Tara Tibeau, communications manager at SaskTel, loves working with Nick Popowitch. She feels lucky when she gets the chance to work with him at one of the company’s retail stores in Regina and says it’s “an absolutely wonderful experience.”
“He’s the greatest guy ever, he’s such a character and such a fun guy,” said Tibeau, who is based at the company headquarters in Regina. “If there’s something they need done, he’s very much flexible and always really enthusiastic.”
Popowitch, who has Down syndrome, has been working at the store for two years. He stocks shelves, does maintenance on devices and accessories, brings up new stock from the warehouse and greets customers.
He was hired by SaskTel with help from the Saskatchewan Abilities Council, which places hundreds of people with disabilities — mostly intellectual — in employment opportunities across the province each year.
While 4,000-employee SaskTel has partnered with the council for a decade and hires about three or four people with disabilities per year, it hopes to hire even more through a new letter of understanding both parties signed in October. The letter outlines the commitments of both the council and SaskTel in creating supported employment opportunities for people with disabilities across the province.
“The plan was for SaskTel to be the poster child for the abilities council and act as a champion to get other businesses to sign their own letters with the council,” said Tibeau.
The letter is being posted to the SaskTel website and hung at busy retail locations, and many local businesses have been calling the company for more information about the partnership, she said.
Supported employment is an approach designed to help people with disabilities find employment tailored to their individual needs and abilities. To achieve this, the council first works with its clients to determine their skills, abilities, aptitudes and interests, said Karen Moore, regional director, Regina branch, at the Saskatchewan Abilities Council.
“Almost all our clients undergo a vocational evaluation and we use a specific methodology there and a number of different tools,” she said. “It takes a couple of weeks and they come in and spend time to do activities with their hands. They’re also given a battery of written tests… and all that comes together to shape a vocational plan.”
Next, the council looks for jobs that match the candidate’s skills and interests, and initiates “job carving” opportunities.
“It removes the barriers that have, in the past, not allowed those people to join the job market. For instance, if someone’s not comfortable using a computer, we just carve it out of the job,” said Tibeau. “So we just remove those pieces that cause barriers and replace them with other things — it’s about customizing the work so it fits the abilities.”
SaskTel places supported employment candidates all across the company including those in retail, customer service, a volunteer network and HR.
Before the candidates go to the workplace, many of them go through a classroom-based pre-employment program, said Moore. The program is personalized, so some candidates may start at personal hygiene while others may only need help with their resumés.
The next step is a “work experience” placement — which can vary in length from a few days to a few months — where the candidate works at a company for a trial run.
“Sometimes they don’t have a job posting at all, we just need them to open their doors to let us have that environment,” said Moore. “It’s really through that work experience that an employer would get a sense of whether that person has the capacity and ability to fit into their environment.”
During this time, a job coach from the council goes with the candidate to the workplace and trains her on job tasks, over and above the corporate training, said Moore.
“They’ll be there for hours at a time, if necessary, (training them) on how to put cans on a shelf or mop a floor or do a till… This is where we do the hands-on detail because sometimes, with our clientele, memory can be an issue or they need to repetitively learn a task so that it stays with them.”
If an individual is hired at the end of the work experience — and many are — she becomes a full employee at that company but the council will still provide a service called “job maintenance” where it stays connected to both the employer and employee to make sure that relationship stays healthy, said Moore.
Government hiring initiative
To encourage more employers to hire people with disabilities, the federal government announced a $30-million initiative in October that is expected to create 1,600 jobs at small and medium-sized businesses. Organizations had until mid-November to apply and those chosen will receive wage subsidies to hire people with disabilities.
The government has also created a panel to look at best practices around hiring and retaining people with disabilities, and the results are expected by the end of December.
According to a recent survey by BMO Bank of Montreal, more than one-half of 500 small business owners have never hired anyone with a disability.
One of the reasons for this may be the misconceptions around the cost of accommodations, said Sonya Kunkel, managing director of diversity and inclusion at BMO in Toronto.
More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of employees said they had no idea how much accommodations cost and the mean guess was $10,000, found another BMO survey of 1,000 workers.
“That’s a significant overestimation,” said Kunkel. “There’s a perception it costs a lot of money to accommodate a person with a disabilities in the workforce but for those that do require accommodation, it’s roughly $500.”
Employers should strive to focus less on the disability and more on an employee’s ability to contribute, she said.
“There is so much that our employees who are persons with disabilities contribute in terms of their perspective, their resiliency, their openness and inclusiveness in the workplace,” said Kunkel.
One benefit of hiring people with disabilities is they are more representative of SaskTel’s customers and client base, said Tibeau. SaskTel has also focused on recruiting people with disabilities to help fill the “huge labour shortage” expected in the province due to the retirement of baby boomers and economic growth, she said.
“By creating a workforce and culture for all our employees that’s accepting and inclusive, we’re setting the stage for the future to continue to be able to draw from a larger resource pool and to include people that were (previously) not seen as part of the resource pool — it’s just expanding the possibilities.”
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