The Resource Center recently wrapped up a successful partnership with the University at Buffalo that will result in increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
The Resource Center partnered with The Center for Industrial Effectiveness at UB to reconfigure the ways in which people with disabilities are trained to work on the various machines located at TRC's Work and Employment Centers in Dunkirk and Jamestown. By improving the training protocol, The Resource Center will be able to give more people with disabilities the opportunity for gainful employment while also enhancing its ability to secure future government contracts and attract new manufacturing customers.
The Center for Industrial Effectiveness works with businesses and agencies of all types and sizes to help improve their operational and organizational performance. TRC and TCIE officials were pleased with their collaboration.
Ted Zrimsek works on a modified, hand-operated bar tacker at TRC’s Work Center in Dunkirk. One of TCIE’s recommendations was for trainers to look at different ways to adapt machines to make them accessible to individuals with disabilities. In this instance, a hand lever was added to Zrimsek’s sewing machine because he cannot operate a foot pedal.
"The Resource Center is always seeking opportunities to improve operations and expand business capacity. That's why we were delighted to make this partnership possible," said Paul Cesana, TRC's executive director.
"It was very rewarding to partner with TRC and provide expertise of UB's industrial and systems engineering department for the greater good of the organization," said Tim Leyh, TCIE's executive director. "It is fulfilling to assist one of Chautauqua County's largest employers in remaining competitive, which only strengthens its ability to serve and support individuals with disabilities."
In the summer of 2012, UB's Dr. Victor Paquet assessed The Resource Center's manufacturing processes. This included everything from industrial sewing to the manufacturing and assembling of items such as air cargo bags and first-aid kits for U.S. troops serving overseas.
The Resource Center performs work for the U.S. government through the AbilityOne program. Federal guidelines specify that 75 percent of AbilityOne labor hours must be maintained and performed by people with severe disabilities.
"We wanted to look at ways we could improve our workflow and design and hire more people with severe disabilities," said Mike Volk, The Resource Center's director of rehabilitation and employment services. "He (Paquet) documented how we do and what we do. He talked to people on the work floor, supervisors and other support personnel."
As part of his assessment, Paquet looked at The Resource Center's AbilityOne processes over the course of two visits to Jamestown and one to Dunkirk to assess the range of physical and cognitive work demands at the sites. He also reviewed job descriptions and training manuals. Once Paquet completed his engineering assessment, he made a formal presentation to TRC staff.
In his report, Paquet made several recommendations to help improve The Resource Center's workflow, attract new customers and increase productivity: create a formal system to facilitate, support and require communication among those who design the jobs, those who operationalize the jobs and those who train the employees on the jobs; develop standard operating procedures for all production jobs; build equipment infrastructure to better support jobs performed; develop quality assurance aids for workstations and training facilities; code each job based on the required skills necessary to complete the job successfully; develop a two-tiered training approach that focuses on developing fundamental skills and preparing employees for specific jobs; focus training on industrial sewing jobs and assembly jobs; and reconsider the production standards for employees with disabilities.
"The focus of the report is to identify opportunities for workplace and training practice improvement that will allow a greater percentage of employees with disabilities to successfully work," Paquet wrote. "These recommendations will translate into jobs that are more accommodating not only for consumers but for all; higher work efficiencies; savings in space that can reduce overhead and/or increase capacity; and training practices that all individuals can apply their specific abilities to, that are most accommodating."
TRC officials were pleased with the recommendations and insights provided by The Center for Industrial Effectiveness.
"We were encouraged by the findings of that report. Some of the observations were obvious to us, others were not, but all seemed on target," said Gregg Bender, The Resource Center's director of business operations. "It was great to get a different perspective, especially from experienced engineers who have seen so many different places and systems. It makes us a better organization. It gives us independent confirmation of the good things we do and also where we can improve. Everything should be continuously improved, and this system is part of that."
"It was nice to see our business from someone not connected with what we do for individuals with disabilities. I feel that it was very helpful to have a different perspective, especially by people who have specific knowledge as to operating procedures, ergonomics and efficiency," said Kimberly Burdic, TRC trainer. "It also challenged us to come up with a program that suits the trainees on an individual basis, not just a general plan that works for everyone. "
To help implement the recommendations, The Resource Center collaborated with a UB engineering graduate assistant, under Paquet's guidance.
"They've helped us set up a specialized sewing room," said Volk. "That's been priceless, because we've been able to train people in advance for the AbilityOne work, so when an opening becomes available, we already have a trained staff in place."
"We developed standard operating procedures for several projects, which have improved efficiency," Bender added.
"One of the recommendations from the Buffalo collaboration was to help the trainers look at different ways to adapt machines and work to help make it accessible to individuals with disabilities," said Rebecca Hamlet Kapple, rehabilitation services administrator at The Resource Center. "Also, they helped us with writing the curriculum to train on all of the machines, by giving suggestions and trying to link them to skill sets identified in the SOPs (standard operating procedures) that the masters-level intern from UB helped to developed.
"During the collaboration they identified certain areas that we could work on to increase the effectiveness of training, such as lighting, magnifying glasses, jigs, et cetera," she continued. "Another suggestion from UB was to develop the training areas as realistic to the actual work floor as they could. Each machine was labeled as it would be on the floor, had the same lights, magnifying glasses, work instructions set up as they would be at the job."
While TCIE's involvement with the assessment and the subsequent implementation has ended, The Resource Center has implemented all of TCIE's recommendations. TRC continues to work on ways to improve its operation, starting with the training room.
"We are moving in the right direction, and I feel like we will continue as an agency to prepare our individuals for long-term employment by becoming better employees," said Ms. Burdic. "What I do for them will give them the skills they need to be successful individuals who are able to get and hold a job in government contract work."
"It's always going to be an ongoing process, and we are all working together," said Cesana. "We must always be mindful of what's the best way to do that job, and our training is always evolving."
The cost of TCIE's engineering assessment totaled about $25,000. To help cover that cost, The Resource Center received financial support from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation and the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence program, a grant of the State University of New York administered regionally through UB TCIE.
Without the study and its recommendations, TRC leaders say they could have lost a substantial amount available and valuable government work.
"Not only would we lose millions of dollars in sales, but there would be fewer opportunities for people with disabilities to work, earn money and then participate in the local community," said Cesana.
UB officials recently returned to The Resource Center to do a case study of the facility to see TCIE's recommendations in action and to gather information for a case study.
"The result has been greater collaboration between departments to improve job training and alignment, better preparation for the workforce for positions desired by the industry and the implementation of standardized work instructions that focus on safety, ergonomics and efficiency. All of these initiatives work toward increasing TRC's viability," said Leyh, who hopes for an opportunity to work with The Resource Center again. "We have expressed TCIE's availability to provide services for other initiatives that TRC is exploring."