Engineered Employment: An Inadequate Solution for Adult Joblessness and Student Transition

Engineered Employment: An Inadequate Solution for Adult Joblessness and Student Transition

Dale, come see our great recycling program! Check out our cleaning crew! We run a bakery that our special ed students all work at!

Over the past 30 plus years of providing consultation and training to agencies and schools on the employment of people with disabilities, I have visited employment programs in 49 states and evaluated many program “models.” Most of these revolved around one idea to solve unemployment in that region. This idea was usually based on a single business model – selling muffins, recycling trash (seen hundreds of these!), manufacturing something, producing crafts, running a cleaning business, and the like.

Generally, the agencies are quite proud of their progressiveness. They point out that people are doing real work for real wages. Some businesses even make money (although rare, and usually only because of subsidies). The even have progressive sounding terms for this – affirmative business, social entrepreneurism, or social enterprise. Labeling things to dress them up is something we are good at in disability services.

And, compared to a sheltered workshop or “day treatment,” these kind of engineered employment solutions look good on the surface. But they are deeply flawed on many levels.

When I was the executive director of an agency in the 1980s, I inherited a program that was a functioning restaurant. It purportedly prepared people to go into the food service field. Folks came from all over to tour the facilities and view our “innovative program.” However, my experience with the program was:
1. Only a few people we served were really interested in restaurant work. Fewer got sustainable jobs after their training.
2. The business demanded an enormous amount of our staff time and resources.
3. The local restaurants we were purporting to provide trained labor to also perceived the restaurant as subsidized competition, and rightly so.

Ultimately, I concluded it was mostly a major distraction from our mission of making good matches between all of our workers and businesses or market needs. I decided that if we were going to be involved in business start-ups, it would be those business models that come from the interests of people we served, who would own them themselves with our help. For the few people who wanted restaurant training, we would work with the community college to obtain culinary education or create training opportunities in the existing restaurants in our area.

Ultimately, I found that you have to solve unemployment using a method that was driven by job seeker skills and interests first, then building networks out to the local community to serve it. Engineered businesses wrongly use the reverse approach. They start with a business, presume most everyone they serve will be good at and enjoy the work, and then often compete with the very companies they then try to place people in, when outside placement is even a goal. In many, lifelong employment by people with disabilities is expected there. And so much energy is taken with making the business viable, there is little time left for considering what else people might be better off doing!

Imposing group employment on people to solve their lack of jobs is a generally poor strategy. Running agency-owned businesses distracts your focus on serving the needs of the labor market and focusing on individuals. It restricts employment to only those jobs you have managed to engineer – and too often these are stereotypical jobs like cleaning and recycling garbage. People with disabilities deserve better and broader options. We should not get caught up in our own ideas and models.

A recent example of this came to light in British Columbia, where students with disabilities were seen rummaging through garbage cans at school, in front of their non-disabled peers, to recycle as part of their “transition training.” It illustrates my point. See the article.

The only recent analysis on social enterprise I found was a 2007 field review by the Seedco Policy Center. They concluded: “…we found that non-profits driven to meet a ‘double bottom’ line for customers and clients have far more typically led to frustration and failure, drawing attention and resources away from the organization’s core work — and that even the oft-cited success stories are less cut-and-dried than they appear.” They found a large ultimate failure rate, and noted that non-profits, unlike real businesses, had much more difficulty “letting go.”

I know not all engineered models look like this Vancouver example. And in some low employment regions, engineered employment will look enticing. Many agencies work hard to develop these engineered jobs, and I think these programs are well-meaning. But that doesn’t mean they are a cost-effective use of our government resources. They still involve congregation of people with disabilities, limited choice, and a movement of time and funding away from your prime mission.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to post your comments! The link is below – 


Jim Halpin

Before you throw “Social Enterprises” into the trash with “food, filth, flowers” etc, you need to understand that when done right, Social Enterprises can be very effective business models for individuals with employment barriers. We recently took over a bankrupt sheltered workshop in our locale and rebuilt the business as a “social enterprise” – the people with developmental disabilities we hired are interested in and well matched to the work. They earn competitive wages, and the same benefits as other employees w/o disabilities. We take no state or government subsidies. 4 out of 20 current employees have developmental disabilities and we intend to keep that ratio as things continue to develop – It is working for all involved – so try to be a little less stereotypical in your depictions of “social enterprises” Thanks

Dale DiLeo

Thanks, Jim. Good to hear about your efforts. You sound a bit defensive. My main point is not to throw social enterprise into the trash – I think that unfairly depicts my comments, but to point out the serious flaws in a model that often is trumpeted as the next best thing. As you might have experienced, creating these businesses takes a lot of resources and can limit job choice, even when you make efforts to ensure a more integrated approach (as you have nicely done). Why not just help those four folks get jobs? Or, if limited, how about self-employment where they own the business? Also, the models I have seen are far more likely to take subsidies.

