Continuing our exploration of workforce development and the sewn products industry, SPESA recently spoke with SourceAmerica, an organization that connects the dots between customers, nonprofits, and workers.
SourceAmerica has a unique background and mission, different from many of our other SPESA members. To start off, could you please tell us a little about the company and your services?
SourceAmerica is a national nonprofit agency that connects government and corporate customers to a network of over 700 nonprofit agencies that hire and employ professionals with disabilities. Our members employ more than 80,000 of these talented individuals, many through the AbilityOne Program, one of the largest sources of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities in the United States. In our role, we support member nonprofit agencies with contract opportunities and support, trainings and workforce development programs.
In what way is SourceAmerica a supplier to the sewn products industry?
SourceAmerica supports approximately 125 independent domestic manufacturing facilities that operate in 37 of the 50 states and in Puerto Rico. More than 40 of these manufacturing facilities provide domestically manufactured sewn products to the federal government and commercial entities. The product manufactured ranges from simple sewing such as aprons and wiping cloths to complex sewing such as military dress uniforms and chemical, biological protection suits. Additionally, several manufacturers provide heavy sewing for items that include aerial drop systems, backpacks, and pouches.
Workforce development is a challenge throughout our industry and the U.S. manufacturing industry in general. SourceAmerica is well known for its training programs including the SourceAmerica Academy and the Pathways to Careers program. Could you please tell us about the training SourceAmerica offers both for nonprofit agencies and directly for people with disabilities?
The SourceAmerica Academy is the online go-to resource for the professional development of nonprofit agencies (NPAs) affiliated with SourceAmerica and professionals with disabilities. More than 4,000 e-Learning courses are offered online to help individuals build knowledge and enhance their abilities. Topics include Leadership, Compliance, Procurement, Contracts, Information Technology, Desktop Publishing, Business Skills and Environmental Safety. Additional learning such as the Social Skills in the Workforce video series especially targets growth in employment settings. For more information about SourceAmerica Training, email Academy@SourceAmerica.org.
The SourceAmerica Workforce Development team and collaborators design approaches that address real needs expressed by persons with disabilities and our member nonprofits while responding to trends shaping the U.S. labor market. Our programs explore multiple paths to acquiring skills and experience such as micro credentialing, pre-apprenticeships, and paid internships plus engagement strategies with industry leaders. Our intent is to build bridges between an often-overlooked workforce and career opportunities within industries that recognize the valuable contributions made by persons with disabilities.
Do you offer any workforce training specific to the sewn products industry and/or any other industries? And can your training be adopted by other companies?
SourceAmerica models workforce development programs that address specific needs, and others that can be easily adapted to a variety of industries. Broad application includes the introduction of immersive learning technologies, such as virtual reality, and new approaches to mentoring and on-demand instruction through augmented reality. The use of these technologies in an instructive format will reveal new operational uses in multiple industries. We have also introduced advanced manufacturing, through 3D printing and CNC machining, to the design work of our Productivity Engineering team, allowing them to work alongside our member nonprofits to create operational efficiencies and remove barriers to advancing the skills and potential of their workforce. In more specific cases, we are working to address the need for technology products and services that are designed for all prospective users which then opens the door to employment opportunities in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) world.
While SourceAmerica training does not replace industry-standard certifications, we have created curricula that will provide foundational knowledge and encourage people with disabilities to continue to seek additional classes or education. As such we will soon roll out Occupation Specific Curricula in the areas of Medical Coding, Document Management, Information Technology, and Cybersecurity. Each curriculum was designed to facilitate beginning exploration of a field.
How has Covid-19 Impacted your work? Are you offering virtual training?
During Covid-19, the Learning Solutions team has worked diligently to convert all previous face-to-face instruction to virtual instructor led training (vILT). Beyond our e-Learning courses, we have a calendar of over 70 vILT offerings which can be registered for through the SourceAmerica Academy.
SourceAmerica nonprofit manufacturers and their employees are considered part of the essential workforce and were identified as a Critical Infrastructure Sector by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a result, all manufacturers and their workforce continue to deliver products and services to their customers. The manufacturers are following state and local guidance regarding personal protective equipment, distancing, health monitoring, travel restrictions, quarantine, and closure.
