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Business Engagement Blog

We are the champions: Businesses show what individuals with disabilities bring to the workforce
By Nate Mahanes

 What is a champion? The dictionary defines it as “a person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.” Champions are usually thought of as selfless individuals who put others before themselves. However, when asked, most will tell you that they benefited as much, if not more than those they serve. I’m not just talking about the “warm fuzzies” here, I’m talking about the bottom line.

One out of five Americans has a disability, and individuals with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the workforce. Experienced human resource and talent acquisition managers recognize the wealth of untapped talent available to their businesses when they recruit diverse talent and create opportunities to employ individuals with disabilities.

When they do, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services is here to assist those businesses with things such as recruitment, pre-screening and placement, on-the-job training opportunities, tax incentives, pre-employment internships or unpaid work experiences, worksite accessibility, assistive technology, and workplace accommodations that help maximize employee productivity and efficiency.

Each year DARS recognizes individuals and organizations throughout Virginia who have proven themselves to be Champions of Disability Employment because of their contributions towards reducing barriers to employment and promoting the value that individuals with disabilities bring to the workforce. We are proud to celebrate our 2018 class of Champion partners. We invite you to contact your area Business Development Manager to learn how your business can make this list.

2018 Champions of Disability Employment:

ARAMARK – Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Health
AmeriCare Plus, Orange
Masco Cabinetry, Culpeper
Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services
City Table, Petersburg
Lowe’s, Chester
Hooter’s, Chester
Randstad, Disputanta
Standard Motor Products, Disputanta

Army & Air Force Exchange Service, Newport News
James River Grounds Management, Portsmouth
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Virginia Beach
Piccadilly Cafeteria, Newport News
PORTCO Inc., Portsmouth
Uncle Dave’s Kettle Korn, Williamsburg
Winchester Medical Center
Lowe’s of Fredericksburg

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Workplace accommodations are low cost or no cost
By Betsy C. McElfresh

 When hiring an individual with a disability, many businesses equate job accommodations with high costs.

Since 2004, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has surveyed employers who have contacted them for guidance about workplace accommodations or the Americans with Disabilities Act. The survey results found that workplace accommodations not only are low cost, but also positively impact the workplace in many ways.

Employers reported that providing accommodations resulted in benefits such as retaining valuable employees, improving productivity and morale, reducing workers’ compensation and training costs, and improving company diversity. 

More importantly, a majority (59 percent) of employers said that accommodations cost nothing to make, while other accommodations typically cost only $500.

Workplace accommodations can be adaptive equipment, such as a modified desk or chair, or assistive technology, such as a specialized keyboard or mouse or computer software. Many workplaces are already equipped with similar AT.

"An accommodation is considered any change in the way tasks are normally done to allow an individual with a disability to participate fully in applying for and performing a job,” said John Allen, DARS occupational therapist. "It could be a request to alter a work schedule or use a private bathroom." 

DARS' rehabilitation technology team consists of occupational therapists, assistive technology specialists and rehabilitation engineers. Our business services team seeks their expertise to support businesses with questions on accommodating employees or making their workplace more accessible. 

If any of your employees need more comprehensive services, they can apply for DARS vocational rehabilitation services.

Technology has become cheaper and more readily available. Employees can use existing smartphones to enlarge text, invert colors, magnify objects using the built-in camera or convert speech-to-text or text-to-speech.

Numerous smartphone "apps" are available that can help employees perform their daily job tasks and make them more productive, including calendars, checklists or reminders.

The Virginia Assistive Technology System can provide loaner equipment to an employee as a short-term accommodation to "try before you buy" or aid in your decision making. For more information about VATS, visit www.vats.org.

Contact the Business Development Manager in your region to assist you in finding cost effective solutions for your accommodation needs.  

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All hands on deck to help diversify Newport News Shipbuilding
By Betsy C. McElfresh

 After five years of building a relationship, DARS has placed 10 employees in various jobs with Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. The largest industrial employer in Virginia, NNS has more than 20,000 employees at its facility.

When Parnetha Callahan came on board as a strategic recruiter for NNS, she saw the company lacked a program that supported the hiring of individuals with disabilities, so she helped to create one. Her goal was to create a network within the disability community and put in place a talent pipeline of qualified job candidates.

Callahan reached out to DARS Business Development Manager Melissa Edmonds and asked her to round up other organizations in the disability community. Edmonds invited representatives from the Departments for the Blind and Vision Impaired and Veteran Services and employment service organizations such as VersAbility, the Choice Group and Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia.

Callahan coordinated a day of activities for the group, including a tour and introduction to NNS, which spans more than 500 acres. The event’s success led to further services provided by DARS, such as disability sensitivity training for NNS’ human resources staff and mid-level managers.

In 2017, four youth with disabilities participated in NNS’ ABILITY summer internship program, which opened the door for future interns. Two interns received job offers and two other participants returned as interns. In 2018, six interns completed the 40 hours a week, 10-week program.

Callahan calls Edmonds "the unofficial employee of the shipyard" because she has been an invaluable resource in supplying job candidates and services. The relationship has been mutually beneficial. The HR team held informational sessions with DARS clients and counselors on using their website to set up job alerts and apply for jobs.

Representatives from NNS toured Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center and are interested in the center’s graduates for their trades jobs, especially from the materials handling, logistics and manufacturing programs. NNS also offers an apprenticeship school for positions such as welders, pipefitters and designers.

DARS is grateful for this partnership and honored NNS as a 2017 Champion of Disability Employment at its event in Hampton (pictured above).

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DARS celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month
By Betsy C. McElfresh

 The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy annually recognizes October as National Disability Employment Awareness to educate about disability employment issues and celebrate the contributions of America's workers with disabilities. This year's theme is "America’s Workforce: Empowering All."

