Partnership and Collaborative Efforts
Grant number, name, and location: Customized Works! Flint MI, E-9-4-3-0103
Grant recipient: The Genesee/Shiawassee Workforce Development Board
Project lead: Michigan Works! Career Alliance, Inc., the administrative entity of the two Customized Employment Project Michigan Works! Service Center sites
Local characteristics: Note that the project's two sites are in two separate counties, one very rural and one urban. While Michigan struggles overall, with a current unemployment rate of 6.8% as compared to the national average of 4.7%, the city of Flint (the largest city in Genesee County) has one of highest unemployment rates in the state at 8.0%. Shiawassee, the other county served under the grant, also has an unemployment rate of 8.0%. This rate does not reflect recent notices of company closures in July 2006.
- Employment for All provided technical assistance to the project through September 2005. The agency was contracted to provide staff training and supported employment research and application.
- The Disability Network, a Center for Independent Living and Assistive Technology Center, was contracted to provide technical assistance around assistive technology, inclusion, and disability expertise throughout the life of the project.
- Formative Evaluation Research Associates conducted independent evaluations of all components of the grant program through the life of the project. Areas of evaluation included trainings, staff performance, provider activities, and customer satisfaction. The group also participated in the development and implementation of the strategic plan.
A number of major partnerships were engaged at the Customized Employment project's inception:
- The Genesee/Shiawassee Workforce Development Board: Lead agency, grant fiduciary, Workforce Investment Board chair served in an advisory capacity to the grant
- The Michigan Works! Agency - Career Alliance, Inc.: Fiduciary and managing agent of the One-Stop, Career Alliance Inc. CEO served in an advisory capacity
- Faith Access to Community Economic Development: Workforce partner, served in an advisory capacity
- Michigan Rehabilitation Services: Workforce partner, outreach and recruitment, served in an advising capacity, member of Customized Employment service delivery team, participated in braiding funds to support job seekers
- The Disability Network: Training partner, provided assistive technology training and technical assistance, participated on the selection and advisory committee, provided project consultation
- Community Mental Health: Partner, member of the selection and advisory committee, training facilitator, outreach and recruitment, assisted with providing braided funding
- Mass Transportation Authority: Partner, provided transportation to program customers
- Facilitating partnerships to support employment outcomes for people with disabilities was easier and smoother with community partners because they were not influenced by federal employment performance measures/outcomes.
- Staff found that Customized Employment tools applied not only to customers with disabilities but also to other customers with complexities or barriers to employment for whom traditional practices were not effective.
- Training and technical assistance on discovery/exploration contributed to the ability of community providers to internalize an individualized approach to assessment. Introducing these new strategies expanded the spectrum of job seeker exploration processes used and promoted service delivery customization based on the job seeker's abilities. This was a significant shift from standardized assessment processes utilized in the past.
- Decreases in program funding for employment service providers resulted in an increase in staff turnover and staff reductions. This exacerbated the need for additional training, technical assistance support, and quality assurance monitoring to sustain Customized Employment services within agencies. Otherwise, services might be diffused to the point of being ineffective and result in outcomes not being realized.
Focus on Key Partnerships
A number of relationships evolved into key partnerships throughout the course of the project. Such a relationship existed with the Community Mental Health (CMH) program. Prior to the grant inception, there was no strong affiliation between CMH and the workforce system. As a result of this project, CMH expanded its collaborations with the community. Joint service delivery occurred with customers co-enrolled in Customized Works! (CW) and CMH. Initial job seeker exploration (discovery) and employment planning were conducted by CW while CMH case managers participated in planning meetings and provided job coaching services when needed. Furthermore, CMH has provided resources for training to Career Alliance staff regarding employment services for people with mental health issues. CMH designated its own employment specialist who was trained in Customized Employment to work in partnership with the project and customers that receive shared services.
A strong relationship also developed with the Genesee Intermediate School District. The school district was involved with the Customized Employment project from the start and has participated in trainings offered through project resources and on the selection and advisory committees. Most recently, the district requested that CW staff provide technical assistance in the fall of 2006 as they begin to implement customization into their program. This would include teacher training and mentoring on Customized Employment strategies for students in special education who are transitioning into adult life.
Both the school district and the Arc (an organization for people with disabilities) recently sought expertise from project staff to use Customized Employment strategies in their agencies. The project also received increased interest in Customized Employment from state agencies following presentations on the topic at the Michigan Transition Council. Customized Works! staff were also invited to participate on the state Transition Council.
The Disability Network (TDN) was a strong and consistent partner with Career Alliance in working toward the goal of enhancing employment services and outcomes for job seekers with disabilities. Based in Flint, TDN held statewide recognition as both a Center for Independent Living and an Assistive Technology Center. The president of TDN has a disability and served as chairman of the Genesee/Shiawassee Workforce Development Board. While serving in a consulting capacity to the grant, TDN provided the following services: Updates on legislative and policy issues related to individuals with disabilities; training on disability awareness and assistive technology; assistive technology assessments within One-Stops and subsequent purchase recommendations; and an environment scan of the faith-based community to identify churches that conducted employment-related activities with people with disabilities.
Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) and the One-Stop providers had a longstanding collaborative relationship. Prior to the grant, however, the common practice at the One-Stop was to refer customers with (disclosed) disabilities to MRS, rather than offering the full menu of One-Stop services with the additional option of an MRS referral. Customized Employment training and assistance built a more collaborative relationship, with Career Alliance project staff working more closely with MRS for joint service delivery. For example, through joint planning efforts, Customized Works! staff might provide job seeker exploration services while MRS provided assistive technology resources and job coaching; Career Alliance staff participated in planning meetings and provided job development services using their strong employer ties in the community. This blended funding strategy was becoming the standard process for assisting customers rather than the exception.
