Developing Useful Business Partnerships 

Business engagement can be defined as interaction between employers, vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other workforce development and education organizations that results in measureable improvement in desired outcomes for all parties. Engaging business and industry is critical for training and placing job seekers with disabilities into employment, and helping them pursue career advancement opportunities.

While many agencies, colleges, and workforce organizations are increasingly focused on involving 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 crucial, both for the growth of the national economy, and to ensure employment and advancement for all.



Video: The National Employment Team's Partnership with CVS Health

Key Steps to Developing Partnerships

Partnership development is a lengthy process that may take months or even years. With that in mind, state VR agencies should take four fundamental steps as they pursue business engagement partnerships.

  1. Identify and prioritize needs: State VR agencies should first identify their key needs related to business engagement, and then identify the priority of those needs. For example, needs could range from identifying three health care employers for placement opportunities, to increasing internship opportunities for participants, and some needs may be more important than others 
  2. Research potential partners: After assessing their needs, state VR agencies should research organizations in their states and regions that can address these needs, from industry associations to the public workforce system. There are a range of resources that can help identify specific organizations. After identifying a potential partner, research the organization to learn more about its mission, goals/priorities, and capacity.  
  3. Explore a partnership: If a partner appears to share a mission that is compatible with the mission of the state VR agency, have aligned goals and priorities, and have sufficient capacity, then the agency should contact the organization to explore a partnership. Key steps include identifying the interests of both agencies, and how a potential collaboration could help both meet their goals (from meeting performance outcomes to increasing revenue).
  4. Start small: Though the occasional collaboration starts like a New Year’s Eve celebration, most more closely resemble a quiet backyard barbeque. This is a purposeful decision: small collaborations enable the partners to work through initial challenges with minimal risk, determining their interests in the collaboration while also establishing trust. State VR agencies can use small demonstrations or pilot projects that then can lead to larger-scale collaboration.   

Sailing through Stormy Seas: Adapting Partnerships

As state VR agencies explore partnerships to support their business engagement efforts, they may find that in some cases they are not partnering with new organizations, but instead altering an existing partnership. For example, a state VR agency may now be approaching an American Job Center and for the first time asking to coordinate placement efforts and co-host a job fair. 

Partners may resist altering their existing relationships, or have difficulty seeing the benefit of this. State VR agencies can take two steps to address this:

  • Provide the partner with background information describing your mutual interests, and discuss how a modified collaboration could promote the work of both your organizations. This may require a few face-to-face meetings, to ensure the message is resonating. 
  • If these efforts are not successful, set up a high-level meeting that includes partner and agency leadership, and focus constructively on interests and opportunities in expanding the current relationship to support business engagement. 

Oregon Commission for the Blind Success Stories:
Engaging Business and Job Seekers who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Jeff and the University of Oregon

Jeff works as a Web Developer in the Career Information Systems Department at the University of Oregon. Oregon Commission for the Blind (OCB) connected Jeff with a Job Developer who worked as a liaison between Jeff and potential employers. Jeff was hired at CIS through the competitive search process. The University of Oregon connected with OCB after Jeff was hired to help ensure that the work environment could accommodate Jeff’s needs. Watch Jeff tell his story!


Donna and New Seasons Market

Donna was looking for a new job – so she contacted Oregon Commission for the Blind. OCB helped Donna enroll in a three-month internship at New Seasons Market to see how she enjoyed the job. OCB connected with the Director of Recruitment at New Seasons to coordinate this work experience for Donna. The supermarket hired Donna immediately after the internship was complete. Watch Donna’s story to learn how OCB partnered with New Seasons Market to provide a work-based learning experience that benefited the employer and job seeker.


Todd and AstroTools

Astro Tools worked with OCB to provide job training for Todd, and eventually hired him once a position became available. During the period of job training, OCB supplemented Todd’s wages while he was learning on the job. Watch this interview with Mike Barnes, the General Manager of Astro Tools in Portland, Oregon, as he discusses his experience working the OCB.\


Tessa, Licensed Manager in the Business Enterprise Program

Tessa Brown is a Licensed Vending Facility Manager in the Business Enterprise Program at OCB. Tessa manages a coffee shop in Portland, OR. Over the past 13 years, she has hired many OCB clients who are interested in opening their own businesses. Tessa has also worked with OCB’s Summer Work Experience Program as an employer, hosting summer internships for high school students who are blind and visually impaired from OCB. Watch Tessa’s story as an employer and former client of OCB.


Turning the Tables: Reverse Job Fairs and Vocational Rehabilitation

What is a reverse job fair? How can reverse job fairs benefit job-seekers with disabilities and businesses? Are reverse job fairs replacing the traditional job fair model?

