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Community Employment Services and Effective Staff Development

The work of getting people a job is the hardest of work. Direct support staff that facilitate community employment services for people with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) are sometimes overlooked as a valuable resource for change. Cary Griffin, a senior partner at Griffin-Hammis Associates, answered a few questions for us on how provider agencies can hire, develop, and train staff to be more effective at community employment.

Where should community employment services focus first to see positive change?

A: I think we have to go back to what our role is and really clarify that mission. Are we managing or solving the unemployment problem? Are we really looking to emancipate people from our services? By treating the community as a separate place, our organizations aren’t currently set up to liberate people. Our mission should be to get people full lives in the community. In order to achieve this mission, the first step is to realize why we have staff in the first place. And that is to accomplish this goal of community inclusion. Employment drives key aspects of our lives, so it’s important to have reasonable expectations for staff development. You can teach people numerous things: but it takes a rigorous training program. We don’t necessarily need experts but we need people with more than 40 hours of training.

What is the best way to train staff to accomplish a goal of community inclusion?

A: Community employment services and agencies need to tie training to outcomes. What do you want to happen? We can’t just train people on this new idea called “customized employment” and then hope for the best. To get results you have to start with your desired outcome. For example, “We need to get 20 people good jobs this year” and then work backwards. What does staff need to know to be able to do this? What kind of support do they need to receive? We can’t continue to throw training at people as part of the checklist for quality assurance. We have to look at the whole system (residential, case management, transportation, employment) and identify how they work together. If I am talking about employment, I am talking about the impact on home life, etc. One of the challenges that we face is that there are still a lot of people in our field that feel employment for a person with a disability is a choice when in reality it is a responsibility and an obligation that we all share as citizens. Finding people jobs is hard work, so it is sometimes easier to act as if working is a choice. Treat employment support like a profession, and take training just as seriously.

When hiring staff to provide community employment services, what skills should one look for?

A: Hire the person, not the potential. You can teach anyone anything but a person’s personality is largely unchangeable. Hire for skills, experience and performance. Job development is relationship creation, understanding a person with a disability, and technical skills like how to teach people with a disability complex tasks. We tend to hire for conformity and consistency; and people that we think we can manage. New ideas are tough to incorporate and require hiring people that are different than you.

How can agencies create a culture of community and what are the outcomes?

A: Upper management often gets far removed from the problem so we ask executives to have a caseload of one. If I am working with someone, I see firsthand how policy and funding works, I can see what the front line staff’s needs are and what technical skills they need. As CEO, I can see how our agency policies and practices directly impact staff, consumers, employers, and families. If our mission is to liberate people, then being on the front line is great internal advocacy. I would challenge any director to get back to why you got into the community employment services field in the first place, and present a model your staff can’t refute. In the highest performing organizations we work with, upper management carries a caseload. The outcome is often times lower turnover and higher productivity.

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