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EQUITY Feature Article

Advancing Employment and Economic Independence: State Activities through the National Technical Assistance and Research Leadership Center

For several decades, states have been incubators of change and innovation in fields such as health care, welfare reform, and workforce development.  In the area of workforce development, state leaders are recognizing the connection between an available and skilled workforce, and a state’s capacity for economic development.  In this context, state and local leaders, along with federal agencies, are moving workforce policies and practices in new directions.

Traditional supply-side approaches are giving way to a dual-customer orientation--focusing on job-seekers and employers--and are striving to be more responsive to the demand side of the labor market.  While there is still a ways to go, efforts such as industry sector-based partnerships and regional economic development initiatives look to push workforce systems toward greater employer engagement and greater integration into economic development practices. 

These trends have important implications for the employment and economic well-being of job-seekers as well.  A purely supply-side approach can result in training that is de-linked from real employer needs, and job placement that does not consider where growth in higher-wage employment is occurring.  Ultimately, employment in high-demand jobs with potential for wage growth is a critical stepping stone for building savings and assets. 

In the field of disability employment, changes are also occurring to better bridge the activities of state agencies and employment service providers with the needs of employers and industry clusters.  At the state level, this transition takes leadership, collaboration, and capacity.  The National Technical Assistance and Research Center to Promote Leadership for Employment and Economic Independence for Adults with Disabilities (NTAR Leadership Center), a collaborative project funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, is stepping in to work with states to help them advance their partnerships and strategies in this field.

The NTAR Leadership Center is a collaboration of partners with expertise in workforce and economic development, disability employment, financial education and asset building, and leadership development.  The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, leads the consortium.  The NTAR Center was established in September 2007 for the purpose of building capacity and leadership at the federal, state, and local levels to enable change across workforce development and disability-specific systems that will increase employment for adults with disabilities.  
The Center’s work is guided by five principles culled from ODEP’s body of research on employment and systems change.  These principles include:

  • Increasing partnerships and collaboration among and across generic and disability-specific systems;
  • Increasing the use of self-direction in services, and integration of funding across and among systems;
  • Increasing economic self-sufficiency through leveraging work incentives, financial education, or other strategies that promote profitable employment and asset building;
  • Increasing the use of universal design in employment services and as a framework for employment policy; and
  • Increasing the use of customized and other forms of flexible work options for individuals with disabilities and others with barriers to employment.

The NTAR Leadership Center works with states through two of its major activities: the State Leaders Innovation Institute and the State Peer Leaders Network.  The State Leaders Innovation Institute (SLII) brings together high-level teams from the states of Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota (these three states were competitively selected to participate in the Institute).  Through the SLII, the NTAR Center is dedicated to helping these states build on existing efforts to become national leaders in increasing employment for adults with disabilities.  The SLII also has a unique focus on connecting disability employment strategies to demand-driven state and regional economic growth policies and activities. 

The State Peer Leaders Network (SPLN) includes state teams that have applied to the SLII, as well as other state leaders with a strong interest in the mission and principles of the NTAR Center.  The SPLN, recognizing the significant value to states in learning from each other, creates a dedicated forum for peer information sharing and exchange. 

The three states that are participating in the SLII present interesting case studies for the field as a whole.  Each has succeeded in building a core team of state leaders across systems, including disability, workforce development, education, and economic development systems.  Each team also is looking to build on existing strengths and take advantage of new opportunities, even in these difficult fiscal times.

The state of Connecticut, which has benefited from a number of federal grants related to disability employment and workforce development, will continue to build on its assets, including the Connect-Ability initiative (visit  At the same time, the team seeks to increase coordination across the state’s many initiatives, enhance employer outreach and engagement, and create a talent development system to improve how the “supply side” of the job market functions. 

The Maryland team is faced with the unique, though daunting, prospect of an influx of thousands of new jobs through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.  Seizing on this opportunity, the team leaders and members are diving into a planning process to identify employment and training, housing and transportation, and other community development needs that, if addressed, will help open the doors for people with disabilities to connect to a range of BRAC-related jobs.

The Minnesota team is taking an industry sector approach and focusing on opportunities in manufacturing.  Though this sector is declining in some parts of the country, skilled manufacturing continues to provide viable jobs and careers elsewhere.  The team will take a Manufacturing Camp model, originally designed for youth with disabilities, and adapt it for adults with disabilities.  Through exposure to manufacturing, experience in the field, and skills training opportunities such as the M-Powered programs (industry-recognized manufacturing training programs), individuals with disabilities will gain greater access to this vital sector of Minnesota’s economy. 

Despite their different approaches, these three state teams, and many of those participating in the State Peer Leaders Network, share several common challenges such as:

  • Building and sustaining effective partnerships and collaboration,
  • Matching supply-side efforts to demand-side needs,
  • Engaging economic development entities and becoming part of economic growth efforts,
  • Communicating with employers, individuals, families and others in ways that change perceptions and expectations, and
  • Moving toward universality in policies, programs and processes to integrate people with disabilities into state/regional economic prosperity initiatives.

The NTAR Leadership Center will work to help each state overcome these challenges. It will assist state and local policy makers and practitioners by compiling research in particular topics related to the Center's guiding principles, and will help advance state partnerships, policy development and/or programs.

A series of Issue Briefs is being developed that outlines relevant policy and program issues, synthesizes critical research findings and highlights innovative state driven practices across the country.  Upcoming topics include: the use of workforce and labor market information to guide strategy development for adults with disabilities, integrating the disability perspective into regional and local workforce development-economic development strategies, and leveraging state economic development resources to create opportunities for people with disabilities. 

In advancing their state activities and addressing these shared challenges, the state teams of the SLII and SPLN -- along with the NTAR Leadership Center -- have the opportunity to open doors that will lead to greater employment and economic independence for adults with disabilities nationwide. 

For more information on the NTAR Leadership Center, visit      

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