Watch this virtual panel on reverse job fairs to learn more about how three VR agencies implemented this model in their states.

Download Iowa Department for the Blind’s How-To Guide for Organizing a Reverse Career Fair.

For more information about reverse job fairs for VR, contact:


Key Players in Business Engagement

Robust employer engagement strategies should include a number of stakeholders in the conversation. Examples of key participants include the following:

  • Business and industry associations.
  • VR agencies.
  • Education entities or providers—K-12 schools, including elementary, middle and high schools; as well as career and technical education (sometimes called vocational schools), charter schools, and alternate high schools; and post-secondary institutions including community and technical colleges.
  • Workforce providers—career centers, workforce investment boards, community-based organizations that provide education, training, and support services to youth and adults.
  • Intermediaries—entities that bring together educational and/or workforce development organizations to undertake employer engagement with employers or employer associations.

Employer engagement can take place at local, regional, and national levels. Local VR providers need to engage directly in one-to-one relationships with employers to build effective partnerships. This local lens is far more effective at helping local businesses and job seekers have the best outcomes. However, national or regional trade/membership associations can be instrumental in providing guidance to their members on frameworks for participation and general industry information. These associations can also act as a facilitator or convener on a larger scale. Again, it is critical to identify and work with all of the key stakeholders in your area.

The National Employment Team (The NET) of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) is comprised of a single point of contact, often the Business Relations manager, from each state VR agency. This national network of the 80 public Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs supports a united or “one company” approach to working with business customers.

By connecting VR agencies to each other and to businesses, the NET offers the following benefits:

  • Business has direct access to a pool of qualified applicants and the support services provided by the public VR system and their partners
  • VR consumers have access to national employment opportunities and career development resources
  • VR agencies have a national system for sharing employment resources, best practices and business connections.

The NET: National Partnerships with Businesses

The National Employment Team (NET) is a network of business specialists representing each of the 80 public vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies. The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) provides the leadership and support for the NET. CSAVR’s Employment Committee creates a venue through which VR leaders can connect, share strategies, and align their approaches to working with businesses.

Based on feedback from businesses, and supported by the recent Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the NET focuses on building strategies and models across states to enable VR and its clients to meet the wide-ranging needs of businesses.

In 2020, the national public Vocational Rehabilitation system will celebrate its 100th year of existence. In honor of this milestone, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation launched “Vision 2020” a national and state level initiative designed to identify and create innovative practices to increase competitive integrated employment opportunities for VR customers. This initiative was informed by input gathered from internal and external customers, including business as well as stakeholders. Business Roundtables, hosted by businesses yielded the following information for Vision 2020: 

Download the Vision 2020 powerpoint presentation. 

This section of the toolkit presents several examples of the NET/VR’s work with businesses nationally. All of these involve a cross-state approach.


Starbucks and Nevada Vocational Rehabilitation formed a partnership supported by the NET that led to the development of the Inclusion Academy Model at the roasting plant in Carson Valley, Nevada. That model was then adopted and adjusted to fit the needs of the roasting plant in York, PA.

The NET points of contact and their business teams at the state level shared the curriculum across the state and worked with the Starbucks managers to provide the support services and employment talent needed. That model was recently modified to fit the retail side using the same approach as the Inclusion Academy in Maryland. 

Learn more about how Starbucks, Nevada’s VR agency, and The NET achieved employment success.


The NET/VR is working with a community partner, PROVAIL, on a project that recruits candidates on the autism spectrum. The initial strategy was developed in Washington State through a partnership with VR. The subsequent cohorts of candidates included individuals from across the country.

Microsoft, PROVAIL, and VR recruit candidates nationally, and candidates may self-identify for the program. Microsoft has supported internal training and staff support.

Microsoft covers the cost of travel, hotel, and per diem for a one-week working interview. PROVAIL provides on-the-job support and mentoring to candidates. The home VR agency of the candidate covers the cost of this support.

The Microsoft Autism Hiring program is an example of our targeted efforts to increase disability employment at Microsoft and beyond. The program consists of a comprehensive one-week interview academy, selection process, and subsequent guided onboarding program for both the new hire and his or her new manager.  We have hired 29 full time employees as part of our Autism Hiring program and we continue to share our learnings with other employers as they begin their own disability inclusion hiring programs.  Our strong partnership with PROVAIL and the NET/VR has been key to this program’s success.  

The Microsoft Supported Employment program is another example of our efforts in disability employment.  The Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities team works closely with our vendors on a programmatic approach to hiring and supporting people with developmental disabilities in the work environment.  Microsoft Supported Employment program in the Seattle-area has contributed to the employment of over 200 people with only 1% attrition. 

