People with disabilities (PWD) need resources to find gainful employment. Employers need qualified, hardworking candidates to fill jobs. There is an organization that links these groups to create a winning situation for both parties. That organization is the Business Leadership Network (BLN).
Most PWD and employers still don’t know about the BLN, largely due to lack of publicity. The Minnesota branch of the BLN was launched in August 2000 out of a national model created in 1994 by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (now known as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Policy). The national BLN is sponsored by a joint partnership between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor. The mission of the BLN is to provide PWD with career opportunities while simultaneously fulfilling employers’ needs for qualified employees.
Northwest Airlines is currently the lead employer of the BLN in Minnesota (there are 36 BLN branches nationwide). Other employers currently participating in the Minnesota program include Allianz, American Express, Best Buy Company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Cargill, Deluxe, eFunds, Employers Association Inc., Fairview Health Services, Human Resource Consultants, Medtronic and Thompson West Group. Organizations currently participating in the program include Access Press, The Disability Institute, Lambert Vocational Services, Access For All and Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. Other participants include the Minnesota Department of Economic Security.
One example of what the BLN does can be seen in a career event for students with learning disabilities that was sponsored last April by Northwest Airlines and Lambert Vocational Services. At the Flight Training Facility in Minneapolis/St. Paul, employees in different career roles at Northwest gave firsthand accounts of what it’s like doing their jobs. A follow-up event will be held October 15 as part of National Disability Mentoring Day.
Wendy Brower of The Disability Institute understands what PWD go through when it comes to trying to find a job. Brower, who is one of the founders of the BLN and coordinates activities at the Institute, developed Breakthrough, a program sponsored by the BLN that provides paid internships to students with disabilities who are within one year of graduating from college. Businesses, The Disability Institute, and public and private school systems collaborated in 2002 to get the program off the ground. Brower said inspiration came from challenges facing employers and students in postsecondary systems, adding “This is a good opportunity for students and employers to get you know each other.”
Brower cited a statistic from a Harris Poll, which states that 84 percent of PWD are currently unemployed or underemployed, and 70 percent of PWD want the opportunity to work. Furthermore, 85 percent of PWD acquired their disability—they weren’t born with it. “The idea of having a career and a disability at the same time is foreign to many people with disabilities and to employers,” said Brower. She said PWD have to apply at least 10 times more often for jobs than people without disabilities. This can be extremely daunting, especially since many PWD are not employed as teenagers or young adults, so they do not have the skills or networks to get started on a career path, she said. This is made all the more difficult by the struggling economy and the work disincentives for PWD created by loss of many state funded benefits with increased earned income.
Despite all this, said Brower, employers may be facing a major labor shortage when baby boomers start retiring in 2006. She said this will leave a lot of people dependent on social services without enough people working, and employers are going to have to look at other segments of the population to replace the baby boomers. “With the advent of technology and the accommodations that can be made for people with disabilities (which don’t really cost as much as many people think they will), people with disabilities can do things that weren’t even feasible five years ago. Employers are looking for brains, not brawn. Breakthrough is about careers, not entry-level jobs,” said Brower.
3M is one company that has an extensive diversity program and has participated in Breakthrough by hiring one participant per year for a paid internship. Manager of Workforce Diversity at 3M and BLN member Gene Washington said the internship program has worked very well so far. He said their participation in Breakthrough “speaks well for 3M’s commitment to diversity.” The company also has a Disability Advisory Committee that provides assistance to interns with disabilities.
The student who is currently participating in the Breakthrough program at 3M is working on several information technology projects, including a Web page. According to his supervisor, he “is eager to learn about IT and has performed well with projects we have assigned him.”
Washington said 3M plans on participating in the program again next year. When asked how the program fits into the layoffs 3M has been implementing, Washington said that is why the company has been limited to hiring only one intern per year, however, “I take it on myself to invite other companies to participate in the program,” he said. 3M was scheduled to meet with General Mills and SuperValu in July to generate their interest in hiring additional interns for the program.
Other programs BLN is currently working with are the Ticket to Hire program—a national service implemented by the Social Security Administration that links employers to employment networks and their communities with job-ready candidates—and EARN, the Employee Assistance Referral Network, a free referral service that links employers that have job vacancies with employment service providers and state vocational rehabilitation agencies that have access to job candidates with disabilities.
BLN has given Medtronic an avenue to learn about resources to help the company do a better job, according to Senior Diversity Consultant Ladrene Coyne. At the company’s offices in Washington, Medtronic currently has eight employees with developmental disabilities. Coyne said that in Washington, “we wanted to strengthen our region so all businesses could recognize the benefits of hiring, retaining and marketing to people with disabilities. We have businesses on our [BLN] board, so we can talk as businesses and set the example by offering events that can educate businesses.” Coyne said the BLN’s numerous events in Washington (with about 40 other companies so far) have not only linked PWD with employers there, but have also dispelled many of the myths that PWD are not as employable as people without disabilities. Moreover, said Coyne, the BLN has provided a tool that has opened up the dialogue for companies to talk about all kinds of disability issues and how they can make jobs accessible to PWD.
If you are an employer or a person with a disability who would like to contact the Minnesota BLN, contact Mike Chevrette at 651-487-4062. The Web site can also be found at: http://www.mnbln.org. If you are interested in Breakthrough, call 952-935-5711.