SI Review: December 2012

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Center Stage

Mobilizing the Disabled

NTI’s niche is its competitive edge

By Subadhra R. Sriram

National Telecommuting Institute, which appears in this month’s Center Stage, is not your traditional staffing firm. Headquartered in Boston, this $15 million non-profit organization’s mission is to connect people with disabilities to jobs. We interviewed M.J. Willard, NTI’s executive director, about the 40-person strong company.

Q: Can you briefly describe your firm?

A: We are a not-for-profit disability organization, funded by state and federal vocational rehab dollars. We work as a staffing firm/PEO. But now we will be operating more in partnership with traditional large staffing firms and act as a referral source for them.

What helps set NTI apart from other similar organizations?

No one else is taking the approach to matching job applicants with disabilities to staffing agencies that we are taking. NTI has access to Social Security’s database of 11.5 million Americans receiving disability benefits. NTI can use this database to identify potential candidates and auto-dial them with recorded messages about a particular work opportunity in their area. Our staff then screens and refers appropriate candidates to our staffing agency partner which has the job order. The staffing agency would charge its normal markup if the individual we refer is placed.

Because we are funded by state and federal agencies, NTI will recruit, screen and refer candidates to the staffing agency partner without any charge.

What is your definition of a disabled worker?

We tend to work with people who have significant disabilities; they have either been approved by the state or the federal government to receive job search services. The disability could be anything. The key is to make sure the candidate’s challenge doesn’t impact their ability to do the particular job under consideration.

What is your single biggest challenge?

We are in the very beginning stages of moving (our model) to working with staffing agencies and we are trying to figure out exactly how the partnerships will work. I can tell you what we envision, but we know we’re going to get surprised. They’re going to say, “Well we want to do it this way,” and we’ll have to work it out.

But what we envision is [working with] large staffing agencies that can, on a national level, earmark job orders that hit our sweet spot — multiple openings. Customer service jobs or it’s a company with a cluster of entry-level positions.

Because if you’ve got a cluster, then what our organization can do within 24 hours, is call every disabled person receiving disability benefits within commuting distance of that location and we can give them a recorded message [about the opportunity], and then we give our 800 number. So interested applicants will call us, we’ll do the initial interviewing and screening, and then we would refer appropriate candidates to our staffing agency partner. Now we would do this without any charge.

So the staffing agency partner essentially has an outreach arm just to the disabled community, they have the initial screening done for them and they can focus on the solid candidates. If they decide to hire any of them, they will put those individuals on their payroll and charge their normal markup. We will have achieved our goal.

Who is your competition?

Right now there are actually thousands of disability organizations across the country, small and large, such as Goodwill, Easter Seals, state vocational rehab agencies, all in the business of trying to help people with disabilities connect with employers. But we know for a fact that none of our competition are doing it the way we are.

Very few are partnering with staffing firms, none of them use this national database and do auto-dialed recorded messages. We’re the only ones out there doing this.

When and how did you first start?

In 1995 we first started working with people who had physical disabilities such that they needed to work from home. We specialized in call center customer service jobs. What we were doing was working with outsourcers in the call center industry. Many companies outsource some or all of their customer service calls to these big outsourcers. We would then staff the outsourcers, like Alpine Access or TelePerformance.

Today we’re moving into traditional jobs where people work onsite. So we’re moving away from the home-based population to traditional matches (due to newly proposed regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor that give employers a hiring goal of having 7 percent of their workforce consist of people with disabilities). Our particular background is in using the database of Americans on disability benefits; we know how to find people. With the new incentives for large companies to hire people with disabilities, we think we can do much more.

How do you deal with the stereotyping that exists around disabled workers?

In the recession when you’ve got 10 applicants for a job, the one that comes in the door that obviously has a disability of some type is at a disadvantage, particularly if they’ve not worked in a few years because of their accident or their illness or whatever landed them in that situation.

We would not have pursued this opportunity if we didn’t think that things were going to change in the near future. For some employers there is actually going to be a preference for candidates with disabilities — if you have two candidates equally qualified — the person with the disability might actually be viewed as an asset. [The DOL’s proposed regulations come into play, here.] If companies fail to meet their targets they can be subject to audit and ultimately, loss of their federal contracts.

I believe that if a staffing agency has clients that say to them, “We have a disability goal, a target that we’re trying to reach. Can you help us?” And the staffing agency says, “Yes,” — the incentives might cancel out the stereotyping negatives.

What are your immediate and future plans?

Right now we’re most interested in finding potential staffing agency partners, so that we can work out the bugs and figure out how quickly can we implement this new model; how quickly can we turn on a dime and start doing some of this before the Department of Labor regulations go into effect. For agencies interested in learning more, contact M.J. Willard at mjwillard@nticentral.org or call (415) 302-3627.

Subadhra R. Sriram is editorial director at Staffing Industry Analysts. She can be reached at ssriram@staffingindustry.com.

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