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Jun 3, 2024

Join us in the studio with Tyler Sadek, Go MN! Project Manager, and Amanda Jensen-Stahl, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Minnesota General, as we explore the transformative efforts of Minnesota's DIF Grant Go MN! This episode delves into innovative strategies designed to transition individuals with disabilities from subminimum wage to competitive, integrated employment.


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Full Transcript:




Amanda: Give them the tools and resources to look at other ways to support employment instead of that 14 (C) certificate.


Tyler: So much great work to be done supporting with individuals with disabilities across the country, and we really need people to help implement those innovative ideas so that we can serve these folks even better. This type of work is extremely important, and if you have a good team, I would dare even call this kind of work fun.


Amanda: Having that support is just so appreciated because there is a lot of pieces to this. And when you know, hey, I can call up Brandi and Iowa and just kind of say, hey, how are you guys dealing with this? That has just been really fantastic as well.


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: Well welcome to the Manager Minute. Joining me in the studio today is Tyler Sadek Go Minnesota project manager. And Amanda Jensen-Stahl, director of strategic initiatives with Minnesota General. So Tyler how goes it in Minnesota?


Tyler: Things are going well. I think spring might finally be here, so I'm pretty happy about that.


Carol: Yeah, I'm with you on that. I think we had spring, uh, in February and now we're now we're having winter. It's like what? What is happening?


Tyler: We're gonna give it another shot with spring.


Carol: I know it, it's hysterical. And, Amanda, it's always good to see you. How are you doing?


Amanda: I am good, it's so good to see you, too, Carol.


Carol: Well, we've been delving into the RSA Disability Innovation Fund grants, and this series is focused on the SWTCIE grants, or sub minimum wage to competitive integrated employment. And the purpose of this round of grants is to increase the opportunity for SWTCIE program participants, which includes students and youth with disabilities seeking subminimum wage employment and potential VR program applicants or VR eligible individuals with disabilities who are employed or contemplating employment at sub minimum wage to obtain competitive integrated employment, also known as CIE. Holy smokes, that's a  lot. And I love nothing more than talking with my Minnesota general peeps. You guys always have so much going on. And so for full disclosure for our listeners, before I retired from the state of Minnesota, I was the Assistant commissioner of the Workforce Services, part of the agency. I had the privilege of hiring your director, Dee Torgerson, into her position. And I think the world of Dee and the whole team there. So let's dig in. I'm excited about what you're doing. So, Tyler, I know you had your six month anniversary. Tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and how you came to VR.


Tyler: Yeah, so I was working as a restaurant manager, actually, and I volunteered for an organization called Life Track. I'm doing resume reviews, mock interviews, things like that. And then eventually a position opened up in business engagement, and I got hired. And in that role, I was supporting their employment program for people with disabilities as well as their other employment programs. Eventually, from that role, I moved into providing direct services to individuals with disabilities as a placement person, which I really loved. Eventually, another opportunity opened up at an organization called Resource, and I was hired on to help lead a direct appropriation grant for a few years. So I continued to do that, and then eventually I transitioned into an HR position, actually at a construction company called Parsons Electric, where I was responsible for community outreach, including working with VRS and other community organizations, as well as managing a few employee programs at the company. So in that role at Parsons Electric, I got connected to the State Rehabilitation Council, where I served as a representative of business, industry and labor and then eventually served as the chair of that council for a few years. So that was eventually led me to learning about Go MN a little bit. I saw the position opened up, I decided to apply and here I am. It's been quite the journey to this role, but I feel like it's a good culmination of my experience working with employers, doing placement, managing programs and leading others.


Carol: That is so cool. Our listeners always like to hear where people come from. It's like no one's journey in is ever clearly straight. It's a long and winding road and you're a fellow placement person. I used to do placement way back in the day. I have like fondness in my heart for that. So that. Oh, very cool. Amanda, how about you? You know, I've known you, but I didn't know about your journey into VR.


Amanda: Yes. So I went to school to become an English teacher. And then when I got out of college, I had a hard time finding a job. And so I got a job working with a CRP in Saint Paul. Shout out to Goodwill Easter Seals. And I fell in love with the work. I started doing job placement, job coaching and moved into a manager role where I was overseeing our placement team, our extended employment grant. We started an IPS program, so it was just an awesome, awesome experience. And then in 2015, a position became available at VRS for an extended employment specialist. And I thought, hey, I'm going to jump at this opportunity to use my experience on the CRP side and bring it over to VRS and the state of Minnesota. And from there, I've had a lot of great opportunities. You mentioned WIOA, I came in at the kind of ground level of when that was all starting, and got to build our process for career counseling, information and referral. I started working with our interagency partnerships with DHS, our Medicaid agency, and our special education agency, and then moved into overseeing business engagement, interagency partnerships, and now director of strategic initiatives. So it's been such a journey and just really incredible. And I'm grateful for all of those experiences because I think they all, you know, thinking about this dif grant and going, man, it is all serving us very well. This is kind of a culmination of much of that work.


