Wednesday Jun 22, 2022

DDA Talks to Delia Meinhardt, Assistant Director of Employment with Jobs West

Finding a job is a dauting experience for anyone. Now, imagine having a developmental disability. There are many barriers that can prevent you from finding work and gaining independence. Fortunately, there are people like Delia Meinhardt who helps run DDA's social enterprise operation, Jobs West.



Evan Kelly  0:05  
So welcome to Developmental Disabilities Association's Encouraging Abilities podcast. Joining us today is Delia Meinhardt. Now Delia is the Assistant Director of Employment Services at Jobs West. Now, if you don't know what that is, that is one of DDA's social enterprise operations. Jobs West is an employment service that connects clients with developmental disabilities with employers to help the client find and keep a job but also works with the employer to ensure success of the program. Job West fosters inclusion, community and independence for its clients. Part of that success, of course, is ensuring accessibility for everyone involved. So thanks for joining us today, Delia. Now, can you take us through the process of finding a client and getting them a job, sort of, you know, if you're gonna bridge it sort of start from finished?

Delia Meinhardt  0:54  
Yeah, sure. So our client referrals come to us through government programs, such as Community Living British Columbia and work BC employment services. We also find potential clients when we're in the community presenting to local high schools and colleges, we will support them with accessing our service. So before our client can get a job, what we do is we do some prep work with them. So we take the time to discover the person's skills and abilities. Identify what type of environments are ideal. So for example, do they prefer to work independently versus within a team? Do they want to work outside versus inside? We assess work skills, provide skills training, and clients attend implement workshops. Workshops, such as how to write a professional resume, ways to ace an interview, dress to impress, how best to communicate with your colleagues, time management, and what are implement standards. After that we move into placement. We encourage clients to participate in informational interviews. So for those that aren't familiar with us, we schedule a time to meet an employer at the worksite to discuss their business, the industry, what skills are required for a specific position. If it's possible, we ask for a tour of the job site. This gives a chance for the client to see the site and whether it's an environment they would like to work at. Our staff meets with employers and discuss their current business needs. And we specialize in customized employment, which is customizing an existing position within a company as well as creating a new position. So for example, of how this can be a benefit for business, would be an employee in a management position, spending their majority of their time inputting data, compiling information or researching. All of those previous mentioned tasks could be allocated to a client freeing the manager to focus on high level business, rather than entry level tasks. Once a client is placed, we provide on site job training, assist with workplace accommodations if necessary. Once a client is fairly independent, we fade our support to follow up supports, which can look like check ins once a week, once a month, once every quarter. If there is retraining required or the job description changed due to promotion or restructure within the business, our staff can step right back in and support the client... support of the client and employer.

Evan Kelly  3:11  
Sounds really good. So how many different businesses does Jobs West work with currently?

Delia Meinhardt  3:16  
Yeah, so this number kind of changes daily. Everyday we work with employers, whether it's to develop a new position within the company, provide disability awareness or diversity and inclusion workshops. So for example, like last year, we placed 174 clients in businesses.

Evan Kelly  3:31  
Wow. Now, what's the process for outreach to businesses? Do you look for specific sectors? Or are there some styles or businesses that are easier to work with than others?

Delia Meinhardt  3:42  
Yeah, so our staff tend to not necessarily look for specific positions or sectors. We meet with businesses to understand their business needs and see if we can provide a solution. So our staff are pounding the pavement knocking on business doors, they are tasked to develop business relationships with employers. So we're looking for entry level positions where businesses typically have high turnover in these positions.

Evan Kelly  4:07  
Now clients, obviously, some of our clients, or your clients rather, have some very specific and individual needs. How do you ensure accessibility at a workplace? Is there a process that Jobs West goes through or a level of compliance that a business must have in place?

