The South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department (VR) is often referred to as the “best-kept secret” in the realm of workforce development and employee retention for South Carolina businesses.
As October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), OpExChange celebrated the month’s conclusion with an event at VR’s 26-acre state office campus and Lexington training center situated in West Columbia, South Carolina. This tour proved to be an enlightening experience for participants, shedding light on VR’s role in the state and challenging preconceptions about “disability.” One key insight gained from this visit was the recognition of a substantial pool of eager and available talent ready to contribute to the workforce in South Carolina.
VR adopts a dual approach by assisting individuals with disabilities, referred to as consumers, in finding employment, and by supplying well-trained workers to businesses across the state. VR firmly underscores that disability does not equate to inability, emphasizing that people with disabilities possess unique abilities and deserve respect and equal opportunities to engage in society.
Furthermore, approximately 30% of South Carolina residents experience some form of disability, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional, and VR is dedicated to working with all of them. Audrey Brown, Director of Communication and Government Affairs for VR, stresses that “People with disabilities are just like you and me,” emphasizing the idea that they are an integral part of the community.
VR is committed to helping people with disabilities in South Carolina who meet three specific criteria:
- Having a disability that affects their ability to secure or maintain employment,
- Demonstrating the potential to benefit from VR services, and
- Possessing the desire to work.
Among the nearly 190 OpExChange member sites, over twenty-five companies already benefit from this program as VR business partners or through the services they offer.
VR Services for Consumers and Businesses
VR provides its services free of charge to its clients, who are referred to as “consumers.” Their funding comes from both federal and state sources. The services they offer are broad including vocational counseling, assessments and career exploration, job readiness and training, and job retention. They also participate in business partnerships to help employers meet employment and outsource requirements.
VR’s primary mission is to assist individuals with disabilities in finding meaningful, integrated employment. With thirty-one offices and twenty-six training centers located throughout South Carolina, their services are easily accessible to residents across the state.
Ali Cato, Comprehensive Evaluation Center Director, provided a detailed description of their assessment and training programs, which typically span four weeks. Consumers stay in dormitories on the campus during the week but return home on weekends. Most consumers have physical limitations or chronic conditions, and VR offers services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and aquatic therapy. The comprehensive evaluation during the four-week period assesses limitations, identifies strengths, and helps consumers outline their career goals. All consumers are introduced to a healthy diet, and this site is licensed as a hospital. Upon completion of the four-week program, consumers return to their local training center, where their counselor receives a comprehensive assessment report. This report includes growth observations and recommendations for their next steps.
Ali stressed that VR’s services are not only geared to help people find jobs. They are also designed to support existing employees to retain their jobs. This is where their innovative technology team comes in.
Rehabilitation Technology and Assistive Technology
Joe Anthony, Rehabilitation Technology Manager for VR, explained that one of VR’s services involves using technology to identify workplace limitations and reduce or eliminate barriers. They have a team of five engineers, an assistive technology specialist, and a full-time fabricator on staff to make ergonomic accommodations that enhance functionality at work, at home, or in a vehicle. They currently assist over 1,000 employees each year with these accommodations, which greatly improve the work environment and opportunities for people with disabilities.
VR shared an inspiring example of accommodations made for a welder named “Larry.” Larry used a wheelchair and was interested in welding but did not think he would be able to work in that field. After going through their program, he was employed at a Lowcountry manufacturer. The rehabilitation technology team was able to make accommodations that included custom wheels for the wheelchair to prevent metal shavings from collecting. This individual not only succeeded but excelled, demonstrating that his abilities far outweigh disabilities. His supervisor was quoted as saying, “when we first hired Larry, they told me he had a disability, but I never looked at it like that. With Larry it’s always ‘look what I can do. Look at my abilities.’ The sky ‘s the limit with him.”
Workforce Training & Business Partners
Timothy Geter, Director of Business Services for VR, described how the training center goes about developing consumers into individuals ready to enter the workforce. A crucial aspect of this process is the business partnerships established with South Carolina companies. VR takes on real work from local businesses at their training centers, focusing on tasks such as light assembly or kitting in a simulated work environment. The staff trains consumers in essential skills like quality, productivity, attendance, and less direct skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.
A highlight of the tour was observing consumers at the training center assembling to-go kits for Lizard’s Thicket. Tim emphasized that consumers take immense pride in their work, understanding that they are being paid for real work that benefits real companies in the state.
No Longer a Secret!
Audrey Brown concluded the tour by emphasizing VR’s vital role in advancing South Carolina’s workforce, offering a substantial talent pool of motivated employees. In the previous year, over 4,000 consumers secured successful employment. Numerous member companies within OpExChange have already recognized the value of VR. One such example is Mergon Corporation in Anderson, SC, which currently has seven VR consumers in its workforce, with one recently achieving a promotion to a Team Lead position. Kelly DeHerrera, HR Manager at the site, expressed her pride, stating, “She demonstrated confidence and leadership in the most effective ways, ultimately leading her team to meet daily production goals. She is a great teacher and loves helping others succeed. Mergon remains dedicated to its partnership with Vocational Rehab and actively continues to recruit their consumers.”
Timothy Geter concluded the tour with this call to action for OpExChange members and businesses in South Carolina: Reach out to any of VR’s thirty-one offices or contact him personally. This outreach presents a chance to create a beneficial influence on individuals’ lives, elevate your own business pursuits, and bolster the state’s workforce as a whole.
About South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department
VR helps individuals in South Carolina encountering barriers to employment acquire the skills, training, and credentials they need to meet the workforce requirements of employers. Individualized services for eligibility assessment, disability management, training, and job search assistance are provided at local offices throughout the state.
As a workforce development partner, VR can help businesses achieve their competitive advantage by developing qualified job candidates who are trained in a wide variety of skills and have the good work habits that they value.
Contact your local VR office to get started: https://www.scvrd.net/
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos (Mike@OpExChange.com). More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website www.OpExChange.com.