Carol: That is super cool. I didn't know that about your background. Either. And you've done a ton at Minnesota. I always think whenever your name is tied to something, it's going to be stellar. It's going to be terrific. I do, I think the world of you. So, Amanda, can you give us a little snapshot of Minnesota general? Like how many staff do you have in the agency and how many customers do you guys serve? Yes.


Amanda: So we have 429 staff across the entire state, 23 field offices. And when we look at our last program year, so the last full program year of 22, we served about 12,919 individuals. We had over 5000 applications. And I'm really excited about our employment outcome rate is up over the last two years. So we're kind of building back from the pandemic, as I'm sure many folks are doing, and we're seeing the numbers of folks applying for our services go up, as well as those employment outcomes going up. So really happy that we're back to those pre-pandemic levels of people we're serving, which is just great news.


Carol: That is excellent to hear. I know folks really struggled. The pandemic just like crashed our customers. A lot of them, they were afraid to come out. I mean, they didn't want to be exposed to Covid and all of that. And it really decimated what the VR program was looking like. But we're seeing such a good rebound. You guys have also been rebounding in your numbers of staff too, with your staff vacancy rate. So I know does put a lot of initiatives into place. So you're much you know, I think you're at 20 some percent and I know it's much lower than that.


Amanda: Yes, absolutely. Dee and others have done some really great work with our HR department and really being creative and innovative in how we're recruiting staff, retaining staff, looking at all those ways to support staff with onboarding training. And we're really starting to see that dial shift where our vacancy rate is pretty low again. And we're back to kind of that pre-pandemic level. So we're really grateful for all those efforts. And just, you know, really, I know it's something that everyone struggles with, but just really thinking about, okay, how do we make this work and how do we make the state of Minnesota and VR's a really great place to work?


Carol: Excellent. I love to hear that. Now, I know Minnesota, you know, kind of shifting to our diff. You know, Minnesota still has a fair number of people who work at or are paid sub minimum wages. So tell us a little bit about the project and what you're hoping to accomplish. And Tyler I'm going to kick that to you first.


Tyler: Sure. So this is a disability innovation fund. So we are trying to develop innovative ways to serve people with disabilities in the state. So for this project, we're working with the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, or ICI Boston, to pilot what's called progressive employment. So it's a dual customer model, meaning it's meant to serve both employers and job seekers. And it really is meant for people with limited or no work experience in competitive, integrated employment. So what's different about it is it's really meant to help people explore work, doing things like tours, job shadows, work experience, learning more about what work means for them, what their skills are, what their interests are. And this project is also focused in the growing high demand transportation industry in Minnesota. So the hope is to help those that are either working in Subminimum wage or considering working in Subminimum wage, explore opportunities in that transportation industry, and potentially find competitive, integrated employment that's a fit for them and for the employer. The idea is really that everybody is ready for something, and we just need to meet people where they're at, provide the support needed for them to be successful in the community.


Carol: I love that. Can you talk a little bit more about the transportation industry, like a little more specificity around that? What does that look like? Yeah, so.


Tyler: The transportation industry is huge and it does include transportation and material handling. So we are considering this pretty broadly. But it really I think most people think about, you know, mechanics or drivers, but it's all those positions that support that work as well. So it could be working in an office. It could be working with technology, working with your hands, working with people. But we do think of transportation as very broad. And what's nice about that is for the folks that we're serving, there is a good chance with how broad this industry is that they can find that opportunity that they're looking for. So that was the emphasis in transportation. I know we'll mention Duluth later being a big transportation hub as well.


Carol: Yeah, that makes sense, I get that. Amanda, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?