Delia Meinhardt  4:21  
Yeah, so when a client starts work, or even before they start work, our staff goes into the business and kind of, kind of speak with the team and management and kind of get a tour of the site to ensure that the site itself is accessible. So accessibility is more than just ramps and large print monitors, although those are common things that make life easier for people. Accessibility is also about attitude and what a person can do versus what they cannot and many small changes for example, like a one hour difference in start time can be really meaningful to someone. So for myself as the employer at Starworks packaging and assembly, we know what it's like to employ people with diverse abilities. Not everyone fits a Monday to Friday nine to five, we have flexible scheduling, allowing part time work and break periods where someone may not be available due to a mental health crisis. Even at Starworks, we use talk to text technology for those with hearing impairments. So something that you and I may take for granted would be starting new job, and successfully complete orientation. We have supported many employers to revise their orientation handbook, so it is more accessible for everyone. So we will revise the document. So it's in plain language minus all the jargon.

Evan Kelly  5:36  
So how much of the onus is on the employer to ensure accessibility? How much is on Jobs West, is there more of a sort of a team effort?

Delia Meinhardt  5:43  
Yeah, no, definitely, I would say team effort, I guess the duty to accommodate and ensure accessibility. It is teamwork, but it's mainly the business, they have to ensure that they are being inclusive, and they're allowing workers to participate fully. Employers should make every effort to be more accessible. Unfortunately, without disclosing a need for accommodations, sometimes employers won't likely provide those tools. So as part of our services, we can assist in making things more accessible, or even applying for accessibility and accommodation grants to tweak someone's workspace.

Evan Kelly  6:17  
Also, the grants, okay, so what are some sort of common issues that you face with employers in terms of accessibility? And how did you overcome that?

Delia Meinhardt  6:24  
Yeah, so many employers that we work with or start the conversation about our services have no understanding or knowledge about the population we work with. So part of our role is to provide the information and educate them on what accessibility looks like. So for example, let's talk about the interview process with a potential hire. Before the applicant comes into the office, are we asking them if accommodations are required? Is interview location at an accessible location? So are we looking at lighting, so I myself do not necessarily like sitting under a fluorescent light. Are there even any physical barriers for the person coming into the office? Employers should stick to using common use words and stay away from jargon. So shorter sentences using active voice rather than passive, ask skill based questions rather than complicated behavioral questions. There are alternatives for individuals who may struggle to verbalize their experience and skills. So what we love to do is a working interview. So the client tries out the job for a couple hours. This gives the opportunity for the client to understand the job and gives the employer the opportunity to identify if the client has skills to meet the minimum requirements. Another thing we do is we do a lot of unpaid work experience, this can be a multi day trial of the job to ensure an employee match or a wage subsidy to support with training and accommodations are required. A lot of our employers are hesitant to provide accommodations, they believe it will cost 1000s of dollars, in actuality, the cost is actually less than $500. So most times this can be covered through assistive technology funds.

Evan Kelly  7:58  
Now that was you know, so that was my next question. So do you find most employers are relatively easy to deal with in terms of getting employees in place and doing the job?

Delia Meinhardt  8:06  
Yeah, so for many of our first time employers, it's a new experience, one that they are kind of uncertain about. So as part of our service, we support employers with next steps: how to place an individual's diverse needs in their company. We spend time educating employers, we hope the message stream down from top to frontline staff, with open communication and similar views on outcomes, it can be a success.

Evan Kelly  8:28  
Now, what about, you know, typically developed employees? Do you see any issues sometimes there? Or do you find most people are accepting and welcoming of people with neurodiverse needs at work?

Delia Meinhardt  8:40  
I myself don't generally see an issue. I see people who are unsure and don't have much exposure to some of the folks we work with. So with time the employees recognize that the individual is contributing to the workforce, just like them, they have a role to fulfill. So what we see most often is there is at least one person on each team that has a friend or family member with a disability. We identify these individuals and teams and really champion them. They are the individuals who know that people with diverse needs have something to offer. And we see team morale increase, we even see employees adopting training materials that we put in place.

