I am forgetful of the title of the National Council for Intellectual Disabilities journal. I worte this for it, and it's in this month's edition:
NOVA Employment: Opportunities abound to maximise the employment potential of people with intellectual disability.
Chief Executive Officer
NOVA, New South Wales & Queensland
What's wrong with him then?
Those were the words that began my first ever interview with an employer in my role as an Employment Consultant with NOVA Employment. I should add that at the beginning of 1990 I was also NOVA's manager, secretary, office cleaner, lawn mower, chief cook and bottle washer.
What was wrong with the job seeker for whom I looked for work?
He has intellectual disability, and 18 years ago, employers were under exposed to the ability and value such workers offered their businesses. In the time that has passed since my first interview a lot of things have changed.
This is an abridged history of what happened since that first interview and highlights some of the remarkable achievements of the more than 6000 people for whom we've found work.
NOVA's first permanent office was a small house very generously provided by Penrith City Council. After a couple of months I was joined by a second worker, Michelle Fisher and a month or so later by Janel Collins.
None of us knew much about the best process for achieving success in open employment and, at the time, there wasn't a whole lot of information or expertise that we could call on. Our program at St Mary's in Sydney's western suburbs was one of only a handful scattered around NSW.
We set out to meet the other service providers and learn as much as we could from their experience and ideas for the best way to help young people (they were our target group) with intellectual disability find and keep award wage work.
I was fortunate to meet some inspirational people and am still grateful to Pamela Dennis (sadly deceased), Gail Jeltes, Chris Lewis and Amanda Calwell-Smith - all pioneers in open employment. Each of these ladies freely gave their time, ideas and resources to me and I 'borrowed' mercilessly! Pamela ran METS (Macquarie Employment & Training Services) and introduced me to the concept of structured pre-employment training and preparation and helped me design some really important pre-employment health and safety training. Gail was at SydWest and freely gave us the paperwork associated with assessment and registration of potential jobseekers.
Chris Lewis (Castle Personnel at Newcastle) introduced me to the idea of partnering with larger business, an idea further developed in discussion with Amanda Calwell Smith (Essential personnel) who had formed a partnership with BHP to employer people with intellectual disability in Wollongong.
I am truly grateful to the unselfish way each of these ladies shared their ideas, experience and resources with me - they realised that we are not and never would be in competition - demand will always outstrip supply and they are the reason we still give our material away at no charge.
In 1990 we were able to experiment with many different ways of achieving our goal, which was essentially: get the best pay and conditions for school leavers and set them up for their future careers and independence. Along this path NOVA tried enclaves, work crews and supporting self-employed workers to run their own small business.
While each method had some advantage there was a clear international trend toward the idea of open employment as we know it today and by the middle of 1991 NOVA had moved to the model we still practice: identify a person's abilities and aspiration, match these with an employer job offer and then provide post placement support that will eventually enable the new worker to achieve independence.
Personally, I enjoyed the work crew and enclave models we developed. We might still be operating them if I had not met with an American pioneer of open employment - Cathy Shaeffer. Cathy had been brought over by the State Department of Education Employment and Training. She took one look at what we were doing and said in a Texas drawl, 'you're having fun, but you are working with a flawed model'. While I hated to hear her words the explanation was undeniable - we were taking students from school, moving them to a training program and then moving them from that training program to training in the workplace - open employment.
The middle step, the enclave/work crew was a needless repetition and a waste of resource. Cathy encouraged us to abandon them (which we did reluctantly) and go for the end result, open employment in a job of personal interest and choice at award wage. NOVA Employment & Training Program Inc was born.
There is an important difference between the way of finding work we now operate under and that traditionally offered by recruitment agencies. I believe this difference is critical when working with people who have intellectual disability.
Non specialist recruitment agencies approach employers and say, 'do you have a vacancy?' They then match vacancies against their pool of applicants and send the best fit for interview. For success in long term job retention, (and that's what we want), we've found that it is much better to have a good understanding of the ability of our job seekers and an idea of where we may need to offer extra support, couple this with their individual interests and career goals, and then look for an employer who can meet these needs. This Job Match model enables us to achieve excellent long term employment for our job seekers.
