Scott Chesney created the Raise Hope Foundation to train people with disabilities for careers in the financial services industry.
For most of the nonprofit's existence, he went to work hoping to get a deluge of phone calls.
His phone is about to start ringing off the hook.
Effective March 24, new federal regulations will require all federal contractors to maintain a workforce in which 7 percent of employees are people with disabilities. The Department of Labor considers all financial institutions with federal share and deposit insurance to be federal contractors.
So that means banks and credit unions now have a federal mandate to hire more people with disabilities.
"It's the right thing to hire people with disabilities, and it's the right thing to hire our returning veterans," Chesney said. "The mandate is going to force people to really examine it and make it happen — rather than something we should do, something we must do."
Chesney knows firsthand how hard it can be to manage a disability and hold down a full-time job. He has spent the past 28 years in a wheelchair after suffering a sudden and paralyzing spinal stroke at the age of 15.
In cases such as his, a disability can come on suddenly and completely disrupt someone's life, forcing the person to leave the workforce to adjust to a new reality. For others, it has been there all along and requires constant management and maintenance.
Finding an employer who understands all that is challenging, he said.
That has played out across the country, leading to rampant joblessness among that segment of the population, said Kathy Krepcio, executive director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.
"Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act over 20 years ago, the employment rate of people with disabilities has not budged that much," Krepcio said. "Their unemployment rate … has remained about double that of the regular civilian population."
Since the federal government has at their disposal the massive pool of federal contractors, it makes sense to start there, she added.
"Why not use the bully pulpit of the president and the federal government and the amount of people that they hire to make a difference in that number?" she said.
So far, that strategy appears to be working.
Chesney's Raise Hope Foundation is already working with multiple banks in New Jersey, including Investors, PNC, Enterprise Bank, Boiling Springs Savings Bank and Magyar Bank, to name a few.
He has also partnered with the Center for Financial Training, an organization with an office in Upper Montclair that has long provided continuing education for people in the banking industry.
Together, they created the Financial Services Academy, a 14-week course geared at training people with disabilities for entry-level careers in banking — bank tellers, customer service representatives, sales people.
Karen McMullen, senior vice president and regional director at CFT, said the idea for the academy came about roughly a year ago, long before she knew anything about the federal mandate.
"It was a good idea to do this anyway because you're trying to help people who are out of work," McMullen said.
The academy builds a foundation of basic industry knowledge for people who have never worked in financial services and those who may need a bit of a refresher, she said.
There are courses in bank teller 101, principles of financial services, customer service, sales, leadership, writing and time management, McMullen said.
"It's almost like going to college and taking that orientation course," she said. "This is a really wonderful program that gives you a little bit about a lot of things."
The academy's first class of 13 students graduated in December. The second class launched on Feb. 24.
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