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Mar 1, 2024

Mark Erlichman is in the studio today, Deputy Director of the VR Employment Division with the California Department of Rehabilitation.


Learn how this DIF Grant innovates by aligning services with industry needs, not location, and creating targeted support in tech and more. They also combined the Career Index Plus with the artificial intelligence program SARA to create customized Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) portfolios. Operational in just three months! #Innovation #DisabilityEmployment #SectorStrategy.


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Full Transcript:




Mark: You know, we can continue to complain about all the additional reports and data, but if the payoff is worth it because it's something you want and need it to do, it becomes a much easier grant to write and a much easier effort to justify and support.

I think the counselors and their staff should drive the program. They're the ones that work with the consumers in our businesses. They're the ones who understand what's going on way better than I would sitting in my office on the third floor in Sacramento.

I'm happy to be a conduit and connect people or anybody or has any questions at all about our project.

We know collectively, the VR program is so much smarter than any one individual State.


Intro Voice: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Welcome to the Manager Minute. Joining me in the studio today is Mark Erlichman, Deputy director, VR Employment Division with California Department of Rehabilitation. That is a mouthful. So welcome Mark. How are things going in California?


Mark: Well it's going well as always. We have interesting times when the state budget comes out. So we're looking forward to the next week. But all in all, I think we're very proud of the work that we're doing. And I think we're really where we need to be as a program.


Carol: Well of course, and you're working with Joe and I love Joe, but Joe is like, go, go, go, go, go. So I'm sure you guys are running on that treadmill at top speed.


Mark: Yes, you know him very well, and it's exciting to work with Joe because it's never a dull moment. And the more progressive we can get, the more supportive he tends to be. So it does give us an awful lot of incentive to continue to be creative and push the envelope.


Carol:  That's very cool. Well, I want to give you a little nugget of what has happened since February of 22, when you recorded a podcast with me. It was our very first one we did in the series on Rapid Engagement, and I have to tell you, it was our most downloaded podcast we've ever done by like triple. It was wild, and I feel like that podcast was the beginning of a little bit of a revolution. On the rapid engagement topic. I was super excited about that, and so I wanted to let you know that when I think about California VR, I always think about how innovative you guys are. And I'm really excited to talk about the Disability Innovation Fund Career Advancement Project. And so in the fall, I did a series of three with three of the other programs, and I couldn't get you. I kept trying, and Karen Grandin, project officer at RSA, is like, have you talked to California yet? I've said, I'm trying to get Mark, so thanks for being on. I really appreciate it. I just want to give a little recap to our listeners, because they may have forgotten a little bit about kind of why this particular DIF grant came about. And the grant activity here for the Career advancement is geared to support innovative activities aimed to improve the outcomes of individuals with disability. And these were funded back in 2021, and they were intended to identify and demonstrate practices supported by evidence to assist VR eligible individuals with disabilities, including previously served VR participants in employment who reenter the VR program to do the following things. They were looking at advancing in high demand high quality careers like science, technology, engineering and math. All that STEM stuff. Entering career pathways and industry driven sectors through pre apprenticeships and registered apprenticeships, improving and maximizing competitive integrated employment and reducing reliance on public benefits. And I remember at that time too looking at when they published the announcement, they had some really kind of disturbing data on what was happening with our VR program. So the timing was perfect. And of course, you all jumped right on the bandwagon and put something in. So let's just dig in and talk about your grant. So, Mark, would you remind our listeners about your story and how you came to VR? People are always interested, like, where'd you come from and what's your role there?


