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Staff Spotlight

RETAIN Employer Outreach Specialist

Minnesota RETAIN uses an innovative approach—transitional work experiences— to help people stay in the workforce when medical restrictions prevent them from returning to their regular jobs after injury or illness. Learn more in this profile of the Minnesota RETAIN team member who makes it happen.

RETAIN’s overarching goal is to help workers get back to work following an injury or illness, but not everyone is able to return to his or her regular job or occupation right away. For those workers, Minnesota RETAIN developed an innovative solution— arranging paid transitional work with another employer. This enables injured and ill workers to get back on a regular schedule, earn a paycheck, retain their skills, and, in some cases, build new ones. Further, the availability of transitional workers allows employers to fill key roles and get necessary work accomplished.

This cutting-edge strategy by Minnesota RETAIN has already helped multiple participants, and the team is confident the approach will continue to benefit workers. Transitional assignments are coordinated by Minnesota RETAIN’s Employer Outreach Specialist, Ethan VanLaarhoven of Workforce Development, Inc. The process begins when a participant is referred to him by one of Minnesota RETAIN’s return-to-Work (RTW) Case Managers. VanLaarhoven then meets with the participant to develop an Individualized Service Strategy plan and facilitate a good match with one of Workforce Development, Inc.’s many non-profit and public-sector employer partners.

“I essentially serve as a Career Planner for these participants while they work with me,” says VanLaarhoven. “I meet with them to learn about their level of restriction, employment goals and interests, barriers to success, and if there are supportive services they might need.” Examples of supportive services might include help with a car payment or rent, or gas vouchers to ensure the participants can get to and from their transitional work experience.

During these transitional work engagements, participants become temporary staff of Workforce Development, Inc. and are paid a standard hourly rate. While the overall placement process is the same for each placement, the locations and types of positions vary based on participant skills and interests, and employer needs. Two examples of employment thus far include a clerical position with a local county government and a position at a local library that involves shelving books and helping with daily programming.

As his job title indicates, VanLaarhoven also specializes in employer outreach and, as such, he spends much of his time communicating with employers to inform them about RETAIN services. He does this in coordination with Minnesota RETAIN’s RTW Case Managers to ensure consistent messaging. Using targeted language focused on the bottom-line benefits of helping workers stay at or return to work after injury or illness, VanLaarhoven and his colleagues engage employers through phone calls, emails, job fairs, in-person discussions, and face-to-face presentations.

“The messaging that seems to resonate most with employers is the data we share with them about lost work time and productivity,” says VanLaarhoven. “Employers in our region see great value in helping their workers return to work as quickly and safely as possible.” To date, VanLaarhoven and his team have reached out to employers from various sectors. In addition to local governments and the local library, more than 10 other employers have said they are willing to host transitional work experiences for RETAIN participants.

The paid work experiences are delivering tangible benefits for both workers and host businesses. Participants work in a setting that meets their accommodation needs, stay active in the workforce, and continue to earn a wage during their absence from their original employer. Because Workforce Development, Inc. is paying the workers’ wages, the work sites receive up to 200 hours of free labor (up to 29 hours per week) and the opportunity to meet some of their labor force needs—all while helping a person get their life back on track.

Minnesota RETAIN is reaping the rewards of this cutting-edge approach, which leverages valuable employer relationships that VanLaarhoven, through Workforce Development Inc., brings to the Employer Outreach Specialist role. When raising awareness about RETAIN and placing individuals in transitional work experiences, VanLaarhoven uses an important strategy: speaking the employer’s language. “We try to determine what is most important and relevant for them,” he explains. “By framing the RETAIN message in terms of how it will help the employer’s bottom line, you can bring more businesses on board and ultimately find solutions that can benefit all RETAIN customers.”