Amanda: Yeah, I'll just add a little bit more about just subminimum wage in Minnesota. And Minnesota has historically had a very large number of individuals who have been working in subminimum wage employment. And, you know, when we wrote this grant two years ago now, even in the last two years, things have shifted and changed in ways that are so incredible. And I'm so excited about when we wrote it, we were looking at the numbers and looking at things, and it just has changed so much. So the first year back when we started doing the career counseling information referral process, we had almost 12,000 individuals that we saw that first year for this last year that we have data, we're down to about 4500. So that is a huge, huge change. And then when we look at our pilot location, we are down to like less than 100 people in the pilot location, perhaps even less than 50. And part of that is we're seeing providers just move away from that 14 (C) certificate, even though it's technically still allowable in the state and at the federal level. But I think providers are just saying, you know what, we want to move away from this. And this work really dovetails nicely with lots of other transformation initiatives that have been happening in the state over the last few years to help support providers, give them the tools and resources to look at other ways to support employment instead of that 14 (C) certificate. Lots more to do, of course, but it's just been really exciting to see this work that is just happening right before our eyes. And I think for this grant, we've had to certainly adjust and kind of keep up with those changes as well.


Carol: That makes my heart happy because I remember back in the day, more like 14,000 way back when. And I used to actually work at the Department of Human Services, where we did licensing and rate setting and all the different things for the various providers who were day training programs that did use, a lot of them use the 14 (C) certificates. It was kind of the way of life in Minnesota. So that is such a huge move. I had no idea about the numbers. Now that makes my heart really happy. Excellent. Good on you. This is great, you guys. So for our listeners to Minnesota is really a geographically diverse state. I think for some people they think about us. People be like, do you guys have, you know, plumbing and flush toilets? I've had people ask me that. I'm like, seriously, we are not out in the middle of the boondocks, but we do have areas of the state that really are super rural. And from top to bottom, this state, it is hours. It is a long way. If we're going to go from here to International Falls and such. Now, we do have our urban areas and our extremely remote locations, and you guys are taking a really great approach with this project, focusing on northeast Minnesota and spreading out across the state. So how did you guys come to settle on starting up in the Duluth area, and how are those partnerships developed?


Amanda: Great question. One of the requirements when we were applying for the grant is you had to pick a industry, and there were a couple different options. And as Tyler mentioned, we decided on the transportation industry. And the reason we did that is because when we looked at where were people already getting jobs at VRS across the state and transportation and material moving was number one over the last few years. So we thought, okay, people are already getting a lot of jobs in that industry. And so we decided that makes sense. Let's do that. And then looking at Duluth, because it really, for those of you who don't know, Duluth is right on Lake Superior. And it is a transportation material moving hub. You see those kind of ships and barges coming in and trains, and there's just there's a lot happening in the Duluth area, but it's also small enough that it felt manageable for us, that we could really leverage some of the amazing partnerships that we already have established in the Duluth area. The Duluth team is amazing because part of this work is really relying on our field team. So that manager and those staff that are in that office know that area.

They also have previous experience working on a large federal grant from a few years back. We had the SGA grant, the SGA project, and then just those partnerships of not only employers and transportation partners, but our providers, our employment service providers, our relationship with our county, the waiver case managers, and then our centers for Independent living. And really knowing that, okay, we've got something great happening in Duluth and all the pieces were there. And so that's why we decided we're going to start in Duluth. We're going to get this off the ground, and then we can bring that to other parts of the state and really leverage that team to then help mentor as we then go to other parts of the state. And they are also amazing and willing to be flexible, knowing that this is a demonstration model. We're trying some new things. We want to be innovative. And so while we've tried to kind of lay the groundwork, we know that we're going to make changes and adjustments as we go. And they are right there game to do that along with us.


Carol: That makes so much sense now. Why, you know, talking about the transportation history. And then why you picked Duluth? Because Duluth sits on the harbor. It's a lovely location. Like there's major shipping traffic in and out. I hadn't thought about all of that. When you think about the transportation industry, first thing I always come to mind, like semi-trucks, you know, it's the truckers and there you go. But when, as Tyler described it, you know, we're talking so much more broadly. There's a lots of different elements that are all around the transportation industry. That's pretty cool. So I know a lot of our DIF grantees have had struggles and challenges during year one of the grant because, you know, you get notified maybe four days before it's the beginning of the federal fiscal year. And it's like, go and spend all that money right away. And so everybody's been talking about the challenges, and I wanted to find out what kind of challenges you all faced year one and how you have dealt with them and overcome those. And Amanda, I think I'll kick it to you first.


