By Guest Blogger Judy Owen, COO and Co-founder of Opportunity Works, Inc.
Although the economy is starting to come back, if you look closely, you’ll still find high unemployment rates. As the owner of a staffing company, I can tell you that not only are there jobs out there, but there are good ones. The problem is our educational system isn’t preparing students for the jobs available in the market. There are thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs with no skilled labor to fill them. Here in Florida, I have a variety of trades customers fighting for any skilled labor they can find.
It seems to me that we have a system of either preparing students for college or nothing. It’s a shame. Our students with disabilities are even more disadvantaged because despite the efforts of No Child Left Behind, we still set the bar lower for students with disabilities. There seems to be a mentality that because these students are dealing with so many other stresses in their lives, they shouldn’t stress about school. I disagree. I see fantastic opportunities for students with disabilities now, particularly cognitive disabilities.
While the school system, which is difficult to change, is neglecting to give students the skills that will land them well-paying jobs in various trades, we have until students are 22 years old to deal with this for students with disabilities. In Florida, the HVAC business is booming, especially during this time of the year. Air conditioning technicians are in high demand. Owners of the companies are sleep deprived and behind on their shop management needs, because they are going on service calls and looking under rocks for employees who they can trust in their customers’ residences, and who have some basic technical and customer service skills.
Understand, students who do not experience any disabilities have some great opportunities here. But, when we talk about the needs of students with disabilities in schools and the workforce, it’s shortsighted not to look at ways to capitalize on this need. Transportation becomes a problem, too. Again, this may not be an issue in a city such as Boston or New York, but in Florida everything is designed for driving and the public transportation infrastructure is weak at best. So another challenge I have in meeting the needs of my customers is transportation.
I might have someone who received training, let’s say in plumbing, but doesn’t have a driver’s license or a vehicle to get around. This is a showstopper. Let me point out how irresponsible it is to provide someone with education in a trade that will require driving around from customer site to site when that student does not have a driver’s license. My customers can’t hire that person so the training doesn’t matter.
Schools have to look at the entire situation. I would bet that, in many cases, a driver’s education class could be incorporated into the curriculum and enable many students to get a driver’s license. We could work to overcome the challenge of buying and insuring a car if we could get students with disabilities their driver’s licenses.
I know the economy is a challenge. A few years ago, as it was appearing to hit rock bottom, I walked away from a stable, high-paying job to start my company, Opportunity Works, a full service staffing and recruiting firm focused on placing people with disabilities in the workforce. People really wondered about the timing of my decision. I’m here to tell you, though, that I have customers with job orders. Finding skilled people to fill them is the more difficult problem than finding the openings. The slow recovery, in my humble opinion, is not just a matter of jobs being available, it’s a matter of the educational system failing to prepare students for these jobs, leaving us with a gap.
I’m advocating in my community to make some changes. Seeing how my income is determined by my ability to fill job orders, I’m very motivated to train potential workers. If you want to advocate for your future or that of a loved one, I would encourage you to look at the job boards. Check out Monster.com for the jobs open in your community. Jobs are out there. In Florida, it appears to be trades and manufacturing. Find where workers are missing in your community and then, start asking your high schools, vocational schools, community colleges and universities why they are not training their students for those jobs.
A skilled, trained workforce would go a long way to making our economy better and stronger. More programs for students with disabilities are needed if we want to make that a reality.
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 two children in St. Petersburg, Florida.