Engineered Employment: An Inadequate Solution for Adult Joblessness and Student Transition

Dale, come see our great recycling program! Check out our cleaning crew! We run a bakery that our special ed students all work at!

Over the past 30 plus years of providing consultation and training to agencies and schools on the employment of people with disabilities, I have visited employment programs in 49 states and evaluated many program “models.” Most of these revolved around one idea to solve unemployment in that region. This idea was usually based on a single business model – selling muffins, recycling trash (seen hundreds of these!), manufacturing something, producing crafts, running a cleaning business, and the like.

Generally, the agencies are quite proud of their progressiveness. They point out that people are doing real work for real wages. Some businesses even make money (although rare, and usually only because of subsidies). The even have progressive sounding terms for this – affirmative business, social entrepreneurism, or social enterprise. Labeling things to dress them up is something we are good at in disability services.

And, compared to a sheltered workshop or “day treatment,” these kind of engineered employment solutions look good on the surface. But they are deeply flawed on many levels.

When I was the executive director of an agency in the 1980s, I inherited a program that was a functioning restaurant. It purportedly prepared people to go into the food service field. Folks came from all over to tour the facilities and view our “innovative program.” However, my experience with the program was:
1. Only a few people we served were really interested in restaurant work. Fewer got sustainable jobs after their training.
2. The business demanded an enormous amount of our staff time and resources.
3. The local restaurants we were purporting to provide trained labor to also perceived the restaurant as subsidized competition, and rightly so.

Ultimately, I concluded it was mostly a major distraction from our mission of making good matches between all of our workers and businesses or market needs. I decided that if we were going to be involved in business start-ups, it would be those business models that come from the interests of people we served, who would own them themselves with our help. For the few people who wanted restaurant training, we would work with the community college to obtain culinary education or create training opportunities in the existing restaurants in our area.

Ultimately, I found that you have to solve unemployment using a method that was driven by job seeker skills and interests first, then building networks out to the local community to serve it. Engineered businesses wrongly use the reverse approach. They start with a business, presume most everyone they serve will be good at and enjoy the work, and then often compete with the very companies they then try to place people in, when outside placement is even a goal. In many, lifelong employment by people with disabilities is expected there. And so much energy is taken with making the business viable, there is little time left for considering what else people might be better off doing!

Imposing group employment on people to solve their lack of jobs is a generally poor strategy. Running agency-owned businesses distracts your focus on serving the needs of the labor market and focusing on individuals. It restricts employment to only those jobs you have managed to engineer – and too often these are stereotypical jobs like cleaning and recycling garbage. People with disabilities deserve better and broader options. We should not get caught up in our own ideas and models.

A recent example of this came to light in British Columbia, where students with disabilities were seen rummaging through garbage cans at school, in front of their non-disabled peers, to recycle as part of their “transition training.” It illustrates my point. See the article.

The only recent analysis on social enterprise I found was a 2007 field review by the Seedco Policy Center. They concluded: “…we found that non-profits driven to meet a ‘double bottom’ line for customers and clients have far more typically led to frustration and failure, drawing attention and resources away from the organization’s core work — and that even the oft-cited success stories are less cut-and-dried than they appear.” They found a large ultimate failure rate, and noted that non-profits, unlike real businesses, had much more difficulty “letting go.”

I know not all engineered models look like this Vancouver example. And in some low employment regions, engineered employment will look enticing. Many agencies work hard to develop these engineered jobs, and I think these programs are well-meaning. But that doesn’t mean they are a cost-effective use of our government resources. They still involve congregation of people with disabilities, limited choice, and a movement of time and funding away from your prime mission.

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September 22, 2011
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