Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Customizing Job Development:
Un-Occupying the Workshop, One Person at a Time


Cary Griffin is Senior Partner with Griffin-Hammis Associates, LLC, Florence, Montana

Bob Niemiec is Director with the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center, and Senior Consultant with Griffin-Hammis Associates, St. Paul, Minnesota

Megan Zeilinger is Senior Consultant with Griffin-Hammis Associates, Oakdale, Minnesota

A young woman with disabilities graduates high school with few employment prospects that excite her. She and her support team struggle to see beyond the few jobs typically available to individuals who’ve received special education services in K-12 schools. But then she gets connected with an employment specialist versed in the job creation strategies central to Customized Employment (CE). Together they explore her Vocational Themes™, the large umbrella topics that represent an accumulation of many jobs, environments, skills/task sets, and interests. Within a couple weeks she is working in the fashion field for a small modeling company, using her emerging sewing skills and learning about the proper application of makeup. Before the CE approach was offered, she faced a fairly traditional list of jobs ranging from cleaning bathrooms, to busing tables, to opening boxes for a large retailer. Today, she is around others who have a passion for fashion and who willingly teach her new skills, naturally advancing her career.

Today, this story is still a rarity. At Griffin-Hammis Associates we recently surveyed almost 300 rehabilitation personnel with job development duties. The findings underscored the diverse reasons Supported Employment outcomes stalled about a decade ago (Griffin, 2011; Butterworth, et al., 2010). Chief among the practices contributing to lackluster success were the adherence to traditional Supported/Competitive Employment comparative methods for finding employment that include:

  • Looking for “open” jobs (approaching only employers who are hiring).
  • Looking for entry-level, often repetitive jobs in retail box stores and fast food restaurants where little job development creativity is required.

The days of easy placements are more or less over, because many of the folks with disabilities seeking work today bring substantial complexity to the situation and require more thoughtful, more individualized, and more economically compelling approaches.

Customized Employment is a set of techniques that makes Supported Employment more rigorous by using an economic development approach to job creation. It requires active tactics to create opportunity, rather than the passivity of luck and the willingness of companies to “give someone a try.” Its foundation is the Discovery process.

Discovering Personal Genius™

Discovery, or as we call it, Discovering Personal Genius™, is a process of revealing what already exists. Discovery stages job development efforts by exploring who the job seeker is, what they know, and where they best fit. The process typically begins in the individual’s home and includes listening sessions with friends and family where professionals maintain near silence except when prompting additional conversation. We recommend a simple, “Tell me about your daughter,” when doing the initial home visit with a family. This discussion is not an interrogation. There are aspects of people’s lives we wish to know, including tasks they perform and skills they have, but there’s no checklist or script. The conversation finds its own way, with gentle guidance from the facilitator or team leader, and is not interrupted until all that needs to be said has been spoken. Some rules for conducting Discovery include:

  • Start with the person’s home and include friends and family. Explore the rooms of the home for clues about interests, skills and tasks performed. Have the individual demonstrate their skills, showcase their interests, and note their competency levels (remember that most of us started working without knowing how to do our first jobs; employers taught us based on some hunch that we could learn or contribute). Explore the surrounding neighborhood for employment or work experience opportunities, transportation resources, and places to learn new skills.
  • Plan activities that demonstrate the skills and tasks the individual performs, wants to learn, and has an interest in. Assisting a make-up artist with a makeover in a store at the mall is an activity; watching someone get a makeover is not. Baking a cake at home is an activity; eating cake is not.
  • Seek to establish at least three over-arching Vocational Themes™ for each person. These are not job descriptions, such as “wants to be a dog groomer.” Instead, they are broad: think “Animals.” This leads to a richer series of activities in relevant environments. Someone interested in dog grooming may simply be grasping at the one job someone has told them they might be able to do. By exploring the broader field of Animals, using both informational interviews and short work experiences, a world of possible tasks and environments is revealed for the individual.
  • Develop a solid vocational profile statement capturing the essence of the person, their predominant skills, and the three themes of relevance.
  • Make Discovery a project. Assign a start and end date, allocate resources and time, and assign staff. Customized Employment is not about getting a dream job; it sees a job as the beginning of the rehabilitation process, not the end. Therefore, starting with a job that matches existing or quickly learned skills, in a place that matches the individual’s profile, is the starting point, around co-workers who share a similar theme(s) because they are more likely to connect with the person and teach them what they know and find interesting.