Mark: Thank you. And I appreciate the summary of the innovation grant. So we did see these as a phenomenal opportunity to look at work we wanted to do and then just expand on it. And it really was up my alley. I actually started my career back in the mid 90s, 1994 to be exact, as a rehab counselor, and I worked as a rehabilitation counselor in a fairly rural area working with migrant farm workers with the transition age, population supported employment and individuals that were exiting the prison system and were still justice involved. And I really got the opportunity to learn to love my job and to recognize and realize how complicated and how wonderfully difficult doing this job correctly can be, but how rewarding it is, particularly when you see individuals who did not believe in themselves, begin to believe in themselves, and to really build themselves up and move themselves forward. So as I moved up, for some reason, I kept getting other opportunities and got promoted a couple of times and worked my way up within the Department of Rehabilitation here in California. Since 1994, I think I've had nine different jobs, most recently June of 2019. So six months, kind of before Covid was even a thing, I took on the role of the Deputy Director responsible over our field operations. So I work with our 13 regional districts, and we work with all individuals, with the exception of the blind/visually impaired who were served out of a different division. But everyone else, including our business services and our student services, are served out of our division here and very fortunate to have this opportunity. And like you mentioned, lots and lots of pressure, both from above and from below. I have about 1400 staff who have really done a remarkable job in continuing programs and services. Even through the Covid pandemic. We actually served over 134,000 people last year, which is 30,000 more than we served even before Covid. So people came back. And our staff have done a remarkable job in serving them. And then pressure from above, with Joe really saying, if we don't step up, if we don't do a better job in customer service, and serving the public, then we don't really deserve to exist as a program. And so we take that seriously as well. So I've been very fortunate that I've had a good career here in the department, but I'm also very grateful to work with the teams that I've been able to work with.


Carol: It's very cool. I always knew you guys were part of the big four, because I always think about California and Texas, Florida and New York as the four biggest VR programs out of the 78, so there's a lot of added pressure to that. The numbers are just exponentially so much bigger. That is wild. But I think your experience leads you to what you did with writing this grant. So give us a little bit of overview about the grant, the proposal you wrote, and what you were hoping to accomplish.


Mark: The premise of the grant really was that expertise in careers and understanding sectors can be just as valuable as their expertise in disability and in other areas. As a counselor, one of the things I mentioned, I have a variety of consumers that I work with and a variety of ages, disabilities, ethnicity, gender. There are a lot of variability. The main thing they had in common was their zip code. They all lived in the proximal area that was near my office, and that's how I got to work with them. And I began to notice is that being able to work with a lot of different individuals, with a lot of different vocational goals, I had to start learning about how a teacher or a butcher or a nurse got a job, which is widely different. How a teacher gets a job is nothing like how a butcher gets a job. So each time I had to try to figure out, well, how do I get information? This is pre-internet, but I think it's still applicable now. I actually had to go talk to teachers and talk to nurses. And I went to talk to a butcher at a grocery store because the only butchers I knew were at the grocery store, and they told me, no, don't have your consumer come here, apply for jobs here. So 60 miles away, we have something called Harris Ranch, which is one of the largest beef providers in the country, and they hire somewhere between 50 and 60 new butchers every year. And if you get a job there and you get trained there, you can really work anywhere else. And I go, wow, if I wouldn't have asked, I wouldn't have known. And the other thing that I realized is I had two consumers who wanted to be teachers, forget their disability, they had way more in common with each other because of their vocational goal and their career goal. Then somebody with the same disability, same age and same zip code. And so it really made sense. So it maybe makes sense to align our expertise and our caseloads based on something other than proximity. So the premise behind our grant application was, let's align our caseloads and have staff and dedicated teams that are specific to industry sectors that can work with individuals regardless of where they are in the state, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their disability, but that have the same vocational goal because those counselors in those teams, they can work with the industries and understand how industry hire and recruit and retain people and help our consumers mentor them and support them in getting jobs in that area.

The other reason behind the application was the feedback we got from our businesses, and I don't know how many of our VR programs have had business satisfaction surveys for our business customers, but the feedback we've gotten regularly and that we had three in-person sessions, focus groups with our business partners, and we have an employer or business survey.

