Ohio Program Sees Success With Disability Inclusion, Preparation for State Government Careers

By Sean Slone

An Ohio vocational apprentice program championed by the governor is encouraging the hiring of individuals with disabilities in state government, program officials say. As National Apprenticeship Week is celebrated from November 15-21, the Ohio program’s early success, focus on disability inclusion, collaborative approach, and pandemic-era resilience may be worth a closer look for other states with the same goals.

Shortly after taking the oath of office in January 2019, Governor Mike DeWine signed Executive Order 2019-03D establishing Ohio as a disability inclusion state and model employer of individuals with disabilities. That set in motion a state government-wide effort to reinforce that commitment. Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD), a state agency, partnered with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services to offer disability etiquette and awareness training for all 50,000 state employees, Kristen Ballinger, deputy director of the agency’s Division of Employer and Innovation Services recalled on a recent information exchange call organized by The Council of State Governments.

From there, the state agency and its partners began to conceptualize a vocational apprentice program that could encourage the hiring of individuals with disabilities into state government. That program launched in October 2019.

Ballinger’s agency met with human resources contacts in every state agency to identify the types of positions that were in high demand, discuss how they could be a resource to help those agencies meet their staffing needs, and eventually formalize roles and responsibilities with memoranda of understanding. They developed vocational profiles for the positions in high demand and assigned vocational rehabilitation counselors to work with agencies in identifying candidates, preparing them for the application and interview processes and placing them in front of hiring managers. Candidates went through the same standard interview process as other applicants.

Once an agency selected a candidate they wanted to hire as a vocational apprentice, Ballinger’s agency facilitated their onboarding and provided reasonable accommodations support (for example, a sign language interpreter for a deaf apprentice) for the first couple of weeks, after which the hiring agency assumes that responsibility.

OOD pays the $15 hourly wages an apprentice receives. Apprentices work 20 to 25 hours a week and up to 1,000 hours over a 10-month-long apprenticing opportunity. The funding for wages was included in the governor’s biennial executive budget and supported by the state legislature through the state’s vocational rehabilitation program.

Ballinger said the ultimate goal of the program is for the apprenticeship opportunities to serve as work experiences that can facilitate the transition for individuals into permanent employment.

Agency officials have a track record of success they can point to over the relatively short life of the program, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic over the last couple of years. The agency has placed 23 apprentices with 17 different state agencies during the program’s existence, according to Jon Hackathorn, the administrator of the Ohio Vocational Apprentice Program.

During the time they are participating in the apprenticeship, apprentices are considered employees of the state agency where they serve. While going through the program is no guarantee someone will be placed in the same position at the same agency where they apprenticed, nine of the program’s vocational apprentices have been able to continue work or gain employment at the same agency as their program. Apprentices are expected to go through the same competitive selection process as other candidates for available permanent positions. The average hourly wage of apprentices who have moved into permanent positions is over $20, Hackathorn said.

Program officials are quick to note that the vocational apprentice program is not part of the federally supported Registered Apprenticeship program. That is in part due to the limited number of registered apprenticeships that transition into permanent employment within state government and, for now, the vocational apprentice program is doing well at achieving one of its intended goals: building a pipeline into state government for individuals with disabilities. The program is also working to expand opportunities for apprentices to move into the private sector, the skilled trades, or into a registered apprenticeship. In that way, the vocational apprentice program can be thought of as a sort of pre-apprenticeship, preparing individuals to enter and succeed in a registered apprenticeship program.

To date, the Ohio program has offered a variety of apprenticeship opportunities across participating state agencies:

  • The Ohio Department of Education has employed a sourcing apprentice to solicit price quotes, place orders, and track order status.
  • The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission has employed an information technologist to assist customers who report issues with IT hardware and software, troubleshoot with customers, and assist in equipment deployment. The Ohio Department of Public Safety has also employed an information technologist apprentice.
  • The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has employed a finance apprentice to prepare, compile, and verify statistical, financial, accounting, or auditing data, reports, and tables related to accounts payable and accounts receivable.
  • The Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities has employed an office professional apprentice to perform basic clerical tasks and routine office assistance.
  • The Ohio Department of Commerce has employed a mail clerk/screener apprentice.
  • The Ohio Adjutant General’s Department has employed a maintenance repair apprentice to perform building, electrical, and plumbing repairs, painting, and groundskeeping equipment maintenance.  

While many of the positions by their very nature are in the Columbus metro area, where most of state government is based, the program has also worked to fill positions at Ohio Department of Transportation field offices and Department of Veteran Services veteran homes in other parts of the state, as well as at the state Lottery Commission office in Cleveland. The program is also expanding to the legislative branch, where participants may be offered the chance to serve as legislative aides working on constituent services and other tasks.

The state government actively recruits individuals with disabilities on college campuses with the assistance of a complementary program that began around the same time as the vocational apprentice program, according to Ballinger. The program is called Ohio College2Careers and involves the posting of a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the Accessibility Services Office at 17 colleges and universities across the state. That counselor provides the assistance a student may need to navigate college life and can connect them with either the vocational apprentice program or other work experiences or internships.

Hackathorn said the vocational apprentice program did experience some setbacks at the start of the pandemic in 2020 as many apprentices were furloughed and sent home. But a few months later, a vision of the “new normal” started to emerge, state agencies got more comfortable with assigning and monitoring remote work by apprentices, and Hackathorn’s agency worked with apprentices on any accommodations they needed to get online. A hiring freeze the Ohio state government is just starting to come out of has meant that agencies are once again trying to determine their staffing needs while at the same time figuring out whether employees will be fully back in the office, continuing to work remotely, or a hybrid of the two. Those factors are influencing the nature of the opportunities at the agencies and how the program is able to promote them, Hackathorn said.

For more information on the resilience shown by apprenticeship programs during the pandemic and state efforts to increase disability inclusion around the country, read our new CSG report, “The Future of Apprenticeship: Inclusion, Expansion, and the Post-Pandemic World of Work,” developed in collaboration with the State Exchange on Employment & Disability.

In celebration of National Apprenticeship Week, CSG will host a webinar “A Pathway to Recovery: Utilizing Apprenticeships” on Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. ET. The webinar will highlight the report and other CSG policy efforts in support of apprenticeships. You can register for the free webinar here.