During a time when so many organizations are struggling to find talent, one Lansing-based nonprofit continues to offer jobs to people with disabilities. Since its founding in 1976, Peckham Inc. has operated under the premise that “people with disabilities are amazing workers but they often need some extra support around them to be successful,” said President and CEO Mitchell Tomlinson. Over the last two years, the organization has shifted some of its focus to providing training and opportunities for people with disabilities in the technology support field. Now, Peckham employs 150 people with disabilities in Grand Rapids working in I.T. help-desk positions and is in the process of hiring at least 30 more workers. Tomlinson spoke with MiBiz about Peckham’s decision to begin offering technology-support services and the opportunities those positions unlock for workers with disabilities.
What led Peckham to open in Grand Rapids two years ago?
We’ve had a strong connection back to Grand Rapids, really since our inception. Our fastest-growing line of business is in business services, which is providing I.T.-related support services to different customers, including federal customers. The jobs that we brought to Grand Rapids are in that business service area. They are call center and help-desk support services. We think these are cool jobs that have an I.T. background. There’s a high demand for employment in those areas.
How did you decide to enter the tech industry?
We initially were cleaning some buildings and then we were doing some manufacturing. But when we do our town hall meetings on an annual basis, people kept telling us that they wanted what we call “gold collar” jobs. They wanted jobs where they were working in an office environment, where they were working with technology and computers.
What about technology services lends itself to your workers and mission?
We think there is a digital divide, if you will, for people with significant disabilities. We don’t think people are touching and feeling technology enough and perhaps that’s why they’re not keeping up in the labor market as they should. We’ve discovered that if you give people that opportunity and you give them that training, that workforce can really do that kind of work. It’s a growing industry for our company. It’s a growing industry for the world in a lot of ways. We make sure people with disabilities have a fair shot for those kinds of jobs.
What disabilities does your organization focus on?
We serve people who are blind, we serve people who are deaf, we serve people who have intellectual disability, we serve people with emotional or mental issues they’re dealing with. It matters to some degree with the type of job that people are able to be successful with, but we have a wide range of folks that we serve in all disability groups. One group we’re really focusing on in our company — and in Grand Rapids specifically — is veterans. We’re serving a lot of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and closed-head injury issues. That’s an area that we think we have specific skills in.
What special services do you offer to support these workers in their positions?
If you work for Peckham, you’d have a normal supervisor like you would in any job, but you’d also have access to a personal support specialist that’s essentially a counselor that’s helping you develop your own individual plan and state what those needs you have are.
How does this service help fill a larger need for talent in West Michigan?
When you look at those unemployment numbers, sometimes they don’t include folks who are not looking for employment anymore, or haven’t ever been in the competitive labor market. We think everyone has the right to work. Life is really better when you’re feeling productive and active in the community with work.
Does the training and on-the-job experience you offer prepare people for the broader workforce?
At Peckham, we’re all about the choice of the worker. If that worker is interested in working for someone else, we’re all about supporting that. We have a full-time placement program and we’re about supporting that worker with that disability, whether they want to work for us or whether they ultimately want to work for someone else.
What can be done better to support people with disabilities who want to enter the workforce?
I think we can always do better. We’re a company that believes in continuous improvement. I think part of that is getting the word out by a positive message about people with disabilities. Too often, our messages are negative or tainted with issues instead of talking about the underlying strengths of the ability of people with disabilities. I think the parental idea that we need to protect and coddle folks is probably not (a good idea). We have to let people be in charge of their own treatment programs and their own careers and we need to help support them in that. We look at ourselves as a strength-based organization, so we’re not looking at the limitations, we’re looking at how do you take the strength and then grow those.