Evan Kelly  9:18  
Yeah, absolutely. Now, moving on to the Employer of the Year, each year we give out this Employer of the Year Award, or rather Jobs West does, what does an employer have to show to earn that level of recognition given that we've got, you know, dozens of employers?

Delia Meinhardt  9:33  
Yeah, so Disability Employment Month in British Columbia is in September, and we present an employer with the award as you mentioned, it's always difficult to narrow down because we work with a lot of incredible employers. We look for someone that has committed to an inclusive workforce. Willing to champion this partnership with Jobs West, and understanding that hiring someone with a diverse pool of talent is not charity, but it is a business need.

Evan Kelly  10:01  
Now you mentioned your 177 people you found jobs for in the past year? 

Delia Meinhardt  10:07  
Very close 174. 

Evan Kelly  10:10  
Is that a good year? Or is that a sort of an average year for Jobs West?

Delia Meinhardt  10:13  
It's our best year over the last 10 years. We had a little dip when pandemic started. But it's just gone up. And even during the pandemic, we got creative with businesses and created and carved new positions that really spoke about high touch areas, sanitization, really catering to those needs.

Evan Kelly  10:35  
So, I mean, from your perspective, is this is this sort of a growth industry? You're seeing growth, just sort of every year in the work you do?

Delia Meinhardt  10:42  
Yes. 100% I think right now. It's definitely a job seeker market. I think we have a diverse pool of individuals who have  skills to contribute. So it definitely is growing.

Evan Kelly  10:58  
That's amazing. And we know through research that having a neurodiverse staff, as you've mentioned, is good for a lot of reasons for morale. We know, the neurodiversity community are very, very hard working and very attentive, employee retention actually gets better, which all helps keep costs down and more. So do you see this reflected in the work that you do?

Delia Meinhardt  11:18  
Yes, absolutely. Our clients who seek those entry level positions are loyal. They are longtime employees who bring commitment to their positions. For example, this year, we're celebrating a couple of big milestones. One individual who works at a local community center celebrating 10 years and another working at a Vancouver sports team is celebrating 15 years. We pre-screen applicants for employers, we can essentially be their HR department, employees tell us what they are looking for, and we find that for them. Another benefit as a company, you could be demonstrating corporate social responsibility by promoting diversity in the workforce, which in turn increases employee morale. Employees with Disabilities typically have a lower turnover rate. What else, there's a lot of other things, 86% had better or or equivalent attendance than their peers. It just makes sense to hire individuals with diverse abilities.

Evan Kelly  12:12  
So what's one of the most successful job matches you've been a part of?

Delia Meinhardt  12:15  
Yeah, I got I guess, two stories for you. One was actually in 2009. We partnered with Starbucks Canada to create the cafe attendant position. So you may walk into Starbucks and you may see someone that's not behind the counter, but people kind of roving in between the tables. Our staff spent a day at one of the busiest Starbucks location in Vancouver with a latte in hand, the staff observed the day to day operations. We recognized that baristas had many different roles, customer service, making coffee, restocking pastries, clean tables, floors, washrooms, dishwashing, and the list goes on. So from there, we saw huge lineups and people leaving the store because they couldn't wait any longer for the coffee. So we propose a carved position, the cafe attendant will take on the entry level tasks freeing up staff to provide customer service and to be more efficient with completing orders. That's just one of them. 

Evan Kelly  13:13  
Oh, that's good. We know we like Starbucks. Did you want to talk about the the other success story?

Delia Meinhardt  13:20  
Yeah, no, for sure. Um, I guess the other one is we supported an individual to, like they've never had a job before. So we worked on creating a resume, trying to find those experiences through high school. We prepare them for interviews, as well as explore different jobs. After spending time together, we recognized her love for flowers, and her amazing ability to focus on details. When we took the client for a tour at a local grocery store, she was seen spotting expired products on the shelves, in the floral department, she was picking the dead leaves off the flowers and plants. It didn't matter that a client didn't have the same education or work experience as her fellow colleagues. The supermarket was quick to recognize her abilities and hired her in their produce of floral department. So they recognized the benefits of having her on the team. I mean, like how many times have you come home with expired products? Try not to, but wouldn't it be great to have someone just dedicated to ensuring that all the product is fresh, therefore it leads to great customer service.