"Smart employers know that including different perspectives in problem-solving situations leads to better solutions. Hiring employees with diverse abilities strengthens their business, increases competition and drives innovation," said U.S. Sec. of Labor Alexander Acosta. The true spirit of the theme lies in the many observances at the grassroots level across Virginia each year.

DARS' “Champions of Disability Employment” awards programs, held across the Commonwealth, gather hiring managers, community leaders and decision makers to celebrate the skills and talents of people with disabilities and increase the overall awareness of disability employment in Virginia.

Since its inception in 2006, DARS has recognized several hundred recipients. Former Gov. Tim Kaine was honored as the first Champion for his work and support of Virginia’s Medicaid Buy-In Program. Other past honorees include The Hershey Co., Lowe's, Amazon, CVS Health, Busch Gardens, Newport News Shipbuilding, the Federal Reserve Bank and many other organizations.

The awards also acknowledge individuals who have overcome the challenges of their disability to build or retain meaningful careers. This year, the DARS consumers honored include Chris Hall, who earned multiple certifications and a pre-apprenticeship through the Manufacturing Technology Training program at Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. He now works as a registered apprentice at The Hershey Co.'s facility in Stuarts Draft.

As employers continue to face an aging and retiring workforce, DARS remains dedicated to building and maintaining solid partnerships with business partners. DARS provides the support and resources necessary to not only meet the vocational needs of Virginians with disabilities but also the demands of a changing economy and adapting workforce.  

Read the proclamation issued by Gov. Ralph S. Northam recognizing Disability Employment Awareness Month.

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DARS Job Fairs are Win-Win Opportunities
By LaPearl Smith

 DARS' offices in Northern Virginia were busy this spring organizing job fairs. The agency-sponsored job fairs have proven to be a valuable investment for area businesses and the DARS workforce staff and have helped numerous DARS clients with diverse abilities go to work.

The Northern Virginia district job fair included 17 businesses and 85 job seekers from DARS, DBVI and other Employment Service Organization partners. Panera Bread held preliminary interviews that day and scheduled candidates for in-store interviews the following week. They hired six candidates as a result of this job fair. Business representatives were impressed with the presentation and preparedness of the job seekers. DARS staff benefitted from interacting with businesses and gathering information about jobs to share with other DARS job candidates.

The DARS Culpeper office partnered with the Virginia Employment Commission and Rappahannock Goodwill Industries to sponsor a healthcare job fair. Ten healthcare-related businesses participated. Again, several candidates were interviewed on the spot or scheduled for future interviews that resulted in several job offers. Businesses raved at how organized the event was and how well the candidates presented themselves.

The Fredericksburg office hosted a job fair that included 12 area businesses and nearly 60 job seekers. Panera Bread had such a positive experience at the Northern Virginia job fair, its Fredericksburg location participated and scheduled six candidates for interviews. Sodexo Food Service at University of Mary Washington also scheduled several candidates for job interviews.

For our DARS job candidates, these agency-hosted events mean more personalized conversations in a less intimidating environment. For businesses that are actively recruiting persons with diverse abilities, it is an opportunity to proactively engage and hire those candidates. For DARS staff, it is beneficial to engage with multiple businesses at one venue and shows our candidates that we are supporting their job search.

Successful business engagement requires creating opportunities that directly connect our job seekers with the business community. The result is a trifecta - a win for employers, a win for our candidates and a win for our agency. 

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Manufacturing business is booming in Southwest Virginia
By Peggy Hurley

 When I started as a Business Development Manager for DARS in 2015 covering Southwest Virginia from Wytheville to Bristol, I set a goal of visiting every manufacturing facility in the region (of which there are at least 100!).

At the time, Gov. McAuliffe had issued Executive Order 46, supporting Virginians with disabilities “to find career pathways through education and training that lead to full-time, competitively waged jobs.” I was determined to discover the wealth of manufacturing job opportunities in the region while educating these companies about hiring individuals with disabilities. 

Meanwhile, the Southwest Virginia Alliance for Manufacturing expanded, collaborating with our business services team, which is comprised of workforce and economic development professionals, chambers of commerce, state college systems and businesses. We share the common goal of supporting our local businesses in finding qualified job candidates to meet their hiring needs through recruiting, education and training.

I invited members of the Business Services team to join me on these tours. The first tour was at GE Aviation in nearby West Jefferson, N.C., which had just announced the addition of 105 new manufacturing jobs.

Universal Fibers was the second and largest tour, with 40 people in tow. This high-tech manufacturer wowed us with its unique color-dyeing process that spins fibers into exclusive products such as carpets for classic Corvettes and Disney cruise ships, the PINK apparel line of Victoria Secret, and dental floss for Johnson & Johnson.  

The host of another tour, Tempur-Pedic, produces its signature mattresses and pillows in Duffield. During this visit, we got a glimpse of this massive production of specialty foam – originally designed by NASA to cushion aircraft seats – that measured hundreds of yards long. The pillows are shaped in a machine resembling a huge sandwich press and then cut with 6-foot blades.

Touring Gatorade’s bottling and distribution facility in Wytheville was another visual feast. The production process resembled a rainbow of liquid spinning like tornadoes through clear tubes lining the walls. The bottles are made by another manufacturer – Amcor – adjacent to Gatorade and shuttled to the plant for filling.

How have these tours paid off for our job candidates? Universal Fibers has hired four people, including one client who attended DARS’ Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities manufacturing academy. Somic America has also hired two job candidates.

In the long-term, these tours laid the groundwork for increasing awareness of DARS’ Business Services, CPID’s manufacturing academies and the manufacturing training program at DARS’ Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville – all important resources for a pipeline of talent.


Peggy Hurley has started a new job at the Virginia Employment Commission, but will continue to work with DARS on business services efforts in the Southwest region.   

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