Almost universally what we hear, we hear two things. One, you don't understand our business, and two, you're not sending us consumers that are ready for employment. And so understanding that we can align other than by zip code, and we need to better understand our businesses. That's how we arrived at the premise for this grant. And really the grant application that we work with our partners at San Diego State to put together what apparently turned out to be a competitive application was that we were going to create sector specialist teams that included a counselor and a business sector consultant that would be located in areas where there's a high concentration of that sector, for example, information technology in the San Francisco Bay area, biotechnology in the Los Angeles area. And so they would have contact with those industries and work with those business leaders and go to industry events, learn how those industries hire people, and then come back and provide that information and support to individuals that are seeking careers in those fields. We have five teams that are supporting six different sectors. They're working with people all over the state. So we have a lot of remote work with our consumers. We use Zoom and other technologies to keep in touch with our consumers. We use local resources because we still have local offices, but their primary counseling and guidance comes from people who really, really, truly understand the needs of the industry and how people get jobs in those industries.


Carol: I love this idea. In fact, Jeff, my producer for the podcast, we talked after we visited with you yesterday a little bit and we went, this is cool because when you think about that, and I never was a counselor, but I could empathize with our counselors. They would talk about it. You know, you have to understand all of these occupations. And it's difficult because there's all these nuanced things that you aren't going to necessarily always remember, because maybe you place somebody in that industry a year ago, so you're not remembering all the little fine points to it. But if you keep within those sectors, I would think that people could really feel good about it. And I was curious how your staff are feeling about these sector specific teams, because I would think for me, you'd have a rich level of knowledge, you'd feel super competent, you would really have this great perspective and ability to help people in a very deep way. So how are your staff responding to it?


Mark: They're thrilled. There's 1400 staff that work in our division, and we have very small cohort working on this. So we have five counselors. We have three business sector specialists and a manager. And they push the envelope. They ask for things that I wouldn't even have thought of a year ago that based on their experience, they want to try out. This team is so enthusiastic about their jobs that I'm hearing from business leaders that are saying, we're so glad they think that the counselor that they're working with is not just a resource, but they feel like that's somebody that they want to steal away from us because of the conversation and the understanding. They get to go to industry events. And we went to a biotechnology conference and everybody's wondering why we were there. And by the end of the conference, the stack of business cards and business contacts that are business specialists and the counselor came back with was incredible. The opportunity to create work experience, work sites and internships, do some career exploration, and some informational interviews for our consumers. It's almost unique. I think every one of our consumers has an opportunity to do a paid work experience, because the businesses are saying yes to us, because we're asking them based on a personal relationship that these business consultants are developing. They're really enthusiastic and energetic, and it's so much fun to talk with them because, like having a conversation with our director, Joe, they push me and they push us to think differently and to move in a different direction, which is, I think, the way it should be. I think the counselors and their staff should drive the program. They're the ones that work with the consumers in our businesses. They're the ones who understand what's going on way better than I would sitting in my office on the third floor in Sacramento.


Carol: Yeah, I love that. I have to back up, though. I want to ask you a question about I know when you approached this grant, you've written another DIF grant before. So you've been around the block a little bit. I know when I talk to our other folks from the other states, everybody seemed to struggle with year one. You know, RSA is like spend the money, you know, and everybody says, oh, I'm trying to hire and I'm trying to do all these things. You were smart, though. What did you do differently with this DIF grant than you did before that helped you with that year one start?


Mark: I don't know if it's smart or if it's experience based on experiencing the same problems. I think we do learn from past efforts when we wrote this grant. So part of the grant, and I think many of the grants that were written and that were awarded included staffing. So you wanted to hire staff and put staff on this effort and have dedicated staff to work with the consumers and to run the project. So and we did. We got eight I think, we got nine allocated positions to manage and to implement this project. So what we did was we identified what skills and talents we were looking for and what experiences we were looking for in those nine staff. We went out and talked to our district administrators and some of our managers and said, okay, which one of your existing staff have this experience and this knowledge? And we just assigned existing staff, incumbent staff, who were well trained, had demonstrated knowledge and skills in that area and were enthusiastic and energetic. We assign them to this grant, and we just use the funds and the resources that we got from the grant to hire nine new staff to backfill. Whether they were regular generals, counselor, or they're a counselor for the deaf, we just backfill behind them. We didn't have a runway. We just started right from mid-flight. And that made a huge difference because we didn't have to train people to be counselors. And we didn't have to recruit. We didn't have to wait for announcements or advertisements. So we actually started working with consumers. I think almost three months in, we already had started enrolling consumers.


