NEBA Marks 30 Years of Breaking Barriers to Getting HiredFresh out of college in the 1980s, Jeannine Pavlak found her ideal job — helping others do the same.
“I had just graduated and wanted to do something in the social-service field. I was interested in many different avenues,” she told BusinessWest. “But at the time, in the early 1980s, employment was becoming a hot topic.”
She wound up interviewing with New England Business Associates, a then-new organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities — physical, emotional, behavioral, etc. — find employment.
“I interviewed with many different organizations, but NEBA was the only one — that’s not true now, but it was at the time — that provided individualized, integrated employment” for such individuals, she explained. “I’ve always had a belief that people can work — and should work — and this matched my own personal philosophy.”
She never left, and today serves as executive director as NEBA gets ready to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a party on Oct. 18 at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House.
Over those years, she has overseen the implementation of several innovative programs, including one that helps disabled people become entrepreneurs. But NEBA remains, at its heart, dedicated to matching employers with workers who have encountered a host of challenges to entering the job market. “It’s amazing when it happens,” Pavlak said. “It really changes people’s lives so much.”
Established in 1983, NEBA now serves more than 400 people annually — ranging in age from 15 to 68 — through employment, self-employment, skill building, and community-inclusion programs. But they’re not the only ones who benefit, she said, citing the organization’s positive effects on businesses and the region’s overall economic development.
“As a service provider, we recognize each individual’s unique gifts and talents and maximize these unique strengths in the workplace,” the company’s mission statement explains. “As a business partner, we understand the needs of employers and ensure a successful job match that enhances their bottom line. And as a contributor, we improve economic and community conditions by preparing and placing a talented source of workers eager to become self-sufficient and contributing members of their communities.”
The initial intent, Pavlak said, was to work with people with developmental disabilities who weren’t being offered employment because of their challenges. “We really originated to work with a small group of people to demonstrate that anyone, regardless of their level of disability, can be successfully employed.”
Since then, NEBA has evolved somewhat. “Now anyone who has challenges to entering the workforce, we help support,” she said, noting that the organization contracts with the Department of Developmental Disabilities, the Mass. Rehabilitation Commission, the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, the Department of Transitional Assistance, and local school systems for students transitioning from high school. NEBA is also a registered employment network through the Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work program.
“Many folks are just having trouble finding employment for a variety of reasons; they might not have a very high education, or might be the only one there for their child and not have any group of support.”
But NEBA is most well-known for its work with the disabled, and Pavlak is especially proud of how efficiently it achieves its goals, consistently charting an employment rate for people with disabilities between 85% and 92%. “The national standard is lower than that” for similar agencies, she noted. “We’ve always achieved higher that the national average, and we’re one of the top providers in Massachusetts.”
The reasons for that success are myriad, Pavlak told BusinessWest. “Really, the biggest thing is, our services are individualized. We really get to know the person, and we also really understand what the employer needs. If we’re placing someone who doesn’t meet the employer’s needs or where the individual doesn’t want to be, it won’t be a successful match.
“So we make sure we’re matching people properly,” she continued. “We spend time with employers, finding out what are the greatest challenges to employing people and what positions have the highest turnover. The population we serve, they want to work, and historically, once somebody’s employed, particularly with a disability, they’re not looking to move on to a different job; they want that work. When we find them good job matches, they tend to be long-term employees.”
Many businesses are repeat customers, she added. Because NEBA has been doing this work for 30 years, “we have a lot of relationships we can call upon with different employers. And if they’re not hiring, they may give us a sense of who might be hiring. Employers know us, and they know we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do.”
That includes plenty of initial job preparation to make sure clients are ready for interviewing and have a résumé, among other soft skills.
However, once a client finds work, “employers are expected to train that employee like they’d train anyone else,” Pavlak said, but NEBA still sends a staff member in to reinforce that training, and if the employer wants to add more duties to the client’s job description, they can consult with NEBA on that as well. “Our goal is for their co-workers to be their natural support, as it is for all of us. But we check in monthly with the employer to make sure things are fine.”
Pavlak said their involvement with NEBA clients has been eye-opening for many companies, and some businesses are clearly more progressive than others when it comes to hiring people with disabilities.
“Certainly some employers have very clear policies promoting this; they want to hire people with disabilities,” she said. “But the majority of businesses haven’t had the opportunity to hire people with disabilities.
“There are a lot of stereotypes out there, like liability; people are fearful if they have disabled workers, workers’ compensation claims will increase,” she continued. “We help educate them that liability and workers’ compensation is based on past history and the jobs you’re hiring for, not whom you’re hiring. There was a study done by DuPont over 20 years showing that people with disabilities actually have fewer injuries on the job because they’re much more aware.”
Another plus is that NEBA clients seem to give a more predictable effort on the job than the workforce as a whole, she said. “I’ve had employers say to me, ‘the work is always consistent. Out of all my employees, the person placed by NEBA does the same amount of work every day.’ They say other employees might give 100% one day, just top-notch, and another day give 60%; they’re much less consistent with their work.”
Clients of New England Business Associates are doing more than finding employment; they’re also starting businesses and creating jobs.
Much of that success is being achieved through the NEBA Business Development Center (BDC), which provides clients with the entrepreneurial training necessary to develop a business concept, write a business plan, and implement a business.
“The Business Development Center is my most exciting project,” Pavlak said. “That was set up to help people with disabilities start their own businesses. When we first started it locally, there weren’t a lot of resources available for people with disabilities to start their own businesses. We collaborated with the Scibelli Enterprise Center, and we were set up initially as a consulting center, but quickly turned into a business incubator.”
The BDC mentors participants in the day-to-day operation of a new business venture, introduces them to a network of fellow entrepreneurs, and helps them access resources like the Senior Corps of Retired Executives and the Small Business Administration.
Adam Anderson is one NEBA client who has launched and maintained a successful business, Wilbraham Web Design. He had an interest in working with computers but eventually found an affinity for web design and started learning about small-business ownership and attending business courses at Springfield Technical Community College. By the end of 2006, his first year in business, Anderson already had numerous clients.
Pavlak explained that such companies are able to keep accessing the incubator for training in various aspects of their business, such as marketing strategy, as they grow. “We really look at ourselves as part of the economic-development arm,” she said. “So far, we have started 35 active businesses, and out of these 35 businesses, they’ve had to hire 23 additional employees.”
She can point to hundreds of success stories over the years — both entrepreneurs and people who simply wanted to land a steady job — as reflective of how important NEBA is for job seekers frustrated by the barriers they encounter.
“It can be difficult to access the job market on a few different levels,” she told BusinessWest. “It certainly helps them to identify where their strengths lie and learn how to sell that to the employer. Everyone has something to give, and if we match them appropriately, it can be a real benefit to an employer. People struggle most with how they sell ourselves. For our clients, it’s even more difficult to do that.”
Meanwhile, some clients have to overcome their uncertainty about how employment will affect the disability benefits they already receive. “We have a certified work incentive counselor meet with them and show them exactly how work will affect their benefits, and it takes the fear away,” Pavlak said. “What happens, in most cases, is that they’re better off getting their employers’ benefits.”
One benefit that can’t be measured, of course, is the simple pride clients take in having their skills recognized and put to use in a well-paying job.
“It’s so uplifting to do this work,” she said. “It makes you feel good on so many different levels.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]