Discovering Abilities - the Key to Success in Manitoba Career Center

Discovering Abilities - the Key to Success

A “Can Do” Agency Helps People with Disabilities get Meaningful Jobs

It had taken three hours for the teenager to get to Brandon and back to his home in rural Manitoba. He’d come to Career Connections for a vocational assessment, even though he was sick and tired of being tested. His expectations were low; he was used to failure, and it seemed he had always been told that he had no really useful abilities. He’d never done well in school and had long ago soured on it. But at the urging of his teacher he’d agreed to go. So here he was.

The Career Connections evaluator had the youngster go through the standard assessment, and had explained that it was a special kind of assessment, unlike the ones he was used to.

When they were finished, the counselor went over the assessment report with him. The young man was shocked at the results because the report clearly showed that he had a number of important work-related abilities he’d never suspected. And yet here it was in black and white. The counselor explained to him that his performance in the assessment had clearly proven he had the abilities the report said he had--the assessment had shown what he could do, not what he couldn’t do. The counselor had then shown him a small fraction of the many jobs for which his abilities would qualify him when he finished his schooling.

The pleased young man went home. Nothing more was heard about the young man until one day, a month or two later, when his teacher called to speak with George McLeod, Executive Director of Career Connections. He called to tell George that whatever they had done for the young man, he had completely changed. His entire attitude greatly improved. The youngster was now totally focused on his school work and getting excellent grades. His experience at Career Connections had clearly been a turning point in the young man’s life. What had they done there that had made such a difference?

George explained, not for the first time, that there was indeed something special about Career Connections assessments: They were based on the criterion-referenced products of the Valpar International Corporation, namely, Pro3000 software programs and a battery of Valpar Component Work Samples, which were designed to show clients’ work related abilities and how those abilities related to the requirements of actual jobs. Abilities were the key, not disabilities, and that’s what makes the Career Connections approach to assessment different from the typical one, George said.

Referring to the above story, McLeod said, “It’s times like those that you work for.” And since he started at Career Connections five years ago, George has had many such experiences, of knowing that the lives of clients have been dramatically changed for the better as a result of their involvement with the agency. “Few things are more important to individuals in our culture than their work. Our work is a major element of who we are. It’s important to our self-esteem. If you can help people identify and develop their work skills and get meaningful work, you’ve really done them a service.”

According to George, “Often, by the time they come here, our clients have had a lot of psychological or other testing that didn’t seem to relate to work ability, and the reports are incomprehensible to them. Our own assessment reports, using Valpar tools, are simple and clear, and clients tell us that they are really meaningful to them. The reports are a very effective tool. We’re much better now with Pro3000 at demonstrating to clients the validity of our job referrals. They can see in plain English the job skills they have. We know they have the skills because they demonstrated them during the assessment. And we show them that their skills are what’s required by the job we’re referring them to. The whole experience is so positive for them and their families.”

“Pro3000 is the cornerstone of what we do here, and the revenue it brings us is important too. People are realizing what a great resource we are for the community, and we’re getting a reputation for excellence. We’re becoming known as the ‘can do’ agency when it comes to helping people with disabilities get meaningful jobs, and we’re getting more and more referrals as a result.”

Career Connections had started out as a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities back in the early 1970s. But the government’s priority shifted over the years to one that stressed helping people achieve independence, and government funding policies changed as well, shifting to the support of a new type of service agency. Funding for the traditional sheltered workshops dried up, and Career Connections changed its mission accordingly. When George became the executive director of Career Connections, it had become a Supportive Employment Agency.

The primary mission of non-profit Supportive Employment Agencies like Career Connections is to help disabled people secure and maintain meaningful employment, and people with every imaginable type of disability are served by the agency. But disabled people are not the only clients served by the agency. Career Connections also helps non-disabled people and displaced workers find new careers. The agency serves clients aged 18 and over, and went from a caseload of about 65 five years ago, to one of about 115 now. Most of the agency’s referrals come from the government’s provincial, regional, and local health authorities. Auto insurance companies, schools, and other entities refer a smaller proportion of clients, and the agency serves self-referrals as well. Career Connections also takes on contract work for area businesses from time to time.

Career Connections has four facets of service: vocational assessment, placement, on-the-job-training, and follow-up. “We stay involved with our clients until they’re up and running, until they can take care of themselves” said George. “Sometimes that takes a few months, and sometimes we’ll stay with them for years, maybe the rest of their working lives.”