Carol: That is awesome because I know every single other group I talked to this long lead time for getting people on. And so year one kind of ends up being a little bit of a bust. You hate to say it quite that way, but. And it depends your state processes, it can take you almost nine months to get the people on board, and especially training them and doing all of that. So I thought that was super brilliant. Can you remind us of all the sectors you talked about a couple, what are they?


Mark: Yeah. So we have six sectors within five teams because we kind of split up our advanced manufacturing and transportation. There's a lot of money that's going into infrastructure around transportation, and some of it is different than advanced manufacturing. So those two sectors, advanced manufacturing and transportation were kind of combined. But we also have biotechnology. That's another one of our sectors. It's very well paid and things that you wouldn't think of like phlebotomy lab. That's Biotechnology, Genetic engineering is Biotechnology, manufacturing medications is Biotechnology. That was one of our sectors, another one of our sectors. Health care, and that's predominant in all of our local planning areas in California. So health care is another one. And our information technology communications is the other sector. And so those are five. The sixth sector actually is our green industries. There's a lot of effort, particularly in some of our regions in California around green industries, green energy. So those are our six sectors split among our five sector specialist teams.


Carol: I think that's pretty cool. And it's diverse. It's like a diverse type of work. So you're crossing all of it. I know there was another piece too, in your application where you talked about you were going to link Career Index plus that labor market tool. So for folks that may not be aware of it, it's awesome. And I love the Career Index Plus. We used it when I was in Minnesota. I think very highly of it. But you were going to pair that with Sarah to create, which is another AI tool that people use, but you're going to use it to create customized and comprehensive IP portfolios. Talk a little bit about that. Like what are you doing with that?


Mark: Well, we were very fortunate we actually wrote that into the grant. And you know, to bring those experts into the conversation and to help us adapt the TCI Plus for California and for what we were looking for. And the same thing with SARA. SARA is like a digital assistant where you can program it to send reminders and messages to consumers and then get messages back from consumers and have that information uploaded to our case management system. And we're in an aware state. So we actually had APIs created that allowed us. So when SARA sends a note out or we get a response that actually becomes kind of automates that, communication chain into case notes in our system and TCI Plus as well. We worked with TCI Plus that actually can upload information into our plans. But for us, what I think is the beauty and really the fortunate part about having us incorporate this as part of the grant was that our staff and I mentioned this, you know, the really, really creative and very enthusiastic staff, those staff helped inform the design and the contact and the connections and what was needed. It really was a very good partnership that allowed the staff to work in the way they needed and wanted to work based on what they were learning from the businesses and what they were learning from our consumers and what our consumers needed. And the best results are when the people on the ground, the boots on the ground, the staff that are working can influence and help design the tools that they're going to be using themselves to support our consumers.


Carol: Do you think some of the work that you guys did with this part of the project can be replicated for those other states that also use SARA, and they may use Career Index Plus? Do you think there's some things that are transferable to other folks that might be interested?


Mark: I absolutely think so. If nothing else, having a conversation with the staff that are using these and how these were adapted, including the TCI Plus staff and the SARA team and those conversations, there isn't anything that really reinforced in this grant and or other grant as well. There's nothing that we've done or design in here that we can't continue to do after the grant period ends. For me, the most unfortunate thing and a hint or a tip from somebody working on these grants is make sure that if you're doing something that turns out to be really valuable or a tool that becomes really, really useful, that it doesn't expire, that you can then continue it, because the worst and most unfortunate thing you can do is find out something is great, and then have to stop doing it, even if down the road you can bring it back. And so that's how we design in our work with TCI Plus and SARA really was designed in the fact that this can then be scalable up across our whole organization once it's proved efficacious, and once the design and the systems are in place that work for our consumers and staff.