But, these aspirations require partnership with community organizations, private sector employers, public sector agencies, and the disability community. Together, we can re-invent the future of disability employment!  

Read Microsoft’s full statement in the Spring 2017 edition of CSAVR’s Investing in America


The Hershey model started at the company’s corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania. This model has moved via the NET’s connections and support to Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois. The information below describes the Hershey model as a VR-business partnership between the Hershey Company and the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.   

The partnership between the Pennsylvania VR agency and Hershey is a shining example of a successful supported employment model. Hershey started the collaboration by working with VR at the Y&S Candies plant in Lancaster County, PA. The company’s Abilities First in Manufacturing program was launched in 2012 as part of Hershey’s continuing commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Since then, the company has successfully partnered with local and state non-profits and government agencies in the locations where Hershey does business.

These partnerships create support networks with a single point of contact for each plant. The VR business specialist from Lancaster served as the single point of contact with the company, helping to coordinate job coaching support and training. This model has served as the basis for efforts at other facilities, which has resulted in a continued increase in diverse representation at Hershey’s plants.

Read The Hershey Company’s full statement in the Spring 2017 edition of CSAVR’s Investing in America.


CVS Health is the fastest growing healthcare provider in the U.S. Based in Rhode Island, it has operations across the country, including retail, pharmacy, health care clinics, and in-home services. They incorporate disability into their diversity vision, understanding that their workforce must reflect their customer base.

The NET has a long-standing partnership with CVS Health. The CVS team provided input in building the NET, including its infrastructure, strategies, and services to business.

The NET/VR partnership has included building a talent pipeline and meeting CVS Health’s employment needs through the training, support, and retention of candidates with disabilities, including veterans.

The NET has been working with CVS across their various business lines: retail, distribution, in-home care, and the Minute Clinics. This includes a pharmacy tech training program that has been developed through various models and locations, including in stores, in VR-operated training centers, in distribution centers, and with other partners.

Read CVS Health’s full statement in the Spring 2016 edition of CSAVR’s Investing in America.

HYATT: Hands On Educational Services Partnership

The NET/VR has had a partnership with Hyatt hotels and Hyatt’s training partner, Hands On Educational Services, for 18 years. This partnership began in Florida, when the executive director of Hands On Education met with the Hyatt to discuss their need for trained staff in culinary arts.

Hands On Education worked in partnership with the Hyatt to develop a two-week business-based training program in culinary arts, hosted at one of Hyatt’s Florida sites. This relationship expanded across Florida with the support of both Florida VR agencies: general and blind/vision loss.

As the NET developed in 2006, the CSAVR director of business relations began working with Hands On Education to explore opportunities for moving this model to other Hyatt hotels. The expansion began in the DC/MD/VA area, with the support of the CSAVR-NET, VR directors, and the Hyatt executive teams.

This business-based training model now exists in 12 states and 30 locations. The partnership has also expanded to other areas of the hospitality industry, including front desk/phone-based customer service, housekeeping, and laundry services.

Working with the business customer, Hands On Education staff provide training in each location, using the curriculum developed and supported by the Hyatt. The NET makes the connections and provides a consistent approach across states and across VR agencies.

Read more about Hyatt’s Hands On Educational Partnership.

For more information, please contact:
Kathy West-Evans, Director of Business Relations, CSAVR
Phone: 206.999.9455
Fax: 866.322.4434

The NET vision statement: To create a coordinated approach to serving business customers through a national VR team that specializes in employer development, business consulting and corporate relations.

VR Partnerships with Local Organizations

Employer engagement can take place at local, regional, and national levels. Local VR providers need to engage directly in a one-to-one relationship with employers, so this local lens is far more effective at helping businesses and job seekers have the best outcomes.

However, national or regional trade/membership associations can be instrumental in providing guidance to their members. These larger groups can provide frameworks for participation and general industry information, or can act as a facilitator or convener on a larger scale.

As always, it is critical to identify and work with all of the key stakeholders in your area.

The following tables summarize the critical types of locally accessible organizations that can help state VR agencies with business engagement:   

Organization: Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs)

Overview role of the organization

WIBs ensure that the workforce system is focusing on the regional economy. Each state is divided into one or more workforce areas, controlled by a local WIB. These boards also determine One-Stop Career Center operations.

Diverse workforce interest of the org

Any initiatives on behalf of people with disabilities vary significantly region by region.

Potential VR partnership advantages

Under WIOA, VR remains a mandatory partner on state and local workforce boards. However, local boards will now be smaller, and will play a potentially critical advisory role (via committee) to job centers re: services to person with disabilities.