The agency’s success rate in finding jobs for its clients is at 80 percent, compared to the 40 percent national average for Supportive Employment Agencies. “Pro3000 is making us money and really improving our reputation. Our referrals are increasing as a result.”

George has been a Brandon resident for 30 years, although he was born in Ontario. After high school, he went to the University of North Dakota on a gymnastics scholarship. Returning to Canada with a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Sciences, he located in Brandon and earned his certification in adult education. He taught high school for nine years and at the college level for 16 years. About five years ago he decided to try something different, and when the executive director position at Career Connections was advertised, George applied and got the job.

When George started at Career Connections, he found that the agency wanted to upgrade its assessment tools. Because vocational assessment is the foundation upon which rests the success of all subsequent service components, George wanted the best such equipment available. As it turned out, Dayle Hughson, one of the agency’s Principal Evaluators, already had ideas about what the agency should purchase.

Dayle had represented Career Connections at a recent annual conference of Canadian Rehabilitation Professionals, where she’d met Steve and Kathy Russell, Valpar representatives for Canada. The Russells had introduced Dayle to Valpar’s line of assessment products, and Pro3000 software and the work samples had so favorably impressed her that she determined to do what she could to see that Career Connections acquired those products.

Dayle urged the agency to look into Valpar’s vocational assessment products. They researched the matter and agreed with Dayle that Valpar was the way to go. With the help of the Russells and Dayle, Career Connections decided which of Valpar’s assessment instruments to recommend to the board of directors. The board agreed, and George purchased several modules of Pro3000 and many of the Valpar Component Work Sample Series.

Brandon is an agricultural community in an agricultural province. Located in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, Brandon has a population of about 45,000, with most jobs having an agricultural connection. Crop farming, livestock raising, meat processing, sales of farm machinery, operation of feed lots, production and distribution of chemicals for fertilizer and insect control are the area’s major enterprises. One of the largest pork processing operations in the world has its headquarters in Brandon, and a few years ago when the expanding company needed to hire hundreds of new employees, it turned to Career Connections for help.

At that time, too many of the processing company’s new employees were terminated shortly after their training, and the company was losing money as a result. Career Connections agreed to screen job applicants for the company based on the skill requirements of their prospective jobs, mainly fine and gross motor skills and literacy. Soon thereafter, with the help of Career Connections, the company’s employee turnover rate improved by 40 percent in the first year, representing a huge monetary savings.

Some of the benefits to Career Connections from Valpar’s assessment systems hit closer to home. According to Dayle, the staff turnover rate at Career Connections itself has dropped significantly since the agency acquired Valpar’s assessment systems. “We’ve had all of our counselors and several of the facilitators trained by Valpar, and six of the counselors have earned the Certified Valpar Operator status,” she said. George added that having the CVO credential to include in their resumes has enhanced the professionalism of the staff and improved their self-esteem in the bargain.

George regularly attends conferences at which he gives presentations on the methods Career Connections uses to achieve its excellent results. “Valpar is an important element of the presentations,” said George, “and I always have a very positive response from the audience.” He recently presented at the annual National Supportive Employment Conference on the Valpar-based assessment program of Career Connections and received a “very enthusiastic response. We have people ask if they can visit us to see first-hand what we do. We’ve had staff from two or three other agencies visit us, and we’ve got another group coming in next week.”

One of George’s future goals is to add a van to serve as a mobile unit, fully equipped with Valpar’s Pro3000 and work samples, to travel to the outlying areas with the capacity to do complete vocational assessments.

“Valpar assessment products are the best in the world, and we’ve just had great success with Pro3000. I could go on and on about Valpar,” said George, “but here’s a really heartwarming story for you that shows what we’re able to do. A man brought in his non-verbal, autistic son. They had to drive for an hour to get here from their home. The father was the only one who could communicate with the young man, and he helped during the assessment. We’d gone through a number of the tests, and initially the boy hadn’t been able to do much. But when we got to Numerical Sorting (work sample 3), he just started out moving as fast as he could, putting the tiles in the slots as fast as he could pick them up, apparently without any effort. We figured he was just randomly sticking them into the slots, without any real understanding, but when we looked, we were stunned to find that, not only had he done the whole thing faster than anything, he’d made zero mistakes. Not one. We couldn’t believe it. I had him do the reverse exercise, and sure enough, same thing: fast as could be and no errors. The father was just in tears. He’d had no idea. ‘What should we do?’ he asked. What we did was, we helped get the young man a job at the post office in the town where he lives. He sorts mail there faster than anyone has ever sorted mail.”

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