Carol: See, I like that about the DIF grants because they are the gift that can keep on giving. Somebody does it. You know, you're trying out this stuff in your state and then you can get this out to other people and they start going, oh, we can do something like that here, because there's nothing that would prevent them from trying a sector specific strategy right now. For some of the other folks, it just gives you that like, oh, that's a different way to think about it. I really like it. And since you're talking about tips, do you have any other tips for our folks that may be wanting to apply for a DIF? You know, sometimes people are on the fence. They're like, ah, is it going to be too much work? I don't know if I want to do it. We get a lot of calls. People are like, what should we do? It's like, well, you got to decide that. But do you have any advice for folks?


Mark: The way we approached these last two and we applied for two of the last three, we identified things that we wanted to do and we would likely would do anyway had we had the resources to do so. So I would start with, what are some things that you had put on the table that you weren't able to do in the past? Because almost always what you've been working on or what you want to do is almost always designed or thought of to address an existing problem or take advantage of an opportunity. And so when we look at the DIF grant opportunities, we know we read what was in there. And in there it talks about, you know, preferences and what the interests of the grantor in this case are saying. We want to focus on careers or the next on subminimum wage. It's more flexible than you think it is. And what the tip is, look at what you wanted to do anyway. Look at the priority in the grant and say, okay, how does this align with what we want to do? And then write a grant for something you want to do anyway, and you would do anyway, but that this gives you the resources to do that. It's much easier to write that way, and you get a lot more organizational, institutional buy in, because these are things that people have either been pitching or been trying to do all along. And now this is an opportunity to do that. We hear a lot about administrative burden, and there's a lot of reporting, and we provide feedback that there's a lot of reports, a lot of meetings, a lot, but in perspective, the value that you get from it, and, you know, we can continue to complain about all the additional reports and data. But if the payoff is worth it because it's something you want and needed to do, it becomes a much easier grant to write and much easier effort to justify and support.


Carol: That's an awesome tip. I love that because I have not heard that yet. And I just think that is really, really smart. So what are you guys seeing for results? Because I think, aren't we going into year three of this.


Mark: Yeah, we're just in the very beginning of year three.


Carol: Yeah. So what are you starting to see like what's happening.


Mark: So we applied for and we got $18.33 million for the five year period of performance. And like we mentioned like I mentioned earlier, when we're talking about we were able to start pretty much in the beginning or towards the beginning of year one. And we'd split up the funds over five years. And one of the things that really comes up is, are you expending your funds and RSA they really interested, you know, don't send anything back. So we're actually we're well on our way to expanding our funds. And it's not because we're frugal or not frugal, it's because we actually have enrolled over 615 participants already. And so our goal is 1400 over the five years, and we're actually able to enroll people even in year five because of the extension that we're able to get. So yeah, we are right on track to enroll the 1400, even though a lot of people are just starting, as you noted, our sectors, they're all high wage. Almost all of them are in STEM occupations. They are in highly skilled jobs. These are jobs that we believe lead into careers and into long-term, family sustaining wage employment. And that is because even though we're just starting year three, so and people are most of them are in college or in some type of technical training or vocational training.

Already seen 52 people go to work. So we've had 17 closed successfully. So the not only do they go to work, they spend the 90 plus days they were satisfied with their employment and they were closed successfully. We have 11 more that are just have gotten their career placement. So it's not a job placement we have, we're doing 52 placements. We're not considering a job placement to be an employment outcome unless it's in their final terminal career position, because almost all of these participants are offered paid work experience along the way and when they needed, we do some interim employment because people also need to support themselves. And so we have 24 of our consumers are working in their field, but not in their terminal job. But what we're really proud of is out of those 52 people that are working their average wage at the time that they started work, or at the time that they were, their case was closed for the 17, their average wage is $29.76 an hour.


Carol: So it's a little higher than the average we usually see on the chart. You know, RSA comes and they show the chart across the country. And what is it like 12 bucks or something that people are making or maybe 13. So it's significantly more.


