By Vince Little, The BayonetAugust 13, 2009
FORT BENNING GA - Fort Benning got a boost this summer from a Department of Labor effort aimed at providing disabled college students with meaningful employment, officials said.
In the process, the post - which had never been affiliated with the program before - became one of the top Army installations to make use of it, finding temporary positions for seven individuals from Columbus State University, said Ellis Dandy, director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Only Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois had more employees with eight.
"There are stigmas some people have in their minds toward those who have disabilities. If you come in as a blind person or an amputee, they might look at you a little differently," Dandy said. "A lot of people think they can't do. Well, they can do. You've just got to give them an opportunity."
The Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities is a resource for federal agencies and private businesses nationwide to identify qualified temporary and permanent employees from various fields, according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy's Web site.
Michelle Williams, the EEO's individuals with disabilities program manager, played a major role in bringing the program to Fort Benning, according to Dandy.
He said the Department of Defense is a project co-sponsor and pays the salaries and wages for positions allocated to the Army. With seven students working full time over a 14-week period, Fort Benning received almost 4,000 hours at no cost, he said.
"It's similar to volunteer labor because we don't have to pay for it. That's a lot of free labor," he said. "It's a beautiful opportunity to allow these young people a chance to enter the world of work. It also provides us an opportunity to view their skills and performance to see if we can employ them full time."
Department managers also can hire on a part-time basis, which would allow the students to continue working after returning to school for the fall semester, he said.
Each year, it starts when trained recruiters conduct interviews with interested students on college and university campuses, according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy. From the interviews, a database is compiled with information on more than 1,500 students and recent graduates seeking temporary or permanent jobs.
According to the ODEP Web site, candidates in the database are categorized by job interest, degree program, geographic location and other factors. Employers may interview the students independently after a referral.
Dandy said the EEO office brought in a communications major, Heather Hammond, who's blind but performed clerical work by using a Java program that gave audio cues and signals as she typed.
This week, two hearing-impaired students are scheduled to wrap up their stints with the Directorate of Public Works and the Directorate of Training, respectively. The Directorate of Emergency Service has a wheelchair-bound employee through the end of August.
Chris Hodnett, 35, recruited to work this summer as a Web designer for Fort Benning's public affairs office, said he had both legs amputated six years ago after being seriously injured in a hunting accident. In the early 1990s, he attended the University of Georgia briefly but dropped out to take a lucrative information technology job.
Fitted with prosthetics that enable him to walk, the Columbus State sophomore is now majoring in biology. His new ambition is to develop prosthetics for a living, he said.
"I might not be able to get a summer job at a fast-food joint, your average retail store or my old standby - construction - but it is good to know that there are opportunities out there for people who might not otherwise be able to find a summer job," Hodnett said. "It also provides a chance to develop new work skills and job-networking opportunities ... I hope I have been able to provide some benefit to the PAO group.
"I also hope it gives both the employer and employee a chance to see what difference, if any, there is to hiring a disabled worker as compared to an able-bodied worker. Maybe it can help dispel some concerns and myths."
Bob Purtiman, public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Infantry Center and Fort Benning, said his staff was fortunate to get Hodnett, who spent eight years as the director of network services for a large financial company in Atlanta.
"When I first heard about the program, I thought it would be great to get a person with a computer background to augment the Web team. We got that and more," Purtiman said. "His extensive computer background got us looking at new ways of conducting Web operations - ways we never thought (possible). He led us on a path to future success. We not only benefited from Chris's efforts, the entire Fort Benning community did as well."
Purtiman praised the Workforce Recruitment Program as a valuable commodity for other department heads.
"We get to tap into a cost-free resource and offer a student an opportunity at the same time; it's win-win," he said. "When next summer rolls around, I would encourage managers to really take a close look at the program. I think they'd be pleasantly surprised."
Dandy said the program has been mutually beneficial.
"For the first time being involved with the WRP, that's excellent to have gotten seven students at Fort Benning," he said. "They bring all types of beneficial skills to the workplace. There are so many outcomes that are positive for the employer and employee."