“Just go for it.”
That was the sentiment shared by Tom Armstrong, recruiter for the Veterans and Individuals with disABILITIES programs in the Office of Human Resources, when he spoke to more than 375 guests in attendance at the Disability Employment Summit. The one-day event, hosted by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, was held April 16 in Harrisburg.
As a panelist, Armstrong shared his experience in leading an initiative at the University of Pittsburgh — programs that promotes inclusivity by not only hiring veterans and individuals with disabilities, but also extending significant outreach services to the University community.
Each panel participant was asked to give one piece of advice for employers who want to be leaders in the field of disability employment. Armstrong, and others, shared similar thoughts: “Find someone in the organization who will just do it; just get started, just go for it.”
He has led the Veterans and Individuals with disABILITIES programs at the University since 2015. His position is funded through a grant from the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, with support from the Office of Human Resources and the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh (BVRS). He comes to the University from BVRS, where he was previously coordinator of employment services.
On the panel, Armstrong fielded questions related to the approach that the University takes for hiring and outreach, key factors that make disability employment a part of the University’s mission and why it is important for advocates like himself to be a liaison between the University and individuals with disabilities.
Armstrong stressed the importance of buy-in at all levels of an organization to create and sustain a program like the one at Pitt and to support embedding a specially trained and skilled professional within the organization.
One of the biggest differences Armstrong said that he sees between the University’s program and those at other organizations is the way in which individuals are considered throughout the hiring process.
“We look at the ability — not the disability. We ask candidates where they want to be and, if they fit, we move them forward in the process,” Armstrong said. “Pitt does more: We learn about a potential candidate’s skills and interests first, and we find a position that works for them.” He noted that this ability-first approach is what sets the University apart from other organizations, in that it prioritizes the individuals’ goals.
Over the past three years, the Individuals with disABILITIES program has hired 27 individuals to work at Pitt and provided outreach — that is, going out into the community to assist with job searches, attend career fairs, create referral resources and help those candidates who are hired at the University take full advantage of being a Pitt employee — to 356 individuals. The program has 189 referral sources, which include individuals, human service agencies and other universities. The veterans program has hired four individuals for positions at the University, while providing outreach to 102 veterans.
One of those individuals hired through the Individuals with disABILITIES program is Janet Gerster, a recruiter on the talent acquisition team. Gerster, who attended Senator Casey’s summit last month with Armstrong, was recently nominated by the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services’ Pittsburgh office for a Client of the Year award for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
She agreed with Armstrong that the University’s program is taking steps in the right direction and leading other organizations to also follow suit: “We need to make sure that people are not only employed, but that they are employed fully. Our answer was different [than others at the summit]. We ensure those who are hired become an integral part of the University community.”
Armstrong agreed: “We’re still learning, but we have seen both early and later success. Pitt has allowed us to do so much more than other organizations; the University wants this program to succeed and we are incredibly grateful for that opportunity.”