Mark: Yeah. And for those that are not still in school or in training, I think that our average hours worked, which is another thing that comes up. It's not just how much are you making, it’s, you working full time? Do you have benefits? I think our average hours work weekly for those individuals in their career was over 40 hours a week.


Carol: Wow!


Mark: So when you multiply full time plus about $30 an hour, that's family sustaining wage. And I think that's what's really, really exciting about this is individuals are successfully employed in a career that can support themselves, even in California, which is really a high cost state.


Carol: But your participants in this, it's a wide variety. You know, people think, oh, what's the characteristics of the population that you're serving?


Mark: Yeah. When we wrote the grant, we wanted to make sure that individuals from underrepresented communities, and when we're talking about underrepresented, not just individuals from brown or black communities, but individuals who historically aren't directed into STEM occupations or high wage occupations. And we do that where there are individuals, have an intellectual developmental disability, behavioral health, disability, and women are not directed or encouraged to get into engineering or STEM occupations either. We wanted to make sure that we're not just directing people who are going to ask for these careers or are directed these careers anyway. We want to make sure that individuals that were Hispanic, African American or Black Native American individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities and women that we were focusing in on our recruitment and directing and writing plans for these high wage, high skilled jobs. And so right now, even though we're still kind of early on, of the 650 consumers, 70% of the participants are either Hispanic or Black, African American or Native American. And so that's 70%. 43% of our participants are female. We want to get to at least 50%. But when we look historically in these occupations, if you're looking at IT typically we are seeing, if you're lucky, if you approach 20%. So we really are proud of the efforts to make sure that we're fully inclusive and we're not leaving anybody behind. These jobs, these careers, they should be available to everyone.


Carol: This is super exciting. I'm always excited about what you guys are doing, but I love being able to share with our listeners across the country because I don't know when you all get a chance to speak at CSAVR and say all your really great things you're doing, but I like getting those seeds out to people early because it's cool stuff. So are you willing? I know you've been in the past. I know what the Rapid Engagement and number of people said, Oh, I reached out to Mark, I felt really bad. But again, if there's folks that are interested in reaching out about what you guys are doing on this, are you willing again to take an email or something? Or how should people best contact you?


Mark: Probably email would be the best because that way I will definitely see it. I think I probably spend 80% of my time staring at a screen, so the email probably be best. I try to get back to people right away. Any information, or if somebody wants to be connected with our business specialist or one of our partners, we actually have some really, really exciting partners that are working with us on us as well, and I'd love to connect people with them as well. We have our Stanford Neurodiversity Project is helping us in ensuring the individuals that are neurodiverse get the services and supports that they need, and the businesses that are employing them get the training so that the same thing with our UCLA Targin center, they're working with us to make sure individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities can benefit from the training and the supports that are available. And we also working with San Diego State University and like you mentioned, TCI Plus and SARA. So I'm happy to be a conduit and connect people. Or if anybody has any questions at all about our project or want to share some other, again, if people have ideas or you have other sector strategies out there also, we'd love to hear that because we're absolutely willing to steal and to take other people's ideas and incorporate them into our projects, because we know collectively, the VR program is so much smarter than any one individual State.


Carol: Very cool. So could you give us your email address?


Mark: Sure. It's. Mark dot erlichman e r l i c h m a n at d o r dot again. So that's


Carol: Awesome. Mark, I really appreciate your time. I know you're one busy guy. I was so glad to get you for a few minutes. I really appreciate it and I'm hoping to circle back with you all, you know, closer to the end of the project. I'd really love to get an update and I'm sure you'll be like, we are like 1800 people and I know you guys, you're going to blow it out of the park. So I appreciate that. Thank you so much.


Mark: And we appreciate the compliments, appreciate the confidence, and as always, we really love your podcast. Love the resources and supports that you provide out to all of us. And I'm looking forward to hearing about the other projects as well. So thank you.


Carol: Well thanks Mark. Talk to you later.


Mark: Take care. Bye, Carol.



Outro Voice: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!