Finding a job is not easy work. But as executive director of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, Tad Asbury has helped a countless number of high school students with physical, developmental and learning challenges find their way into the competitive working world and onto a path of personal achievement. With branches in seven major metropolitan areas, Marriott’s Bridges Program serves 1100 students every year, guiding them to strong working relationships with employers. ABILITY Magazine asks Asbury what makes the Bridges Program work.
ABILITY: When did you join the Marriott Foundation?
Asbury: I joined the organization in 2003, after a number of years in corporate philanthropy, but Marriott started serving its first youth with disabilities in 1990. So we’re now coming up on that magical 20th anniversary, and we’ve now served about 15,000 young people with disabilities, helping them make those first and critical moves out of school and into the world of work. These are kids with disabilities that range from mild learning disabilities all the way through significant autism or mental retardation or visual or hearing impairment. The disability itself doesn’t matter, because we’re focused so much more on getting them into work, letting them know that there is a place for them in the world of work if we can find a connection for them and for the employer.
ABILITY: So Marriott tapped you? Or did you reach out to them?
Asbury: I was tapped to come in and help lead the organization, shaping it for the future. This job has been a great fit for me, personally. It’s very close to my house, so that was great. (laughs) In a city like Washington, DC, anything with a short commute is wonderful. And from Marriott International headquarters here in Bethesda, we manage the program in several other cities around the country. The Bridges program is run not just in Washington, DC, but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. We have offices out there, we have an office in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, and Montgomery County as well.
ABILITY: If a student in high school had a learning disability, how would they find you? What would happen within the Bridges program?
Asbury: All right, so let’s say you’re 19 years old—
ABILITY: We are 19. ABILITY Magazine is in its 19th year.
Asbury: (laughs) We serve kids from 17 to 22 years old, so in this scenario, you’re more than likely to learn about our program in your junior or senior year of high school. We tend to focus on high schools in urban centers, so let’s take a hypothetical high school in Compton, California. You’re a person with a learning disability who may have had a series of challenges that might even go beyond his disability, including other barriers to employment, difficult socioeconomic issues, and the like. College probably isn’t in the cards for you, in that case. Maybe in the long-term it is, but certainly not in the short-term. You’d be introduced to our program through a transition coordinator at your school, or through a teacher, or maybe just through some of the workshops that we run as we partner with your school. If you have a genuine desire to go to work, we’re going to help you opt into the program as much as we can.
We begin to reach out to these students through the school system and then, at some point, maybe even through our office. Then the students would come in and we would begin to do some diagnostic work with them, assessing the things they like to do, the places they would like to go. They dream, like everybody else. We are all dreamers, especially at that age, and our goal at Marriott is to try to help blend those dreams with some realities of the world of work, and to connect those realities to employment that suits the student’s interests. After a series of assessments, our frontline staff–our “employer representatives”–wear a lot of hats. They function as caseworkers with caseloads of young people, but they also act as job developers. Each of those staff members is in touch with employers who very much need entry-level workers to fill positions.
So we’ll at some point get our students job-ready through development of their interviewing skills and resume-building skills, if indeed they need that sort of support. Many or most of them probably do. Transportation is critical, too, especially in a city like Los Angeles, as they need to be able to get to and from their jobs. So we’ll put them in our automobiles and get them to those interviews and start to walk them through a place where ultimately, we hope, they would get hired into a competitive position with a local employer. And then, over the course of months in a given position, they connect with us on a weekly basis, then on a monthly basis and then on a quarterly basis. At some point, of course, we exit them out of Bridges if they have demonstrated an ability to maintain employment, or if they have demonstrated abilities to be out on their own. That’s how that process works.
ABILITY: So the important thing is leading them across the bridge to the other side.
Asbury: Yeah, that’s the hope with all of them. Of course, there’s a myriad of challenges in working with this population. But the opportunities are so great, and there are so many young people who are in need of these services. There are about a quarter of a million young people leaving high school every year, and a year after they leave high school, about half of them are still either unemployed or woefully underemployed. These statistics are national in nature, and I would venture to say they’re even more critical in inner cities around the country, in the cities where we serve these youth, and in other cities as well.
