When the St. Louis Industry Liaison Group (ILG) talks about “meeting you at the fair,” it’s not about ice-cream cones and electric lights. What we’re talking about is a chance for federal contractors to visit with the community-based organizations (CBOs) who represent the veteran and disability communities in the St. Louis, MO-IL metro area. What started in 2014 as a response to the changes with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 503) and Vietnam Era Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) has now become more of a reunion, a way to see current partners and establish new partnerships. Maybe it was the balloons, maybe it was breakfast sandwiches, but this year there was a different vibe in the air. There are true friendships developing as the partnerships between federal contractors and CBOs continue to result in job placements for veterans and people with disabilities.
Since 2014, the St. Louis ILG has partnered with the St. Louis Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) and the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) who hosts our outreach vendor fairs. The purpose of the fair is to allow federal contractors to meet with CBOs that focus on providing employment services to veterans and individuals with disabilities. Through face-to-face conversations, federal contractors learn firsthand how these organizations can support their recruitment and employment initiatives to help ensure compliance with VEVRAA and Section 503. This year, 27 CBOs had 60 representatives at their booths, and there were 86 representatives from 45 federal contractors.
How Did We Make This Happen?
Each year, we look for ways to change things up. This year’s fair included a keynote speaker, November Champion, Manager/VP of Online Accessibility Programs at Wells Fargo Advisors, who spoke on “What Human Resources Needs to Know About Web Accessibility.”
This year we also added a “Lunch and Learn” session for students who use ACCESS or the Veteran Office services. It was a chance for students to gain insight into how companies recruit and select candidates, in addition to resume and interview tips, from an HR panel which included Centene, Express Scripts, and Mercy Health Systems. Students submitted questions in advance and the discussion was moderated by the Chair of our ILG. It was a candid conversation and unique opportunity for the panel and the students. Questions for the panel included: “When should I disclose my disability?”; “Do you pay less to someone who has a disability?”; “How do you feel about older vets coming back into the workplace?”; and “How do you show passion on a resume?” From all accounts, it was a positive experience for everyone involved and one that we will build upon next year.
The Feedback Has Been Incredibly Positive
This Year’s Highlight
An unexpected highlight this year included a company testimonial by Angell Farley, HR Manager at Watlow, who shared success stories of quality hires made as a direct result of previous vendor fairs. Watlow came to the very first fair not knowing what to expect and made some good connections which resulted in successful placements. Each year, they have returned and made more connections resulting in more hires. Since attending their first fair in 2014, they have hired 14 individuals with disabilities through a variety of agencies. Angell talked about the fear their employees initially had about working with people with disabilities and how the training for the team leaders and the support of the job coaches alleviated those fears. She shared that Watlow’s hiring managers are now requesting candidates with disabilities instead of temporary employees from staffing firms and that one of the new team members outshines an employee with over 20 years of experience. She nearly had us in tears as she told the story about a team member with autism whose mother called to share the impact that his new job was having on his interactions with family at home.
For the planning committee, each year we wonder if we should do it again, if it’s time to merge this with other events, and if it’s worth the effort. But as we hear testimonials from Watlow and other federal contractors, we know this event does make a difference and we hope that other ILGs replicate this type of event.
We are especially grateful for the support that we receive from staff at the St. Louis OFCCP. They play an active role in providing compliance assistance to the federal contractors in carrying out their good-faith recruitment obligations under Section 503/VEVRAA regulations by bringing together the CBOs and the contractors. Plus, it is important for the OFCCP and federal contractors to know the current staff and new services that these agencies provide.
We strongly encourage other ILGs to follow this model and host an annual outreach vendor fair. We hope the national office of the OFCCP considers supporting these events as a way to partner with federal contractors. If your ILG would like information on our process and lessons learned since 2014, just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome the opportunity to share one of our best practices with you.