Disability effort takes flight

Diversity Matters

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Giant Eagle has a long history of hiring and training workers with disabilities. For decades, the O'Hara-based supermarket chain has counted among its employees people who are deaf, blind or have other physical or mental challenges.

So the company was an ideal place to pilot a recently launched initiative with United Way of Allegheny County that will tap high school students with disabilities for jobs, and provide coaching to help them transition from school to the workforce.

The most innovative aspect of the effort, say those involved, is that Giant Eagle has hired a full-time career transition liaison -- think job coach -- who is embedded at the company to work directly with human resources personnel, trainers, supervisors and other employees to create a supportive culture for workers with disabilities. The liaison is also charged with scouting Giant Eagle for new opportunities for job candidates with disabilities.

"This is pretty unique," said Lisa Kellick, special education supervisor in the career development program at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides specialized services to public and vocational schools in Allegheny County and which helped notify school districts about the pilot program.

"Many human resources departments have a designated person to go to, but this person was hired specifically for the skills she has dealing with that population of people with disabilities," Ms. Kellick said.

The person named to the post at Giant Eagle is Barbara Graham, a vocational rehabilitation counselor who has three decades of experience, most recently at Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services, the Homestead-based agency where she was coordinator of employment support services.

Through a two-year pilot initiative with United Way's 21 & Able program, Giant Eagle plans to hire 24 individuals identified by their high schools or vocational schools as having a disability but who have strong potential to work. Their disabilities may range from cognitive to physical to combinations of both, and could be mild or severe, Ms. Graham said.

"The first requirement is, 'Who wants to work?' " she said. "They can apply for anything they are capable of."

To date, a student from Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills has been hired at Giant Eagle's Monroeville store as a meat wrapper; other students are shadowing Giant Eagle workers in various jobs, Ms. Graham said.

The company is targeting candidates for positions as cashiers, produce clerks, stock personnel and front-end workers whose duties include bagging groceries and maintaining carts, Ms. Kellick said. But Giant Eagle will consider students whose skills fit other openings, she said, such as Julian Sewell, who was hired in the meat department at the Monroeville store because of training he received at Steel Center.

For the launch of the initiative, Giant Eagle introduced the program to schools in the north and east suburbs; eventually it will be rolled out to schools in the south and west suburbs and in the city.

"We were a little worried about how much interest we were going to get, but people are knocking on our door," said Jeremy Shapira, senior director, talent acquisition for Giant Eagle.

The inclusion of workers with disabilities throughout the company "from a business perspective makes so much sense," he said. "We get a lot of support from people in the community. If this works in Allegheny County, our full intention is to replicate it across the company in all our major markets."

Giant Eagle, the largest private company in the Pittsburgh region last year with more than $9 billion in revenues, has 36,000 employees at about 400 locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

The supermarket chain "is what we hope is the first of many companies to engage with us on this project," said Mary Anderson Hartley, project manager of the United Way's 21 & Able initiative.

The United Way effort includes the career transition liaison project at Giant Eagle as well as other programs designed to better equip youth with disabilities for the years after they complete high school or technical school. Besides employment opportunities, 21 & Able focuses on independent living options and community involvement, Ms. Hartley said.

According to statistics she cited from the U.S. Census Bureau, 40 percent of individuals with disabilities come out of high school without jobs and with no plans to pursue college or training.

"We're trying to prevent people from graduating to the couch," Mr. Shapira said.

Though Giant Eagle is paying Ms. Graham's salary, United Way is funding the evaluation process for the pilot of the career liaison project. United Way credited Allegheny County's director of community affairs, Mary Esther Van Shura, with helping formulate the idea of the career transition liaison.

"The biggest benefit, not just to the students but in general, is that [Giant Eagle] is not just saying they are going to hire and are committed to hiring people with disabilities," Ms. Kellick said. "They've done something further. They have someone there to help people navigate the system.

"Often people with disabilities can get a job but can't hold a job. This way there is someone they know they can go to who will help them, someone experienced with disabilities who knows the accommodations they need to keep the job they get and be successful."


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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