So there are many young people for us to serve, and there are still many employers, even in today’s time of economic trial. There are still positions that are open as people retire, as people leave jobs. There are openings, and we’re still, all things considered, pretty successful in getting young people into jobs and then helping them stay in these jobs.
I think we’ve found an awful lot of success in going right into the community, into the employer who has a very immediate need for someone to come in at an entry-level position. We hire these students right into the job, knowing that training can happen right there in the workplace between the employer and the employee. That’s always been the focus of the Bridging program: to center in on those competitive jobs at a competitive wage.
ABILITY: Have you been involved with AmeriCorps?
Asbury: I do know we have had periods of working with young people coming out of the AmeriCorps programs. I know in San Francisco there were a few. And we’ll find them jobs, maybe not even in the field that they were focusing in on with their AmeriCorps training, but largely these young people are just coming to us and saying that they need a job. As much as they might like to do volunteer work in the community, it’s still a matter of paying bills. When you’ve got a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kid who, even at minimum wage may be the only breadwinner in a family with a mom, or possibly other kids to take care of, a lot of these kids find themselves taking on considerable responsibility in their family network. So for them, there’s a bottom line of having a paycheck.
ABILITY: You say there were some people in the San Francisco area who were coming back into the program that had already experienced some volunteer efforts?
Asbury: Yes, or who were involved in training programs in San Francisco. But that’s more of a rare case, I would say, in the population that we’re serving. We don’t see a lot of them coming through volunteer programs, initially.
ABILITY: Do you work with other nonprofit or for-profit entities that help employ people with disabilities? Organizations like the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN)?
Asbury: Funny you mention them. I just had lunch yesterday with their chairman, John Kemp. We do have some connections with them. Still, I think we find the most effective connection with the business community is to go right to the places of employment, right up to the managers who are hiring. When it comes to getting kids into positions, it’s about establishing their relationship with the hiring manager and finding someone to satisfy that manager’s immediate employment needs.
But yes, our organization is involved with groups such as the National Youth Employment Coalition, and we have spoken before at USBLN conferences. I know their next meeting is in September, here in Washington, DC.
We’re really thinking of how, as an organization, we can continue to grow a program. We’ve seen 20 years of remarkable success, really, in helping so many young people make the transition to the world of work, and in helping 1,000 kids a year. However, we’re still asking how we can reach out and get others to use this model of making these proper employment matches that satisfy both the young person and the employer. Right now, there’s some training going on in New Orleans, where we do not have a Bridges program, but where we are opening what we’re calling an “affiliated program.” Essentially, we’re training recovery school district teachers and transition coordinators, to act as Bridges’ employer representatives, in much the same way that we might train coordinators in our offices in LA or Oakland and San Francisco. But at these affiliated programs, we will not have a full-blown Bridges program with a director and the like, so the recovery school district staff members just stay on in their positions while delivering the Bridges model to youth and to the employers of the city of New Orleans. This approach bypasses the significant start-up costs that it takes to get a program going in a new city. So we’re excited about those possibilities, because we’re able to develop these connections with larger groups and to talk about some of the ways we can grow the program a little more.
ABILITY: What was John Kemp’s idea for expansion?
Asbury: He was very taken with what we’re doing with the New Orleans school system. I was, in a sense, getting an endorsement from him. He thought that what we were doing was a very, good way to go for the future. And we talked about some other organizations that we may want to reach out to. The program is funded in part by the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Family Foundation, and not by the Marriott Corporation at all. It gets seed money from the family foundation, and then I go out and raise more resources. For every dollar I get from the foundation, I raise an additional two dollars in government contracts.
ABILITY: Do you have statistics for the job retention rates of your program?
Asbury: Essentially, we aim at a goal that our front-line employer representatives are going to place 16 young people into employment. We would fully expect that at least 12 of them stay at least 90 days on the job, and then we’ll monitor their results over 180 days or even 365 days. But of those 12 that stay on the job for at least 90 days, we’ll also see a series of advancements happen, including longevity on the job, increases in responsibility, additional hours on the job, and additional increases in wage. So we’ve got our own data that we are constantly monitoring, and we deliver those results back to the organizations that we contract with, like the Department of Rehabilitation.
ABILITY: When you help develop these students’ resumes, do you also have them post them online?