Evan Kelly  14:22  
Now so in terms of the your hiring, you know, the the clients that you work with. You mentioned this last one was their their first job experience, are the majority of people that you work with, is their first job or is there an age range where people have been employed before?

Delia Meinhardt  14:36  
Yeah, no, it's quite a large range. We have people coming out of high school with limited work experience. And we have people that actually have post secondary education, lots of experience. A lot of folks come to us because they find it hard to maintain employment, so we support them with that.

Evan Kelly  14:54  
Well, that's good. Now do you see society at large getting better at including people with diverse abilities are we, are we playing a game of catch up?

Delia Meinhardt  15:02  
Yeah, no, I think businesses are more open to diversifying their workforce. They may not know where to start. And that's where we come in the picture. We support businesses with their diversity and inclusion strategies. So I would say over the last 10 years, I'm using 10. Because I've been at jobs west now for actually more than 10. It's been 15 years, there's definitely been a shift towards facilitating accessibility and inequality in the workforce. So government programs such as work BC, provides free services for people with disabilities to find work in BC. Jobs West is actually subcontractor, and we work with individuals in the Lower Mainland to find a customized employment. There's also other programs the government have put in place like assistive technology, where they fund assistive technology for individuals.

Evan Kelly  15:46  
Now, kind of a personal question, is the government in your mind doing enough to facilitate this kind of accessibility and equality in the workplace? Or could they be doing more?

Delia Meinhardt  15:54  
I think it's a good start. I think there's a lot of programs right now. And we are tapping into those programs to support people with disabilities.

Evan Kelly  16:04  
What would you like to see happening more of or what can society be doing better for accessibility or creating opportunity?

Delia Meinhardt  16:10  
I think it comes down to just I would like to see more conversations about what our folks can do for businesses. We spend a lot of time going to businesses and providing workshops such as disability awareness, as well as workshops on how to create tools and accommodations in the workplace. These workshops are usually held over lunch hour, but I just want to see more discussion. More discussions and questions and how we can better be more inclusive.

Evan Kelly  16:38  
So how can how can people find out about these workshops? 

Delia Meinhardt  16:41  
Yeah, so they can go on our website, and they can contact us through the website, or they can give me a call. And these workshops are free, so we can come on site, or we can do it over zoom and kind of support your team.

Evan Kelly  16:55  
Now, the website, of course, is Very simple to remember. Just a couple more questions for you, Delia, what got you interested in this line of work?

Delia Meinhardt  17:04  
Yeah, so I'm studying psychology at UBC and minored in family studies. I've always wanted to work in the social services sector. So before my time at DDA I was actually working with kids with autism. And I just thought the next step would be working with adults. So after a few years at DDA, I applied for the employment specialist position at Jobs West and just loved the position and program. I kind of got to do a little bit of everything. So I would have to go marketing, I would have to job train people at different sites every day. And I love doing workshops.

Evan Kelly  17:35  
So you really like doing this kind of work. So what kind of training, I mean, you mentioned that some of your schooling with schooling, what other kinds of training is required to be part of a team at Jobs West?

Delia Meinhardt  17:46  
Yeah, so if anyone is interested in working at Jobs West as an employment specialist we require experience in education in a social science field. Obviously preferred experience with diverse population as well. As for training DDA has a comprehensive online training program where staff can sign up for courses related to customized employment. And our management team also provides hands on training for new staff.

Evan Kelly  18:09  
You've been listening to the Developmental Disabilities Association's Encouraging Abilities podcast. My guest today was Delia Meinhardt. She's the Assistant Director of Employment Services at Jobs West. That is one of DDA's social enterprise operations that helps connect neurodiverse clients with employers for success. Thank you for joining us today. 


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