There is absolutely no research to say this approach is cost-effective, so like anything, it should be open to criticism – open discussion is what makes this field go forward. I would like to hear if others have different thoughts about this. Jim says “I need to understand” this is an effective business model – fair enough, but I waiting to learn of some good solid support!

Thomas D'Eri

Hi Dale,

Thank you for this piece, it is very insightful. The way I understand it, you are voicing the following objections (all valid in my opinion and please let me know if I am misunderstanding you)to engineered employment:

1) They are not profitable and are a drain on government resources
2) Engineered employment takes away from an agency’s mission
3) Engineered employment ventures place people in businesses which they aren’t interested in
4) Engineered employment ventures create completion with the other businesses in the community whom you wish to place your clients with later on.
5) Engineered employment ventures produce a negative stigma by others in the community.
6) Engineered employment ventures isolate people with disabilities from the community.

I am deeply passionate about finding solutions to unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities. In that spirit, if a venture with the following attributes was developed would it, in your opinion, be a good solution or at least worth exploring?

Hypothetical venture attributes:

A business developed by seasoned business people with high profit potential (all to be distributed to the disabled employees)funded without government support through private investment and contribution.

The business would be developed by an organization with the sole mission of building businesses to employ people with disabilities.

The business would screen a large number of prospective employees to ensure that only those who are interested in the business and capable of fulfilling the tasks are employed.

The business would operate in competition with other companies in the same industry, would produce a class leading product/service superior to other products in the industry. (which should mean that any stigma created would be positive because the people with disabilities would be associated with producing a high quality product)

The business would be consumer facing and provide a product/service to community members in a comfortable and inviting setting.

Please let me know what you think!


Dale DiLeo

Thanks, Tom, for your comments. And I appreciate your passion and openness to seek input. Some of the attributes you mention are indeed thoughtful ways to try to minimize the impact of engineered employment’s stigmatizing features for people with disabilities. However, I still believe the core problem remains. Let me try to explain my views in brief. The approach you describe represents an entity using their resources to develop a business in order to create employment for people with disabilities. That is really not the way business planning works. Nor is it a proven model for solving any group’s unemployment.

I think that the approach itself is flawed. The best way to solve high unemployment for any group is not to develop vocational models, including business models, that supposedly apply to that group (this by its nature is susceptible to being a stereotypical response – “this business is good for this group…”).

Instead we should develop strategies that limit segregation, enhance individualized employment, reduce discrimination, and open access to typical alternative employment, such as individualed-owned businesses. It is a fundamental difference in approach, and not just a matter of safeguarding a new model. As you are likely aware, safeguarding has a way of being perverted, abused, and misused over time – note the abuse in institutions although there are cameras, committees, etc.; or facility-based services trying to “reverse integrate.”

I hope this is helpful, and sorry to discourage the idea. Yes, it might function as employment for some folks, and the business might even make money, but your self-employment resources could be better spent as an incubator that helps each person create the business he or she owns, can do, and wants to do.

Thomas D'Eri

Thanks for the response Dale. I agree that self employment is a great way to help find people employment. However, I believe that there is room for both of these models considering how large of an issue unemployment is for people with disabilities. Also, I think it is important to point out that the group model could also create ownership rights for each person working there, similar to the multitude of employee owned and cooperatively owned businesses in existence (also I’m aware that joint ownership would make people ineligible for some entitlements so the legal rights would probably have to be held by the person’s legal guardian and then have the actual benefits the business creates flow through to the people running the business).

I would love to understand your prospective on self employment. Do you believe that all people (regardless of having a disability or not) have the entrepreneurial spirit needed or interest in working for themselves? It seems clear to me that most people find comfort in working for an established business and don’t have much of an interest in taking the entrepreneurial plunge. This seems evident considering that most people work for large organizations or at least established small businesses opposed to running their own business.

Thanks again for your feedback!


Great article. Each and every one of us can only speak from where we come from, with what we have experienced. Having said that, in my family’s experience, I agree with you 100%. I’ve always believed each and every person should have the opportunity to chose the best job based on their interests. For some people, it might be a hobby that leads to a job. For others, it might be a matter of needing a job coach to lead the way in a group setting. I’ve seen many changes since my youth in the 60’s…some good, some bad. I think most people only believe it is important to have a job for money, not to seek fulfillment. Some people only have the job they hold because of the money and power they seek. Maybe society needs rethink the personal values of each and every individual with and without physical and mental challenges.