This success was recognised early in our program's history and we were rewarded with growth. In 1991 NOVA opened premises in Richmond. This was followed by further expansion to Blacktown, Miranda, Hurstville, Katoomba, Penrith, Taree, Port Macquarie, Tuncurry, Walgett, Broken Hill and Logan in Queensland. We also opened a program that initially catered only for the Deaf at Campbelltown, (although today, this service supports all disability groups). In recent times we have been asked to also support job seekers across Far Western NSW including Cobar, Nyngan, Bourke and Brewarrina.
I'd like to be able to show you some of the many job seekers we've assisted into work and, if you have access to the internet, you can meet some at: http://www.transition.com.au. This video shows some of the young people who have come to us for employment assistance. The film was made about 18 months ago and all are now working.
What sort of jobs?
Well, McDonalds is shown in the video and this young lady is working there 4 days a week. Our other workers are employed at a golf course, for a plant hire company and in a registered club.
Outside of these 4 workers we have found employment in practically every type of work and with an enormous range of employers from some of Australia's largest - Qantas, Westpac, BHP, Telstra - through to sole traders. Our experience demonstrates that people with intellectual disability are able to offer employer's value for money in settings as diverse as Menindee sheep stations to Sydney Ferries.
How much money?
Each employee earns either the award wage or are working under the supported wage system. Average wages for all workers with an intellectual disability are $311 per week.
How many hours a week?
In the selection of workers shown in the video, only 1 person is working full time. However, our aim is to achieve full time employment wherever that's the wish of the job seeker. Physical limitation, personal choice and career choice opportunities are the only limiting factors. Average hours worked per week for all workers with an intellectual disability are 22.5.
How long do NOVA workers stay employed?
We aim for long term job retention and try to find positions that offer stability and career development. Several people placed in our first year are still employed. Our retention rates (measured over a 12 month period range from 100% of all workers to a low of 65% - however, it is important to note that we place considerable emphasis on ensuring workers who become unemployed are a propriety for placement in second positions).
Why choose open employment (for potential workers and those that care for them)?
Work is life defining. We are asked as children, 'What do you want to be?' as an introduction to strangers, 'What do you do?' and even after death our lives are frequently described through previous employment.
Unemployment is stigmatising and wasteful. Work brings friendships, income and opportunity.
With appropriate support from qualified and experienced staff, profound barriers to work can be overcome. There are thousands of examples of what can be achieved with application and desire - you can read about them at our website: www.novaemployment.com.au and you can see successful workers in the video stories on our sites.
Why choose open employment (for employers)?
This is a 'no-brainer' - if we can show you that for every dollar you put in you'll get a dollar plus back, why wouldn't you employ a person with disability? In thousands of settings for the best part of twenty years NOVA Employment has provided employers with workers who not only do the job but provide an excellent return on investment, both in productivity and as part of your team.
We have come a long way over the past twenty years. Before my employment with NOVA I worked for NSW TAFE in the western Sydney disability unit. The young men and women we gave vocational skill to before programs like NOVA existed lost those skills and either went to sheltered workshops or marked time at home.
Today skills and careers can be developed and opportunities abound to maximise the employment potential of people with intellectual disability.
NOVA Employment finds work for 2 people every working day. The majority of these workers have an intellectual disability. Open employment may be seen as 'aiming high' - great! You can always come down. If you aim low your chances of moving up are slim.
My program benefited from the free exchange of knowledge and experience I described above. Since then we have always shared freely our information, experience and knowledge and have been recognised internationally for doing so. If you would like to know more, see how open employment works and whether it might work for you, have a sift through our web site (this is a polite way of saying it's not always well ordered), or call either myself or a local NOVA office ¨C there are no dumb questions and we aren't so busy we won't help.
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