Lauren scampers down the corridors of Nexen with a great big canine smile on her face. The German shepherd is obviously happy to be there, but not nearly so happy as her owner, Mario Jakic.
Jakic, who is blind, works as a software developer for the oil company. It wasn’t easy, though, finding an employer to give him a chance.
|Shannon Oatway, Business Edge|
|Mario Jakic and his faithful companion Lauren are taking care of business at Nexen|
For four years after leaving university with three scholarships to his credit, Jakic was unemployed, like 80 per cent of the blind population. And he would still be jobless if he hadn’t come across Champions, a new, barrier-busting organization that is catching the attention of groups across North America.
Champions Career Centre is a consortium of about 30 agencies for people with disabilities that decided they could be more effective and efficient helping clients find jobs if they pooled their resources.
It is a unique, three-way arrangement with the agencies, the provincial government and corporations like TransAlta, Smed International and the Royal Bank.
It wasn’t easy to combine the forces of such diverse groups as the Canadian Paraplegic Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Cerebral Palsy Association, mental health groups, the deaf and hard of hearing, spinal cord injury groups and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind. But the centre opened its doors for business last October.
It is this collaborative aspect that gives Champions its edge, says Jim McLaughlin, contract manager with the provincial government’s human resources and employment department.
“Collectively they are doing a better job than if they work in isolation. By coming together they can provide a more comprehensive service.”
It is estimated about 16 per cent of the population has a disability and that their participation in the workforce is only about 67 per cent, depending on the severity of the disability, says John Petryshen, director of operations.
“We want to achieve unemployment rates for persons with disabilities that parallel those of the general population and see labour force participation rates increase significantly throughout Alberta over the next few years,” reads the Champions operations handbook.
Many like Jakic face multiple hurdles – systemic, attitudinal and physical – from the feeling that the person won’t fit in, that they will be costly to accommodate, to not knowing where to recruit them, says Petryshen.
Having graduated in the top 10 per cent, Jakic believed getting a job would be a slice. The first year he sent out more than 100 resumes and thought that sooner or later he would hear something. By the second year he became depressed, but kept plodding away.
“I tried every approach: Telling, not telling and hinting.”
If he didn’t tell them about his blindness and got an interview, he could hear their tone change when he walked in the door. Some fobbed him off, telling him he was over-qualified.
“Fine,” said Jakic. “I’m willing to take it and commit to the job.”
Although Jakic was the one who was blind, no one saw the talent and commitment he had to offer.
Then he was tipped off about Champions, but delayed going because of a volunteer project with the Calgary Board of Education that was supposed to take six weeks, but took him only two.
At Champions he was shown how to re-do his resume and he started to network their contacts.
While he was doing this, a Champions fund-raiser spoke to Nancy Foster, vice-president of human resources at Nexen, and happened to mention Jakic. In no time he had an interview with two IT managers.
They seemed impressed, Jakic recalls, but at the end wondered how he could possibly use a computer.
“I’ll do a demo,” he said. So they set up a second meeting. His skills with a voice-activated computer, using quick keys instead of a mouse, clinched the deal.
Nexen offered him a job, invested in Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software that can scan printed material and gave Jakic — not to mention Lauren — an office of their own.
“I wouldn’t say we had barriers . . . but it opened our minds to possibilities,” says Foster, who would definitely recruit through Champions again.
“This opened the door and, given that I got in, I’m not going out now,” says Jakic. Lauren nuzzles his knee.
He says people with disabilities are an important untapped resource and, because they are so anxious not let down their employers, they will give their all to a job.
The benefits are huge to the individual because it is hard to have the same dreams when you have a disability and live on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) that amounts to about $850 a month.
The savings to the system are enormous too, points out Petryshen. Once a person comes off AISH and starts to earn $60,000 a year, they also start to contribute financially to the rest of the community.
Champions isn’t about getting any job. Many people with disabilities who are in the work force are under-employed. This program is about launching them on a career.
Previously, many have felt that a job search might cause the permanent loss of their AISH benefits, says Petryshen. Because Champions can speak with a united voice for 30 agencies and because the provincial government is on side, this fear has become less real.
“AISH is being flexible, individuals aren’t losing all their benefits,” he says.
Champions is flexible too, offering a wide array of services that can be tailored to aid the individual from the first contact until after they have landed a job, ensuring everything works smoothly for both employer and employee. Sometimes clients who aren’t ready to enter the workforce will be referred back to member agencies for training.
The federal government, which is watching the Champions concept closely, has stepped forward to fund some of the niche agencies’ supplementary programs.
Besides Ottawa, organizations in Washington State are also interested in forming a similar three-way partnership and are looking at the made-in-Alberta version for guidance.
Champions is reaching the targets that the government set for it despite growing pains, McLaughlin says.
“It is definitely coming together,” he says, applauding the member agencies and their boards for trusting in a new model of service.
“We are the only one in North America so we are under the microscope. People are watching how we unfold to so many different audiences and ho
w agencies, government and corporations work together,” adds Petryshen. The last word, though, goes to Jakic.
“I couldn’t be feeling any better. When I get up in the morning I’ve got something to look forward to.”
Lauren wags her tail and settles down while Jakic tackles his work for the afternoon.