January29,2013

Creating Job Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Photograph of Judy Owen with her son and daughterBy Guest Blogger Judy Owen, COO and Co-founder of Opportunity Works, Inc.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I remember a friend telling me this when I was in college and worried that I would never get a job after graduating. This advice was music to my ears since I was perhaps not the most stellar student, but I was always good at making friends. I am one of those people who will happily walk into a room with 100 people I don’t know and walk out with 100 new friends. This served me well in my first career in information technology, a field full of people not known for their interpersonal skills.

And then my son, who is now eight years old, was born. He has Down syndrome, and this launched me into a life of advocating for people with disabilities.

I’ve been fortunate to have some unique opportunities. In 2007, I was appointed to the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, by then Governor Charlie Crist.  While serving with the Council, I was asked to be on the employment task force. This ultimately led to me starting my own staffing company Opportunity Works, Inc., about a year and a half ago. Opportunity Works is a full-service staffing company based in St. Petersburg, Florida that focuses on recruiting and placing people with disabilities.

The idea for the company began during my work advocating on employment issues for people with disabilities. During this time, there were two things that kept resonating with me: that advice from my friend in college, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and that job coaches for people with disabilities, in addition to the many other things they are responsible for doing, were expected to build relationships with business executives in order to find job placements for their clients.

Job coaches are supposed to build relationships with corporations in their community, that’s true. They are also expected to help the people they serve with on-the-job training and assistance finding transportation or other support needs, and fill out copious amounts of paperwork so that they can be reimbursed by whichever state agency is paying them to provide these services. From what I saw in Florida, the demands put on job coaches were just too high, and the model they were using was simply not working. So I began asking myself how I could help job coaches build business relationships.

The other part of the problem was that people with disabilities tend to have smaller networks than their peers without disabilities. It is a huge issue. That is why schools build inclusion programs like Circle of Friends and Peer Buddy Programs to help students with disabilities broaden their networks. Simply telling people with disabilities to go out and build networks in order to find jobs was not enough to overcome this. That would be like someone telling me to walk into a crowded room and say nothing to anyone for an hour and then leave. Impossible!

So, how could I help people with disabilities overcome their limited networks? The idea hit me – by bringing them into mine, of course! Since moving back to Florida, I had built up a pretty broad network of childhood and college friends, community leaders and business colleagues, with a personal connection for just about anything I might need.

I thought I could also bring the job coaches into my networks to help them build business relationships. This solution had its own problem, though. At the time, I was the Computer Systems Manager for the City of St. Petersburg and was not actively developing business relationships. So, I started looking around me.

I realized that the staffing industry was growing, and that temporary-to-permanent job assignments are a fantastic way for employers who may not have had experience with employees with disabilities to get to know them and see if they fit their hiring needs. These assignments allow employers to see how someone performs on the job without a long-term commitment or fear that they might have to let the person go if he or she is not working out. Temporary assignments are also a great way for job candidates to fill gaps in employment.

Yet, after extensive research, I could not find a staffing company in the area that built a business model around actively recruiting people with disabilities. I also could not find disability service providers who routinely built relationships with staffing companies to help find placements for the many people they serve.

That is why I began Opportunity Works. My company takes a capitalistic approach to solving a social problem, meaning we will only make money if we can prove to our customers that we add value to their organization. If we can’t prove our vision, we will not succeed as a company.  I have bet my livelihood that this model can change employment outcomes for people with disabilities on a large scale.

Our agency has put people to work on temporary assignments, as well as temp-to-perm and direct-hire placements. The goal is for us to actually affect the employment rate nationally. On a smaller scale, the goal is for me to have the dream that all loving parents have for their children: to nurture and educate my son so that he too will one day have financial independence.

I am lucky enough to blog about my start-up adventure on the Forbes website. If you would like to follow our progress, please check it out at http://blogs.forbes.com/judyowen.

Judy Owen combines her professional and personal experience to deliver on Opportunity Works’ mission of creating a bridge between employers and people with disabilities. For more than a decade, Judy has been a leader in mentoring programs, recognizing that the key to success is both pairing suited individuals and also empowering all involved to succeed. When Judy’s son, Zachary, was born with Down syndrome, she became deeply involved in advocacy on disability issues. Since 2007, she has served on the Board of Directors of PARC, the largest social services agency in the Tampa Bay area. She was appointed by Governor Crist to serve as a member of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council in 2007 and two years later was appointed by the Florida Education Commissioner to the Florida State Advisory Committee for the Education of Exceptional Students. A frequent public speaker and avid outdoor enthusiast, Judy lives with her husband and two children in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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