Thriving in the Workplace–and in Life

Employment program transforms the lives of young adults in the Southeastern United States

Kieffer KrichbaumInside Hinds Community College’s main library, near Jackson, Mississippi, Kieffer Krichbaum pores through hundreds of boxes filled with historical photographs, books, newspaper clippings, and more that were packed away for decades. Kieffer, 21, has meticulously organized the college’s archives during the past year. His passion for books and attention to detail proved a perfect fit for the job.

“Because of his interest in books since he was a child, it has always been our dream for Kieffer to work in a library,” says his mother, Adele Krichbaum, reflecting on the challenges of raising a son with autism. “Even today, a collection of books lines his bedroom walls.”

The experience is about more than just a job. In the process of bringing Hinds Community College history to life, Kieffer found part of himself. “This work environment has finally allowed him to thrive in life,” Adele says. “He feels a sense of purpose, and that is nothing short of a miracle. What a transformation of a young man.”

Her son previously worked gluing boxes together in a community rehabilitation program. “It was assumed he enjoyed that type of work,” she says. “Through the customized employment process we learned that there might be a better fit, and there was.”

Kieffer landed his library position thanks to a customized employment pilot program launched by the Southeast Technical Assistance and Continuing Education Center (TACE), a project of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University, and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Customized employment is a flexible five-step process that personalizes the relationship between a job candidate and an employer to meet the needs of both. The hallmark of the approach is the discovery phase, designed to create a vocational picture of a job seeker and to guide job development.

“This is a highly individualized approach,” explains Chip Kenney, director of BBI’s Southeast TACE, based in Atlanta. “The process takes into account a person’s entire life experiences rather than isolated indicators of ability based on comparative testing.”

In collaboration with state vocational rehabilitation agencies, school districts, and other partners, Southeast TACE staff members have brought customized employment pilots to the southeastern United States. Southeast TACE provides a range of supports, including project management, training, and evaluation.

“Customized employment is one of the most successful tools we have had,” says Stephanie Walters, an employment coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. She guided Kieffer and his family through the customized employment process.

According to Walters, approximately 100 vocational rehabilitation employees across Mississippi were trained in customized employment as part of Southeast TACE’s pilot program in the state. “With the expertise of Southeast TACE, we are implementing customized employment into the agency as a whole,” Walters says.

Young adults in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky are also reaping the benefits of the pilot program. Just ask Marian Sundstrom. Following the customized employment process, Marian noticed a marked difference in her son, Michael, 22, who is autistic.

Michael, a fitness enthusiast, landed a job at a gym in an Orlando suburb. “One of his teachers couldn’t believe how well he was doing when she visited him at work in the gym. He found a voice,” says Marian.

“We’ve been able to take youth who may be viewed as unemployable and change their lives by using discovery to ‘know the job seeker,’ target the employer, and then negotiate to meet their unmet needs,” says Norciva Shumpert, a consultant with BBI’s Southeast TACE. “This is a powerful experience for the job seekers, their families, and vocational rehabilitation specialists.”

Customized employment leads to desirable outcomes for persons with disabilities for a number of reasons. Wages are higher, on average, than for individuals in sheltered work environments, which employ people with disabilities separately from others. In addition, there are social benefits.

“The job has allowed Kieffer to be more outgoing. His language, for example, has gotten better—it’s all because of that job. He gives so much more now than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers,” says Adele. In fact, Kieffer took science and arts courses at the community college, and he has his eyes set on working in the children’s section of the City of Jackson Public Library.

“The hope is that once other states see the success of customized employment, it will become standard. This represents a system change—a new way of helping youth with severe disabilities,” notes Kenney.

More information

Customized employment is a flexible process that personalizes the relationship between a job candidate and an employer to meet the needs of both. Unlike traditional job evaluations, it is a highly individualized approach. The process takes into account a person’s entire life experiences rather than single instances of performance based on testing.