Amanda: Thank you. I did mention this, but it really has had a huge impact on how we've thought about this. But the changes in 14 (C) providers and Subminimum wage work, looking at our pilot location, many of the providers have already in the time we applied and in the time we're planning to get this up and running, have already moved away from it. And so that has been a challenge for us to kind of think about, how do we think about those folks who have historically earned subminimum wages, who might be doing other types of work, but it's still not necessarily integrated? And thinking about kind of that definition of contemplating and working with our RSA liaison to kind of work through that to say, hey, we've got a lot of changes in the landscape of this target population and working really closely with liaison to help, you know, maybe kind of adjust how we maybe thought about the population when we wrote the grant and then really thinking about how this project overlaps with much of the existing work that we've done in Minnesota. I mentioned earlier working with our Medicaid agency and our special education agency, and really thinking about how we serve individuals who are receiving a Medicaid waiver and how we're leveraging those relationships with schools and serving youth with the most significant disabilities. And we've spent a lot of work in how we partner with county case managers, our schools and transition programs. And so being very mindful about how progressive employment and this project fits in with that work, and not duplicating or stepping on toes and then thinking about sustainability. So how we can kind of fit the progressive employment in with much of that work that's happening. So that's a few changes around Subminimum wages. I'll pass it over to Tyler to talk about some of the other challenges we faced.


Tyler: Yeah, I would only really highlight two. One I think a lot of people can relate to is hiring is a challenge. It takes time to find the right people to work through that process. I do think we really have found some great people. I'll talk more about that in a second here. But that was a challenge. It takes time. It's hard to do this work when you don't have the people hired, but then the other one and it relates to this. A lot of these things just take time. As Amanda mentioned, this is a big project. So bringing those partners together, getting contracts in place, just all that groundwork that has to be laid. It just takes time. It's a challenge in the sense we know this work has to be done, but as long as we're patient, as long as we work through the process, as long as we stay determined, we've been able to work through those things, and we are getting very close to being able to get this off the ground.


Carol: I love that, you know, you both talked about groundwork, and I think, Amanda, that groundwork with, you know, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education, and I know that started years ago, where we were having those monthly meetings, the three organizations and DEED, you know, we're all talking together way back in the day. I was still part of that. And I loved that because we had to really learn to speak each other's language, to start, and then really look at how we could blend and braid and work together. So we weren't duplicating, supplanting all those words, you know, and making sure. So the stage was really set. That is true. And that will help with this whole effort. I think that's great. And even all the groundwork, Tyler, that you guys have laid in the agency with working with HR and all those different processes that have gotten so much better over time, helps for you to onboard and get the people in. So it seems like the stars all aligned and everything is coming together for you guys, I love that. So Tyler, what are some initial wins that you guys have been seeing?


Tyler: Yeah, so building on that theme of groundwork, there's again, a lot that goes into it when I look back at the past. So I know you mentioned my six month anniversary. I think I met about eight months now. Just the things we've been able to accomplish. So there's systems that are necessary to support this work. Customizing Workforce One has taken some time, but I think we've got a good system in place. We're going to be piloting a system called Salesforce. I'm sure many people are familiar with that, but that'll help us with our employer engagement, coordinating and organizing some of those efforts. I mentioned working with ICI Boston that has been bringing them in and working closely with them has definitely been a win. As well as the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. They're going to be supporting this project as well. So we've just started to meet with them, bringing them into it. And then we also work with Mathematica as part of this project. So just all that groundwork, bringing in all these partners, getting everybody on the same page, I would definitely identify that as one of the biggest wins. And then I just mentioned this, but and maybe I'm a little biased, but I do think we've hired some amazing people on this project. I'm really excited for the work to begin, for them to really, you know, flex their muscles and use their skills. And then just overall, not just the folks that we've hired, all those partners that I mentioned, I think we just have a great team for the project. Everyone is very talented. We have some great team cohesion. Everybody works very hard, so we're all ready to do some good work for the people that we serve.


Carol: Yeah, you have a great foundation. Those groups that you all mentioned, Mathematica, and you've got ICI, and you've got also the UMass Boston people we’re well aware of all those folks and consider them our colleagues. They're great. You guys were smart and kind of pulling the trifecta together to help support the project. So I know you're always looking forward and Duluth is the start. So Amanda, what's your next focus area going to be?


Amanda: We are focused on getting that pilot off the ground. And because of those changes of where Subminimum wage is at in Minnesota, we're really taking a look at in our proposal, we had identified some areas and we're rethinking that and really looking at where do we still have those higher numbers of people earning subminimum wage and looking at targeting those locations. So we have a higher number in kind of central Minnesota as well as southeastern Minnesota. And so looking at kind of the lay of the land there with those 14 (C) providers, that might still be providing that, because we want to make sure that we can leverage this grant to do the most work and do the most good, if you will. And so looking at shifting from where we initially thought we had thought we'd do Metro in southwest Minnesota, but now we're rethinking that and looking at, okay, where are our high numbers of subminimum wage workers? And let's go there.


Carol: So are you thinking then would that be down, like in the Rochester area, sort of as kind of the if you're thinking about the state, I'm trying to think I'm like east West. That was not always my best suit.


