Alberta’s Employment First Initiative

Employment First is essentially a ‘best practices’ statement which simply asserts that employment in the general workforce should be the first and preferred outcome for publicly funded services for adults with intellectual / developmental disabilities. Employment First principles  have been promoted most vocally by APSE – the Association of People Supporting Employment First – a national association promoting employment inclusion in the United States. Employment First also defines employment as working in an integrated setting for at least minimum wage – i.e. a real job in a real workplace.

For over a decade, provincial and national employment associations in Canada have articulated similar definitions and statements about employment supports . Although these ideas are not new, they have now been collected under one ‘banner’ in order to mobilize the cause. The strategy seems to be gaining traction in both the US and in Canada with states and provinces creating Employment First policies and agendas for change.  We’re clearly at a pivotal point in services and workplace inclusion for people with disabilities. However, the quality and efficacy of this transition is dependent on dialogue, clarity and an alignment of the goals of government, job-seekers and employers.

Although the potential for inclusion, poverty reduction, citizenship and Social Return on Investment is obvious with Employment First guided policy and practice, there is also potential for the movement to be misinterpreted and put to uses for which it was never intended. For example, there have been state-run Employment First initiatives in the US which do not adhere to the core APSE promoted philosophies and strategies. Such initiatives have struggled with bureaucracy-directed outcomes built around policies and systems – not the people they were intended to serve. In some instances ‘Employment Only’ initiatives have been created and service choices for people have been limited even further.

Employment First, it must be understood, is not a ‘service delivery model’ but rather a philosophy which is focused on normative experience, inclusion and capacity building. In order for the movement to be successful, government’s role must be to ensure the required resources and enlist leadership around progressive employment service design and delivery. Investment in the development of outcomes based employment services must be a primary focus as well . Information, resources and time are all required in order to support the effective development of these services.  All other strategies to support the transition to an ‘Employment First’ agenda are comparatively quite ‘secondary.’

Although the language around Supported Employment may have become progressive, service providers are in many cases working with employment facilitation models which are under-developed, outdated or which fail to recognize the needs of all parties involved – most typically those of the employer. Many view this issue as an unfortunate by-product of a funding relationship which up until now has not been outcomes based nor particularly focused on Employment Inclusion (see the April RealEyes Blog ). The movement in Alberta towards outcomes-based services and contracting – while not welcomed by everyone – is actually a step in the right direction. It is essential for services to examine,  declare and review their values, activities, service rationale and expected outcomes. How is it otherwise possible for us to measure success and  improve and develop services which generate better outcomes and better lives for the people we serve? We still require resources to facilitate this transition however.

There has been an adverse ‘disconnect’ between government and the service provider community around employment inclusion heretofore .  Consequently, most parties are still ‘informing themselves’  in order to understand and assess where the strengths and limitations in policy and practice are. Training and leadership from within the field are required in order to generate greater outcomes for people in service – but that’s just one part of the success equation.

In order for employment statistics on people with disabilities to gain parity with non-disabled Canadians, MORE people with disabilities must be granted access to Supported Employment Services. Only 20% of adults with developmental disabilities in Alberta are receiving Employment Services and Supports – how then will it be possible for  67% (percentage of all Canadians working) to acquire and maintain employment? PDD Alberta currently spends less than *4% of its total budget on employment support. Imagine how much the employment inclusion of Albertans with developmental disabilities would improve if,

  • All service providers were allocated resources to attend current training to learn how to align their employment service outcomes perfectly with the needs of employers, and
  • 8% of the PDD budget was allocated to Employment First Alberta

Alberta would far exceed the results generated over a seven year period by the Washington State Employment First initiative – in a single year. If we all invested together in Employment First, the results would truly be spectacular.


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