Key tactics for engaging this stakeholder

  • Collaborate with WIB in development of WIOA unified strategic plan
  • Create regional and local sector initiatives
Organization: One-Stop Career Centers /American Job Centers (AJCs)

Overview role of the organization

The AJCs are designed to be a one-stop system located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. One-Stop Career Centers place a multitude of resources for businesses and job seekers under one roof.

Diverse workforce interest of the org

The One-Stop system was created by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) to provide universal access to all job seekers and employers who want information, counseling, and help in finding education, jobs, and job training. It is intended to meet the needs of a diverse range of individuals, including people with disabilities.

Potential VR partnership advantages

  • Coordination with AJC business specialists in activities such as job fairs.
  • Opportunity to assist AJC in making resources and services accessible to job seekers with disabilities.
  • Increased awareness and use of Partnership Plus under the Ticket to Work program.
  • Access to state and local labor market information.

Key tactics for engaging this stakeholder

  • Where possible, co-location allows both formal and informal sharing of information and resources.
  • Cost-share plans are required by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and show VR’s commitment to collaboration.
  • Invest time to develop relationships on the local level.
Organization: Community Colleges

Overview role of the organization

Most community colleges have commitments to:

  • Serve all segments of society through an open-access admissions policy
  • Offer equal and fair treatment to all students
  • Provide a comprehensive educational program
  • Serve as a community-based institution of higher education and provide opportunities for lifelong learning

Diverse workforce interest of the org

  • A significant percentage of community college students are persons with disabilities (12% according to a 2014 report).
  • Diversity in the student body can also help colleges’ overall recruiting efforts.
  • Students with disabilities represent an important revenue source through access to tuition funding programs.

Potential VR partnership advantages

  • Many colleges have existing partnerships with businesses and business organizations that can aid both in VR’s business outreach efforts and in job placement for VR participants.
  • Community college certificate or degree programs can enhance the employability of VR participants. Some programs are directly related to needs in the local labor market.


Key tactics for engaging this stakeholder

  • State VR agencies can help colleges with assessments, accommodations, and other costs that can be associated with enrolling individuals with disabilities.
  • Enrolling people with disabilities provides colleges with a larger talent pool, enhancing their efforts to meet the needs of local businesses.
  • Partnering with VR can help increase the services available to college disability services staff, and help increase the knowledge and skills of faculty and staff who work with persons with disabilities.
Organization:  Community Rehabilitation Programs (CRPs)

Overview role of the organization

Many CRPs (although not all) are well connected in the business community, and have long-standing relationships with local employers. In some ways, CRPs compete with VR for business partnerships. Since the CRP job developer/coach has the most contact with the employer and often will continue to provide support beyond the VR contract, sometimes VR is never even mentioned or credited as a partner.

Diverse workforce interest of the org

CRPs generally focus on assisting people with disabilities in employment, though some also serve individuals with other employment barriers.

Potential VR partnership advantages

  • Allows VR agencies to use resources that are also supported by other funding sources like Medicaid waiver dollars. 
  • Can minimize VR’s financial risk, especially when using milestone and outcome payment systems.
  • Allows VR to take advantage of the CRP’s relationships with the local business community.


Key tactics for engaging this stakeholder

  • Coordination of business engagement activities and shared leads.
  • Payment structures that encourage desired outcomes (e.g., bonuses for full-time work, benefits, quick placement).
  • Understanding of/respect for the CRP’s need to balance fulfilling its mission and remaining financially solvent.
Organization: Trade Associations

Overview role of the organization

Trade associations are voluntary associations of firms organized based on geography or industry. For example regional and local chambers of commerce and state and regional sector-based industry associations.

Diverse workforce interest of the org

  • Addressing their workforce needs.
  • Partnerships that can help their members comply with non-discrimination regulations.
  • Commitment to social responsibility.

Potential VR partnership advantages

Developing strong collaborations with trade associations can help state VR agencies access and ultimately develop relationships with the businesses these associations represent in their state or region.  Associations can help link state VR agencies with their members in a number of ways, from providing information on state VR agencies to their members through outreach events, introducing state VR agencies to individual firms that can serve as “employer champions” for efforts with persons with disabilities, and working with state VR agencies and a select group of employer members to launch a targeted workforce initiative.


Key tactics for engaging this stakeholder

  • Assessing the job opportunities in demand in their industry or geographic area by using both traditional labor market information (LMI) and real-time LMI, if available.
  • Identifying trade associations that represent the employers for key in-demand occupations in their service area.
  • Researching the priorities and current initiatives of these associations, and identifying potential areas for partnership that benefit the association and its members. 
  • Looking for networking contacts within the state VR agency.