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TCEP - Tennessee Customized Employment Project:
Policy and Systemic Influence

07/2007

Project Overview

Grant number, name, and location: Tennessee Customized Employment Project, Knoxville TN, #E-9-4-1-0079

Grant recipient: Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee

Project lead: Workforce Connections of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC) is the designated administrative entity for Local Workforce Investment Area 3, a single-county local workforce investment area in the state of Tennessee.

Subcontractors: University of Tennessee Center on Disability and Employment; TransCen, Inc.; Disability Resource Center (DRC); East Tennessee Technology Access Center; Cerebral Palsy Center

Workforce Connections, a division of CAC, provided staff support to the local Workforce Investment Board and WIA staff of the Tennessee Career Center in Knoxville. Workforce Connections has led a comprehensive partnership to conduct strategic planning and implementation of activities to improve the career advancement of people with disabilities who are either unemployed or underemployed, through Customized Employment services in the One-Stop Career Center delivery system.

A critical feature of the grant was to address the statewide waiting list for integrated employment services. The project also aimed to reach individuals in secondary special education programs who need post-school employment support and are likely to be added to the waitlist for such services, and individuals served in segregated settings who want integrated employment. At the beginning of the project (October 2001), there were over 2,300 people on the state waiting list for employment services.

Key Lessons/Accomplishments

"Employment First" in the Mental Retardation (MR) System

The first policy change that the project encountered was the statewide "Employment First" policy, which stated that consumers of MR services should have access to employment-related services as a first line of priority. Some MR system changes were made to fully implement this policy (click here for more information), such as education to families and individuals. This posed some challenges to the project, since families looked to get other needs met beyond employment. In these situations, grant staff assisted the families to navigate the various systems and ensured that the other needs were addressed.

WIA/One-Stop Policy Issues

Within the One-Stop there were a number of policy and systematic changes. The center created self-determination classes (see manual for more information) for high school seniors to encourage early planning for employment services. The classes grew to include other participants of the project, and finally were integrated into the One-Stop's slate of mainstream workshops offered to any interested customers. The class proved popular and useful to all who attended.

Workforce Connections worked closely with the One-Stop to enhance accessibility of the center's physical structure and services. Due to these efforts a number of new policies were put into place, including a written policy regarding accommodations provisions. This gave all staff within the One-Stop a better understanding of their role and responsibility regarding requests for accommodations.

Project staff were concerned about the WIA performance measures, as they seemed to deter project participants from accessing these services. One of the most problematic measures was the wage increase. For individuals working part-time, the capacity to meet the required wage increase presented a considerable challenge. One individual was registered into WIA and received on-the-job training funded by a $5000 WIA Individual Training Account, which enabled him to secure employment with an area employer. The team achieved this by working with WIA staff to help them see the customer's capabilities and the need of the employer, which dovetailed to create the likelihood of success. Grant staff wrote an extensive policy working paper entitled The Workforce Investment Act Performance Accountability System: Potential Impact on Serving People with Disabilities.

A founding goal for the grant was to blend funding from various sources and establish a more dedicated funding stream in order to improve access to funding for job seekers with disabilities. To put this idea into practice, Workforce Connections staff not only wrote their plans into the initial Customized Employment Grant proposal, but they also involved their partners soon after the grant began. These partners participated in the project management team that helped formulate the model for service delivery from the beginning.

The team's main focus was blending funds to ensure comprehensive employment services for individuals with significant disabilities. They were able to use funds from the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), Division of Mental Retardation Services (DMRS), the One-Stop, Social Security, and other sources to create employment services for individuals who would otherwise not receive any of these services. A policy working paper on blended funding is available on the grant's website, www.tceponline.com.

Letters of Understanding

In the summer of 2004, the DRS system began developing a supported employment Letter of Understanding (LOU) that could be used by a partnered One-Stop and community service provider (CRP). Although VR had partnerships with CRPs all along, the DRS LOU would make partnering easier with some providers and provide greater incentive for some CRPs who lack their own employment staff/initiatives to do more in the realm of employment. The LOU was being finalized at the time of this writing.

The LOU came out of discussions with partners in the statewide project management team. Historically, VR could not "pay" another state agency or a One-Stop for the provision of any particular services. The traditional VR supported employment LOU included a requirement for providing ongoing follow-along or long-term supports to any job-seeking customer served under the LOU. While CRPs could generally address this requirement because they were also funded by DMRS to provide ongoing supports, One-Stops were not equipped to provide long-term and follow-along supports.

Grant partners, including state and regional VR staff and CRPs, discussed the idea of One-Stops linking with CRPs to deliver Customized Employment services and long-term supports. VR determined that a supported employment LOU could be used in this situation if the One-Stop and CRP jointly agreed to service delivery. Much time was spent discussing the form the agreement would take, roles each organization would play, and the like before a final product was developed.

The agreement was very significant to the project because it provided a mechanism that could fund a position at a One-Stop for an individual to provide Customized Employment. Since the One-Stop could earn revenue from VR by providing Customized Employment services, the agreement represented a significant share of sustainability planning for the project.

While this letter was still in the process of being finalized, partners envisioned that it would provide the One-Stop with funds for career planning, discovery, and job development services, and provide the partnering CRP funds for post-placement supports. This would create an opportunity for the One-Stop to continue providing intensive Customized Employment services to individuals with disabilities after the grant ended.

Quality of Community Services

As community service providers became more involved in employment, the project team encountered a challenge regarding providers' preparedness and performance providing the necessary services. The project had concerns about the quality of work that the community service providers offered. To address this, the project created Customized Employment services training for One-Stop, state agency, and CRP staff to ensure that the quality of service provided was up to project standards. The provider consortium also helped improve standards by establishing performance expectations and offering training. The grant created an online Customized Employment course for self-study. The course had five modules:

  1. Introduction to Customized Employment
  2. Preparing for the job search
  3. Linking and negotiating with employers for the hire
  4. Ensuring workplace supports after hiring
  5. The role of One-Stops in Customized Employment

The Tennessee grant influenced the overall state system in a number of ways. Through the ODEP-funded Workforce Action grant, the state was able to replicate this model in three additional workforce areas. Participants hoped that replication would continue throughout the state. During the fall 2005 Statewide Workforce Investment Board meeting, local workforce directors shared their plans for the upcoming year. Several mentioned Customized Employment efforts, indicating an interest to continue or expand this service within some One-Stops.

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