TRICO adapts its work to meet new mandates

Guest column

KINGSFORD — As one would expect, there have been a lot of changes in how TRICO has worked to provide vocational rehabilitation and support services to our program participants and our community sponsors and partners over the past 50 years.

With that said, however, a great deal has also stayed the same and is affirmation that TRICO’s processes and practices are effective in removing barriers to employment for persons with disabilities. Determining the most effective paths to employment, the pace of moving along those paths, and providing the supports needed to achieve and maintain meaningful employment are important hallmarks of the person-centered, self-determinative, and collaborative approaches used by TRICO.

Recent changes in the rules and regulations that guide our work, however, and most importantly, changes in how or whether TRICO is eligible to be paid for its work, have generated much discussion about how to adapt our work to meet the new mandates.

“What has become very clear is that pressures and proscriptions to make more and more changes along particular lines will keep coming at us, and we must be ready to make them so that we can continue our work,” said Christine Kruppstadt, executive director of TRICO Opportunities, Inc.

Indeed, TRICO will transform, but that will be no easy task.

The foundation of these mandated changes stem from the passage of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014. This legislation up-ended just about every aspect of service delivery and funding for vocational rehabilitation agencies like TRICO, and rules and regulations resulting from these statutory changes are still unsettled, leaving guidance for who TRICO can serve, and in what manner, fairly murky.

In 2015, Michigan adopted the “Employment First” initiative that shifted the definition of the optimal outcome for vocational rehab services to “competitive, integrated employment,” meaning employment that is community-based, pays minimum wage or above, and is not limited to disabled persons. While an admirable goal to be sure, it is TRICO’s perspective that to focus only on that outcome would exclude services and successes for program participants for whom competitive, integrated employment is not on the near horizon, and may never be for any number of reasons, including personal choice, age and ability.

“For TRICO staffers, the belief is that not achieving competitive integrated employment should not thwart the option of finding meaningful work in an environment offering ongoing training, supports, the satisfaction of earning a wage, and a sense of purpose,” said Sarah Suchovsky, TRICO vocational services program manager.

Beginning in 2016, the same year that the WIOA changes went into effect, TRICO committed to meeting these new challenges head-on by securing participation in a “transformation grant” offered through the Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. TRICO was the first vocational services agency in the Upper Peninsula to participate in this grant. As a 2016 cohort member, TRICO received no monetary assistance, but rather received training on developing and delivering customized employment services; training on how to build the employer partnerships needed to make that customized employment happen; and was the beneficiary of mentoring on crafting the internal action and strategic plans to move us forward.

We’ve continued the work started with that grant and have seen progress to the mandated transformation, but there is work yet to be done to ensure ongoing programming successes and viability.

In all of this change, however, we are secure in knowing that TRICO can weather — and even thrive with — the mandated changes. That’s what 50 years of service and experience will allow us to do. It’s become clear that as much as there have been mandated changes, TRICO will be in familiar territory and continue to see successes in finding and maintaining employment for persons with disabilities.

“TRICO has always done ‘customized employment’ with job placements with local businesses; it’s been but one of the many strategies we have used,” Kruppstadt said. “We’ve always worked to build partnerships with local employers, so we can do more of that, and we can continue to meet the interests and objectives of the individuals we serve by providing a full range of services designed to provide meaningful work, even if not at the competitive, integrated level.”

A focus on job development, relationship-building with employers, and marking incremental as well as optimal successes in removing barriers to employment will propel TRICO into next its 50 years.

For further information about TRICO, becoming an employer partner, or about any of the 50th anniversary celebration events this week, contact Kruppstadt at 906-774-5718.

TRICO open house Thursday

TRICO Opportunities Inc. is marking 50 years as a not-for-profit organization helping disabled people in the community to prepare for, find and maintain meaningful work. An open house will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at TRICO’s administrative, recycling and manufacturing facilities on Hooper Street in Kingsford. The public is invited to tour the facility and hear from job coaches and staff about TRICO programs.