Business engagement is interaction between employers, vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other workforce development and education organizations that results in measurable improvement in desired outcomes for both parties. Engaging businesses is a key component in improving and increasing employment outcomes for people with disabilities.
Business engagement is interaction between employers, vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other workforce development and education organizations that results in measureable improvement in desired outcomes for both parties. Engaging business and industry is a critical component to training and placing job seekers with disabilities.
Business engagement can range from purely advisory interactions to long-term strategic partnerships. In a 2010 publication, the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce distinguished between a narrow advisory or transactional role for employers, and one based on “strategic partnerships” (Parker, 2010).
Approaching employers as high-impact strategic partners means looking beyond the immediate needs of a program or college and seeking ways to make local employers or industries competitive. It requires building ongoing opportunities for problem-solving and program development. Doing so requires approaching employers in a listening rather than an “asking” mode: less “What can you do for us?” and more “Where is your pain? How can we help in addressing your challenges?”
Effective business engagement bridges the gap between employer demand for an educated and skilled workforce, and the supply of workers with the necessary skills for the labor market. While many agencies, colleges, and workforce organizations are increasingly focused on engaging businesses in the design of education and training programs, research indicates that employers continue to struggle to find workers with the skills they need. Addressing this gap through business engagement is critical to the growth of the national economy and to ensure employment and advancement for all.
The public vocational rehabilitation (VR) system is poised to become the nation’s premier provider of careers for people with disabilities and of workforce solutions for business. By developing and executing innovative engagement strategies, the VR system and agencies add real value to businesses and to employment services for job seekers with disabilities.
A partnership with a VR agency can meet the following business needs:
- Access to a new talent pool of qualified candidates for employment.
- Access to a team of employment specialists and VR counselors with knowledge and expertise regarding the employment needs of people with disabilities.
- Guidance and consultation regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), accommodations, and accessibility.
- Disability awareness training.
- Consultation regarding Section 503 compliance and tax incentives.
- Creation and funding of a range of work experiences including on-the-job training and internships.
- Opportunities for collaboration with community colleges, community rehabilitation programs, and other organizations responsive to workforce needs of businesses.
For people with disabilities, a VR-business engagement model meets the following needs:
- Access to accurate, timely labor market information for use in career decision-making and planning.
- Increased opportunities for competitive, integrated work experiences prior to hire.
- High-quality job matching services.
- Increased personal interaction with hiring personnel.
- Access to job openings customized to individual needs and abilities.
- Higher-quality outcomes (wages, hours, benefits).
Developing robust relationships with business and industry can lead to positive outcomes for both the businesses and the job candidates. Business engagement ranges from purely advisory interactions to long-term strategic partnerships.
The following qualities distinguish engaged relationships with employers from narrow advisory ones:
- Continuous: cultivating long-term relationships, rather than episodic, one-time, or short-term transactions on an as-needed basis.
- Strategic: approaching business in the context of specific plans, opportunities, and objectives, rather than on a spot basis, when the agency needs assistance.
- Mutually valuable: solving problems and creating value for both sides of the labor market: businesses (the demand side) and VR providers and consumers (the supply side).
- Wide-ranging: engaging a variety of businesses by using varied methods to recruit and involve a large number, rather than relying on one or a few of the usual representatives.
- Comprehensive: engaging businesses in a variety of issues and activities ranging from program development and competency identification to consumer advising and placement, and policy advocacy on critical issues.
- Intensive: engaging businesses substantively and in depth, moving the conversations from a high level (“We need higher-skilled candidates”) to an in-depth dialogue about specific skill sets, long-term economic needs, and strengths and weaknesses of educational and VR programs in meeting them.
- Empowering: encouraging businesses to develop and assume leadership roles in pathway development and other initiatives; approaching potential partners from business at the outset of the process, rather than near the end.
- Institutionally varied: engaging business through a number of channels, including industry or professional associations, public workforce entities (Workforce Investment Boards, One-Stop Career Centers), chambers of commerce, labor-management training partnerships, and economic development authorities (Wilson, 2015).
Effective business engagement strategies are mutually beneficial for both the supply and demand sides. More broadly, business engagement strategies are useful for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Transactional: Effective business engagement strategies help to satisfy employer demand for an educated and skilled workforce. Successful outcomes include employers hiring qualified, work-ready candidates, further training for incumbent workers, and businesses and VR agencies jointly developing work-based learning opportunities for VR consumers and incumbent workers.
- Strategic: VR programs are aligned with business needs. Global markets and competition, persistent high unemployment, and rapid changes in technology make the need to understand employer demand in real time more important than ever. Engagement in education and workforce development also has longer-term benefits for both the business and the broader community. Through strategic investments, businesses can foster regional economic development that creates and sustains a loyal customer base.
- Demand: Current demand for skilled workers is not being met effectively in selected sectors, like healthcare and STEM, and businesses are becoming frustrated and underused, but over-consulted. Successful business engagement strategies address this issue at the core and focus on developing focused and coordinated discussions and partnerships with potential employers.