As an employer), you’re crazy not to look at that.”
Similar DHS programs are showing significant progress helping clients find work in other communities.
In Willmar, 100 percent of participants in the DHS Willmar Area Vocational and Employment Services program who want a job are employed in the community, compared with 68 percent in 2015. Of those, 36 percent have been hired directly by the business where they work, compared to 9 percent in November 2015.
In Austin, 60 percent of DHS program participants who want a job are employed in the community, compared to 52 percent in 2016. Of those, 35 percent have been hired directly by the business where they work, compared to 4 percent last year.
And one very important change is about to be implemented throughout all of DHS’s vocational programs.
“Any work, no matter where it takes place, will come with competitive wages,” says Piper. “Special minimum wages for our programs are going away at the end of this month. Starting Oct. 1, all participants will be paid minimum wage or better.”
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