Asbury: Probably not, if only because many of these young people may not have access to the web where they live or in their community. We give them access in our offices. I think we’re more likely to create a resume for them and keep it in our system so, should they need it again, they can get it. It’s not uncommon to have someone we served three or four years ago lose a job and not have a copy of their resume and simply come in and ask to have a copy. But we find that, when it comes to this interaction of technology and the young people we serve, there’s a considerable challenge relative to these online job applications and questionnaires. If you apply for a job with Safeway or Target, you’re expected to be able to use a kiosk or go online and answer some questions and then fill out an online job application. The young people we serve often find that particularly challenging to go through. So we assist by educating them about these systems and the process of filling out these applications. We always hope that that is information they can carry with them when they’re well beyond our Bridges program. These online application systems aren’t going to go away.
ABILITY: It seems more and more companies are taking advantage of technology to streamline their operations.
Asbury: Sure. That’s understandable. It makes a lot of sense. It’s just that it leaves a number of people even more challenged to get past that screening tool. We see an awful lot of that. We work pretty closely with the young people to navigate them through some of those systems.
One of the inspirations behind Bridges, when it was formed 20 years ago, came from asking employers, “If you had to hire someone with a disability tomorrow, where would you go?” And they had no answer. And today, because of the Internet, there’s a whole lot more resources for employers to go out and find employees, but still, some people may not know how to go about doing that.
Over the years, we’ve worked with more than 3,300 employers. It’s a great number, but there’s still a whole lot more employers to tell about the incredible advantages of hiring people with disabilities. It’s not uncommon that a kid will get hired through Bridges and the employer will simply come back when they have openings and say, “Who else do you have? I need more people for entry-level positions.” I was talking to my director in Dallas just yesterday, and learned that Baylor University has hired 17 Bridges kids this year alone. Why? Because the employer knows what he’s getting. He’s getting pre-screened young people who are ready to go to work. And if they have any issues relative to the pairing of this kid with Baylor University, then Bridges is there to intervene and to help clarify the issue. If Baylor needs to fire a young person, we’ll say, “Go ahead and fire them, because the relationship with you, Baylor University and Aramark, is far more critical than having someone who isn’t the right fit for the job. Then we’ll find the young person a different job and we’ll someone else who’s a better fit for the university.”
It’s great to make those connections with employers, and once they understand this resource, they really do embrace the possibilities. You see the advantages and work from there.
ABILITY: Doesn’t Richard Marriott say, “It’s just not the right thing to do, it’s good business.”
Asbury: Yes. He’s a great guy. He’s the chairman of our board, and I think his comment is something to the nature of, “It’s not just a philanthropic charitable effort, it’s a good business decision.” And that’s ultimately what plays well for an employer. The employer wants to help the community. He wants to demonstrate his involvement in the community. But the bottom line at the end of the day is the success at making a profit, or these days, of at least breaking even. And you’re going to give employers a proposition that’s going to help them do that. You’re going to want them to hire young people because it is a good business decision. So from that position, they can hire even more people. And that certainly is a philosophy that Marriott holds itself up to and instilled in this program since the beginning.
I think we’ve seen a shift with the Bridges program, certainly since ABILITY Magazine last interviewed Mr. Marriott. Originally, the notion was to get young people into jobs or even into internships that might turn into jobs, get them up through about 90 days, and then close out the case and go pick up another caseload of kids. Today, all we focus on is long-term intervention. So we have, as a centerpiece to our efforts, something we call a career development plan. We develop a long-term plan for each young person–and a lot of these kids haven’t thought long-term about their own futures, if at all, so it’s a great start for them. That career development plan is something we come back to, and the intervention now is not 90 days, but up to 24 months, depending on need. That’s where there’s certainly been a shift in what we’ve done.
ABILITY: It sounds like you’ve expanded your reach.
Asbury: If I look at the populations of kids that we serve, it would, I think, still continue to mirror the general census population. 60% of them have learning disabilities and another usually 12% to 15% have mental retardation or some sort of other cognitive challenge or developmental delay. Another 12% to 15% have emotional or behavioral disabilities, and the remainder pick up other disabilities, whether it be blindness, visual impairments or hearing impairments and the like. But we find ourselves really focusing more on what a kid can do than what a kid can’t do.