Job Development

Searching for work begins as Discovery ends. The CE approach requires us to:

  • Negotiate job tasks that mutually benefit the employee and the employer. Approach specific places of employment that match the theme(s) and that have task needs matching the job seeker’s talents.
  • Understand that employers are always hiring. They are hiring people who fit their company’s culture, who contribute valued labor and attributes, and who generate their paychecks through profits.
  • Avoid traditional Human Resources/competitive hiring processes. If completing applications and interviewing are anything more than formalities, it is probably not customized. Customized Employment circumvents these comparative processes that screen out people with disabilities; it is instead based on unique job creation negotiation.
  • For each Vocational Theme™ construct a non-duplicative list of 20 places where the theme makes sense. List 20 specific places of employment in the community, accessible to the person, where people with similar skills and interests work. While there is nothing magical about the number 20, locating just a few places is too easy, and creativity in job development comes after the most obvious employers are listed.
  • Use informational interviews to gather advice for the individual’s employment plan. By asking for advice from someone successful who shares similar theme(s), and getting a tour of their workplace, potential tasks are revealed, and if a match seems possible, job development may be introduced.
  • Curtail retail. Many retail jobs have been stripped of their complexity. The existence of complexity in work tasks means more stable work, an abundance of natural supports through stable co-workers, the opportunity to advance by learning to use equipment or technology, and higher earnings potential due to advancement. Opening boxes in a storeroom is not likely to build skills upon which a career will rest. Seek out smaller artisanal businesses related to the individual’s theme(s), where they can learn more trade-related occupations, even if it means starting at the bottom. Most senior machinists began their careers emptying the trash in a machine shop, and gradually were taught by co-workers, attended classes, and slowly gained experience. Many bakers learned their craft by scrubbing cake pans, surrounded by master bakers who mentored them over time.
  • Seek out small businesses. There are only 17,000 businesses in the United States with over 500 employees. There are approximately 37 million small businesses, most with fewer than a handful of employees, the majority of which have no job descriptions or Human Resources departments.
  • Identify people with shared interests. The opportunity to meet with a business manager or owner who shares the interests of the job seeker makes job creation easier. Naturally, shared interests are not generally reason enough to hire; there must also be the potential for learning the requisite skills of the job. However, the identification and recognition of shared interests is the foundation of most lasting human relationships. Hiring is personal, especially in smaller companies.
  • Remember, there are unlimited ways to make a living in the world, therefore, “thinking in job descriptions” or job openings is limiting. Few of us know many of the ways that people make a living. Our experiences are quite limited and when we think in terms of “what can Jon do?” our creativity is dramatically impeded. Instead, CE challenges us to engage communities by digging through less traveled and unexpected places to reveal the almost limitless commerce that engages our country.


Thinking differently and breaking the routine is difficult for us all. The process of CE provides a chartered course fostering new opportunities. Creativity is not even a prerequisite. Simply following the steps will reveal the abundance of economic opportunity in even the smallest of communities. Go where the Vocational Themes™ make sense, focus on tasks and skills, and negotiate for mutual benefit.


  • Butterworth, J., Smith, F., Hall, A., & Winsor, J. (2010). State data: The national report on employment services and outcomes 2009. Boston, MA: Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston.

  • Griffin, C. C. (2011). National Job Development Survey results: Time to think outside the box store. Florence, MT: Griffin-Hammis Associates.