We have adapted all of our Workforce Development programs, and the support for our stakeholders, to be fully remote. This includes fully virtual technical assistance on customized employment, engineering support, and organizational best practices through our Pathways to Careers, Productivity Engineering, and Quality Work Environment programs. The SourceAmerica member nonprofits have also increased the use of remote technology to offer vocational supports that meet the needs of persons with disabilities, while following protocols related to the pandemic. We are all learning a great deal about how to provide impactful services in an ever-changing environment.
SourceAmerica not only helps persons with disabilities succeed in the workforce, you also teach people how to advocate for themselves. What is the goal of your grassroots advocacy program?
There’s a saying in the disability rights movement — “Nothing About Us Without Us.” That’s what SourceAmerica’s Grassroots Advocacy Program is all about. The Grassroots conference provides a platform for member nonprofits and self-advocates to use what they have been practicing year-round and put it into action. The conference teaches people with disabilities how to tell their story, how to share their unique perspective, and then it allows them to turn that training into a tangible policy impact. It is a powerful experience. It changes the way participants see themselves, and it empowers them to change the world.
Last month’s Behind the Seams focus was technology. What role does technology play in improving the employment opportunities of persons with disabilities?
Technology offers tremendous potential in improving current and future employment prospects of persons with disabilities. This certainly relates to greater sophistication in accessible and assistive technologies, but the opportunity for progress is even greater. As we gravitate to a greater reliance on the use of technology to perform our jobs, now is the optimal time to include the perspective of persons with disabilities to ensure virtual meeting platforms, extended reality, and other technologies that make remote work possible are both accessible and usable for all. The upfront work of informing the design and improvements of products and services can create employment opportunities. And the outcomes of barrier-free technology, will support greater diversity in the workforce — which benefits businesses, people and society.
Are there any clear gaps that still need to be filled or technology that needs to be created to aid the disability community in the workforce?
Aside from what is listed in the last answer, other areas include addressing biases in the algorithms that drive decisions on who to hire, and reframing the use of automation as a means for augmenting the unique abilities of workers rather than replacing them altogether. Also, there is a need to reframe the question posed — persons with disabilities should always be considered prospective users of any technology because the community is represented across all other demographics. Shouldn’t we be asking if there are clear gaps where technology can be created to ensure people continue to remain engaged with work – and how can that technology be designed with full inclusion as an imperative?
What is the purpose of the SourceAmerica Design Challenge? Do you have any favorites designs from the past winners?
The Design Challenge is an exciting program that engages high school and college students to work alongside persons with disabilities to address real barriers in the workplace. The outcomes are innovative designs that can positively impact people and it introduces young people to the importance of universal design and the power of engineering to address social issues.
A few years ago, we had a young man who was working as an intern in a hospital sorting medicine. Due to some challenges he faced due to his disability, the hospital wasn’t going to hire him. Design Challenge students built him a scanner and custom sorting station that improved his efficiency. Because of that, the hospital eventually offered him full-time employment.
What would you say are the biggest opportunities and challenges associated with building an inclusive workforce?
Benefits: The benefits of an inclusive workforce include increased diversity of thought and experiences which can drive innovation; expanded market share as a result of offering products and services that are directly informed by such diversity; and the positive public recognition for companies that focus on the social benefits they can create apart from creating shareholder wealth. There are no downsides of building an inclusive workforce.
Challenges: The root of exclusion is an assumption that persons with disabilities cannot offer the same value as their nondisabled peers to the workforce. Inherent, often un-recognized discrimination is not a simple thing to overcome. If a company wants to be effective in this area, it must recognize that it’s corporate culture, it’s physical space and it’s digital systems all need to be addressed as potential barriers (negative) or as opportunities for learning about how to be more inclusive (positive). This is not exclusively related to persons with disabilities. The worst thing a company can do is approach this topic with a superficial approach that engages in tokenism, rather than a true commitment to inclusion.
If a company in the sewn products industry — supplier, manufacturer, brand, retailer, etc. — wanted to recruit and include more people with disabilities within their own workforce, what advice would you give the company to start?
There are many public and nonprofit resources to assist employers with taking intentional steps towards building an inclusive workforce. SourceAmerica stands ready to offer support, from basic disability awareness, to tailored services, to employers through the experience of our Workforce Development team, and a direct connection to a nationwide network of community service providers. In terms of a starting point — a company should assess what is prompting it’s interest in building a more inclusive workforce, identify related goals and understand the level of commitment company leadership is willing to put toward positively influencing the culture.