Amanda: Yeah. So down in southeast it would be like Rochester and Winona, that area.


Carol: Okay.


Amanda: And then central is kind of Saint Cloudish area. Saint Cloud Willmar, yeah.


Carol: Great. So what have you guys had for some takeaways that you've gained from the project so far. And Tyler I'm going to kick it to you first.


Tyler: First I would say my primary takeaway and I'm still new but a lot goes into this work. There are so many people involved. There are so many processes to follow and they can be very complicated sometimes. So I know I mentioned this before, it just takes time. It takes patience, it takes working together. Determination that has been my prime takeaway is just this is a big project. We just have to kind of, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But as long as we are focused on really doing our best to serve the people that we want to serve, and we're keeping them at the center of all this work, then I have no doubt when all is said and done, we will be successful. We'll have achieved the mission of this grant. I just have to, for myself, even, just be patient. Take it a day at a time.


Carol: How about you, Amanda?


Amanda: I would say it takes a team. It's a big grant. It's a big project. And so I think that foundation that we've been laying with our internal VRS teams, shout out to the Duluth team and then our partners at ICI Boston and ICI Minnesota, we haven't mentioned it yet, but we have for business outreach, the Transportation Center of Excellence in Minnesota. We have someone there who has been helping us think about outreach to business and kind of tapping into what's happening from an education standpoint and working with them. And then I also want to note, CSAVR has been doing a community of practice with the SWTCIE grant holders. So the states have been coming together on a monthly basis to just talk about how this is working and sharing with each other and learning with each other, and that has been really helpful. And then there's been some other like RSA and Mathematica have also held some meetings. So I think just it's helpful when you're doing something like this and you're kind of in the weeds, it's nice to hear from other people, like you're not alone. Other people might be struggling or having successes, and just having that support is just so appreciated because there is a lot of pieces to this. And, when you know, hey, I can call up Brandi and Iowa and just kind of say, hey, how are you guys dealing with this? That has just been really fantastic as well.


Carol: Well, and speaking of Brandi and Iowa, we just recorded with her last month. And their SWTCIE Grant, which is fun. I had not heard that CSVAR was doing this COP. I love that that is great because I know there's a lot that goes into the DIF just organizationally and administratively because it's a different type of grant, a discretionary grant from the feds. There's different reporting requirements. And so sometimes states are not used to all of that. Like there's a high level of involvement from RSA. And so you've got a lot going on and people are kind of overwhelmed. It's different. And so having that support group is awesome I love that. Well, I know too, that we have different listeners who are on the fence. And we're anticipating another round of DIF grants coming again with the large amount of monies that were relinquished in Re allotment. And so sometimes people, you know, they reach out and they're like, well, like, should we do it or not? And do you all have some advice for them if they're contemplating doing a DIF? Tyler, what would you tell folks about this?


Tyler: I could understand looking at these grants, seeing them as intimidating. But I think to Amanda's point, if you do choose to apply, know that you are not doing it alone. We have definitely leaned on other states who are doing similar work, and it both helps support our work as well as remind us that we are really in this together. So I think that makes a huge difference if you do decide to apply. But really, if you are contemplating applying for a DIF grant, I say go for it. There is so much great work to be done supporting with individuals with disabilities across the country, and we really need people to help implement those innovative ideas so that we can serve these folks even better. So this type of work is extremely important, and if you have a good team, I would dare even call this kind of work fun.


Carol: Hahaha. That is awesome! Well, I could see the fun on both of your faces because you're smiling. Our listeners can't see that, but you're both smiling from ear to ear. And I can tell the passion and you're very excited about what you're doing. I know you're building your website right now, so you may not have that available, but if others wanted to connect with you, what would your email addresses be?


Tyler: Once we get that website up, we'll let you know in case we can incorporate that somehow. But I can be reached at Tyler.Sadek@State.MN.US and I'll spell that really quick, T y l e r dot s a d e k at state dot MN dot US.


Carol: Excellent. And Amanda, how about you?


Amanda: Okay, here's my email. Amanda. A m a n d a dot Jensen, J e n s e n, -Stahl, S t a h l, at State dot MN dot US. Amanda.Jensen-Stahl@State.MN.US


Carol: Excellent. Thank you both. You both have been terrific. I'm really looking forward to connecting with you all again. A little bit down the road, you know, as you get more time under your belt and we see how it's going. But this sounds amazing and really I wish you the best of luck. Thanks for joining me today.


Tyler: Thank you Carol.


Amanda: Thank you Carol.



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