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Big Sign Syndrome: The Job Developer's Small Business Advantage
By Cary Griffin & Dave Hammis, Griffin-Hammis Associates
Consider Klements Lane in Florence, Montana. Florence has about 1,000 residents and the author of this article, Cary Griffin, lives outside the town center on a two-mile long road with 24 mailboxes. On this road are at least 11 families supported by their small businesses. Not one of these enterprises is identified by a sign.
Now, this circumstance is certainly a ringing endorsement for the power
of business enterprise in rural areas. But more than that, it should be
a source of wonder and optimism for employment specialists and job developers
everywhere. Small business in the U.S. creates more jobs than big industry,
and of the estimated 20 million businesses in this country, only 14,000
have more than 500 employees. So, where are the jobs? Evidently, they
are in these companies scattered throughout the urban, suburban, and rural
communities of America.
The Big Bang
Job developers have always reveled in the accomplishment of finding jobs in large corporations. It is true that these large companies, including Wal-Mart, McDonalds, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Citicorp, Home Depot, and others mean good jobs for people. It also means significant time and effort cracking the hiring code typically when companies have over 200 applicants for each job.
Changes in shift managers or department heads, something all too common
in big business, can signal a change in corporate culture on the local
store or factory level that leads to folks with significant disabilities
losing their jobs or suffering reduced hours and opportunities. Still,
the seductiveness of landing a dozen jobs scattered throughout a company
with just one good shot, the Big Bang, is too hard for most of us to resist.
And who doesn’t want a few Fortune 500 companies on their resumes?
Looking for jobs in big companies makes sense. Cultivating relationships with HR people is one important aspect of identifying opportunities for employment that often result in fringe benefits and long term employment tenure. But, it is just one part of the equation.
Driving down “the strip” in any community reveals all the same box stores: the home improvement company, the department store, the discount store, the fast food giants. And while these employers are happy to employ people with disabilities, they can also be the toughest to break into. Big companies have standardized approaches; HR people and labor attorneys develop their job descriptions far away at corporate headquarters. When they advertise positions available, 200 applicants show up for the same job opening. The competitiveness of this job market, the sluggishness of the corporate office to approve a local job negotiations, and the dead-end nature part-time positions must be a consideration for job seekers and developers alike.
Employment Specialists working in larger communities know that HR staff
complains regularly that someone from a human services agency is always
knocking on their door. These developers suffer from Big Sign Syndrome.
That is, they are the ones driving the town’s commercial strip,
pulling into the lot of every corporate chain store, and seeking ready-made
jobs. Over the course of a year, every agency visits every store. Of course,
the small businesses, many hidden from view and requiring a networking
effort to crack open, remain beyond the view of these “job cruisers,”
they often have no set application method, they hire based on word-of-mouth,
and a written job description can be a rarity.
The Small Business Fix
Getting off Main Street may be the most obvious fix for Big Sign Syndrome. But, getting onto Elm Street sometimes requires a network. Those are easy enough to develop of course, and involve at least a few of these items:
Having identified smaller employers who may fit the employment needs of specific consumers is just one step in curing Big Sign Syndrome. Because many small businesses are under-capitalized and surviving on limited profit margins, a job creation or negotiation approach is often required to intrigue employers. In fact, breaking the cycle of entry level employment for people with disabilities generally mandates a creative re-thinking of positions and opportunities.
The typical scenario for people with significant disabilities is part-time, minimum wage jobs for a lifetime. One successful approach the authors have used for years is Resource Ownership. This approach recognizes that small business could sell more goods, better satisfy customers, or increase market share by adding a person with particular talents or technology.
For instance, a baker recently heard customers complaining that they could not buy an espresso to go with their fresh Danish. The baker simply couldn’t afford a $4,000 espresso-maker. But, a young lady “itching” to go to work in a coffee shop, through a Customized Employment project in Georgia and some Vocational Rehabilitation dollars, was able to purchase the machine and create a new position within the company. This mutually beneficial approach helped a struggling entrepreneur and created a career track based on an individual’s work preferences. And, happy customers mean more business, which means higher wages all around.
In this case, the espresso machine is the same lever that a college degree or a welding certificate represents for other job seekers. Having exploitable resources, whether it is brainpower or a color Xerox machine that boosts customer satisfaction at the local copy shop, is critical to creating jobs a few rungs up the career ladder from entry-level. Resource Ownership is simply the concept of acquiring materials, equipment, or skills that an employer uses to make a profit.
For instance, many people spend $50,000 or more on a college degree, and that degree is a symbol of exploitable resources. Employers reason that they can profit from a graduate’s intellect, so people with degrees get hired. In essence, the graduate gives the employer that degree in trade for wages. The same occurs when a truck driver who owns a tractor-trailer applies for a hauling job. Without the trucking equipment, the trucker is possibly forced to face unemployment, or a less satisfactory, lower paying trucking job in which the employer has to buy the equipment. The point is that people have to have exploitable resources to get a good job, and by putting the means of production in the hands of people with disabilities, it makes them more employable.
IBM and Boeing can afford their own equipment, and negotiating these job creations in companies of this size will likely end in a bureaucratic tangle of policy and regulation. Small business is the perfect place for job negotiation strategies such as this. Because the job developer and job seeker are likely dealing with the owner or manager, there are few, if any, layers of approval to be navigated. Management is less likely to change and reverse previous hiring decisions. A small business owner can also see immediate results in the bottom-line by adding valuable products or services, and employers still tell us that they enjoy creating jobs for people. Giving back to the community by employing one’s neighbors is one of the joys of owning a business.
This article is limited in scope, but does point out that with literally millions of small businesses across the country, no job developer should ever run out of employer prospects for any sort of job seeker’s dreams. Driving down Klements Lane, no outsider would ever guess that so many opportunities for job creation exist. There are thousands of miles of country roads, inner-city avenues, and suburban cul-de-sacs that hold a potential job match. Get off the strip and start looking for the small-sign/no-sign shops that fuel this American economy.
Cary and Dave are the authors of the book Making Self Employment Work for People with Disabilities (2003). For more information or to arrange training contact Cary at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dave at email@example.com. More information can be found at www.griffinhammis.com