Finding qualified and capable employees is one of the largest challenges an organization faces today. Yet the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that nearly one out of two people with a disability with a college degree is unemployed. Some creative companies have discovered that this large, untapped pool of educated individuals with disabilities can fill a variety of positions. To facilitate such connections between employers and workers, an innovative pilot program called Breakthrough is underway in Minnesota. It gives people with disabilities who are still in college the opportunity for meaningful corporate experience via internships.
Spearheaded by The Disability Institute, the program is also different in that it is forging new partnerships between various organizations in the public and private sectors. Sponsoring partners of Breakthrough include the Minnesota Business Leadership Network (BLN), Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, Disability Services at the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Association of Higher Education and Disability, and the Minnesota State Council on Disability.
Companies participating in the early stage of this program include 3M, Northwest Airlines, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, and Deluxe Corporation all members of the Minnesota Business Leadership Network. Richard Anderson, Northwest Airlines CEO, leads the BLN in its efforts to promote competitive employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities through programs such as Breakthrough.
Making a Difference
Students who participated in this pilot year of the Breakthrough internship program agree that they obtained worthwhile corporate experiences that increased their value as competitive candidates for employment. The program participants worked in a wide range of areas including finance, engineering, human resources, and information technology. They had meaningful work and made positive contributions to the companies where they were employed.
One example is Steve Widerski, an ambitious St. Paul Technical College student, who worked with Northwest Airlines in the company’s information services department providing computer help desk support to employees around the world. During his three-month internship, it is estimated that Widerski personally helped more than 3,000 Northwest Airlines employees with computer questions, including password resets and problems related to e-mail and Internet usage. According to his Northwest colleagues, Widerski is very conscientious, willing, and eager to learn and take on additional responsibilities.
“Steve Widerski is a great example of how Breakthrough works,” said Wendy S. Brower, executive director of The Disability Institute. The Breakthrough program takes the focus off disability, and puts the focus on obtaining valuable skills. This process has helped Steve grow professionally while helping Northwest Airlines benefit from an outstanding contributor.”
Brower added, “With his positive attitude, hard work, and support from people and programs in public schools and higher education, Steve proves that a person with a disability can make a major positive contribution in corporate America.”
For students with a disability: Breakthrough offers individuals a firsthand understanding of corporate culture and the opportunity to improve their probability of employment after graduation.
For companies: The connection offers employers access to, and experience with, qualified, career-oriented people with a disability, thus enhancing their diversity recruitment strategies. In other words, employers are able to tap into a skilled workforce and address employment barriers and attitudinal stereotypes.
For educational institutions: The internship experience offers educators and counselors valuable insight that will ultimately lead to better education, training, and placement.
For taxpayers: The more people with a disability who are employed in meaningful careers, the fewer the number of people dependent on social welfare programs.
Looking to the Future
Program leaders, including The Disability Institute and the Minnesota Business Leadership Network, hope to significantly expand the Breakthrough program by increasing the number of employers and the number of students with disabilities who participate. Although the current program includes employers in or near the Twin Cities, plans are underway to expand the geographic reach of the program as well. Partners will begin working with companies during the fourth quarter this year to identify internship opportunities for Breakthrough in 2003.
For more information on the Breakthrough program, contact The Disability Institute at 952/935-9343.