Recently, MRS shifted from having limited staff located within the One-Stop to full co-location, creating more opportunities to interface and collaborate with Career Alliance service providers and the Customized Employment team. Further, MRS was negotiating with the Customized Works! project director to establish a fee-for-service contract. This would allow the Customized Employment team to work more closely with MRS staff on utilizing and internalizing customization strategies when serving customers who have significant barriers to employment.
Michigan School for the Deaf (MSD) also came to value the benefits of Customized Employment services for its students. After being exposed to Customized Employment through CW trainings, MSD developed a curriculum that incorporated the principles of Customized Employment, and sought assistance from CW and MRS to refine the curriculum and provide technical assistance to their agency on how to assist students transitioning from school to work. CW planned to work with MSD staff to mentor the provision of Customized Employment services, from person-centered exploration to employment planning and attainment.
The Capital Area Center for Independent Living and the Michigan Career and Technical Institute both provided consulting services, training, and customer service, and participated on the project management team. The Capital Area Center was also an important contracted partner, providing services for customers with disabilities in Shiawassee County.
Collaboration with existing workforce development providers was also enhanced through establishing an information and referral specialist (I&R) position located in the resource room of both One-Stop locations. (See the section on Policy and Systemic Influence for more detail.) Embedding this grant staff person within core services to assist all customers within the system created more cohesive working relationships with Employment Services and many other employment providers in the One-Stop. Through the attention and trust that was established with I&R staff, customers were more likely to disclose non-apparent disabilities (learning disabilities, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, etc.), confirming that there is a considerably greater number of individuals with non-apparent disabilities seeking assistance at One-Stop Centers. This created the opportunity for more self-referral, information-sharing, consultation, and service provision for customers. Services provided through the I&R specialist included:
- Facilitating access to core services
- Brokering relationships with other agencies and partners
- Conducting interest exploration
- Linking with support services, such as transportation passes, assistive technology, etc., as needed
The I&R position was intended to remain beyond grant funding through either shared contributions of partner programs, the inception of a recently awarded disability program navigator program, and/or dedicated WIA funding for the position.
Collaborative Service Delivery
A diverse group of community providers were trained to provide Customized Employment services. Selective Case Management, Standing on Solid Ground, the Center for Independent Living, Goodwill Industries, MRS, and other One-Stop service providers are just a few organizations that participated in the in-depth training program. Providers who completed all of the required training became skilled in providing Customized Employment services to project participants.
Customer choice and control are integral to the Customized Employment process. From a customer perspective, the first step was to participate in an orientation describing the difference between Customized Employment and market-driven models. Customers then chose whether to sign up for support services available from a WIA provider or a non-WIA provider service. Qualified service providers participated in the initial group meeting with the customer and family member as relevant.
To promote self-determination, choice, and control of individuals' grant funds, the project maintained the option of using personal agents and individual accounts (IA). As needed, the project supported customers to identify individuals in their lives who could serve as personal agents to assist with information-gathering, decision-making regarding which provider to work with, and funding allocation for specific services. Clearly defined steps were then taken to ensure that the individual had control over the ways in which their IA monies--which were allocated from project dollars--were spent.
Policies and procedures that addressed customer control and satisfaction were also developed and implemented. Providers did not receive reimbursement for services rendered to the customer unless the customer signed off that they were satisfied with the services. If this was not the case, corrective action steps were implemented. If the problem was not resolved to the customer's satisfaction, the provider was dismissed from this person's case and a new service provider selected.
Standardized pricing agreements were established to pay providers delivering various customized services, such as job exploration/discovery, planning, and job development. Both the provider agency and the individual signed a formal agreement/contract on a case-by-case basis.
Service providers recognized the benefits of the Customized Employment trainings as it related to serving customers with complex barriers to employment. Staff learned the effectiveness of matching individual skills, interests, preferences, and working conditions to employment opportunities. Providers also learned that in these times of budget reductions and cuts, customers are better served when agencies blend and braid their funds. Customized Employment options now exist through local community providers, MRS, and nontraditional workforce development partners such as faith-based organizations, thereby improving employment practices and outcomes for job seekers with disabilities.
Challenges to Developing Partnerships
Some of the challenges faced when developing partnerships often lie in changing the nature in which partners typically operate. Providing quality services and holding true to the Customized Employment model required ongoing monitoring and problem-solving. For WIA providers, shifting from the demand-driven system to a customer-driven employment approach was a new concept.
Furthermore, the perceived negative impact on performance measures when serving customers with barriers to employment (e.g., the additional upfront exploration, planning, and job development time needed; the wage increase/job retention measures to be met) instilled reluctance in partner staff to provide services themselves as opposed to deferring customers to alternate agencies such as MRS.
The high unemployment rates in Genesee and Shiawassee Counties due to a large number of business closures has been devastating to the community and impacted job opportunities as a whole. When key area employers Delphi and General Motors decided to outsource their work to other countries, the impact was great--not only on their employees but also on their contracted suppliers. In turn, other businesses suffered from a decrease in local consumer spending. The job seeker market was also then flooded with a wide range of skilled employees, resulting in increased competition. This impacted all of the agencies and partners involved with this project and imposed additional challenges to partnerships.