Episode 82 From humble beginnings to a career through VR as the operations manager with Todd’s BBI
Speaker 1: (singing)
Dave Kelly: My success with voc rehab is because every time I took a course, I essentially got another promotion. The more I knew about food safety, the more my qualifications for the next position
Speaker 3: Four, three, two, one.
Announcer: VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work. As well as the professionals who have helped them.
Speaker 5: A job and a career. You got to look at how life changing this is.
Announcer: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Speaker 6: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Announcer: These are their stories.
Speaker 7: Because there’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Announcer: Now here’s the host of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore.
Rick Sizemore: Welcome to episode 82 of the VR Workforce Studio with today’s special feature from Nebraska’s vocational rehabilitation through their Career Pathways Advancement Project. This is the second episode in a special two part series, focusing on people with disabilities and the workforce in Nebraska. On today’s show, we talk with Janet Drudik, the project manager for the Career Pathways Advancement Project about the success of the up-skill and backfill model. It’s helping so many people with disabilities find their way into meaningful careers in Nebraska.
As we record this episode, the nation is facing a global pandemic with the coronavirus and what we’re finding through all of our recent interviews, our VR success stories, and the networks we operate within, is that people with disabilities are working. They’re keeping our workforce staffed and in many instances, filling the essential jobs that are needed to keep our country strong during this crisis. That is certainly the case with our guest in today’s Big Inspiration Showcase, Dave Kelly, who’s the operations manager at Todd’s BBI in Madison, Nebraska. The food manufacturing and co-pack operation is up and running, but under some very tight controls given the circumstances we’re facing nationally with COVID-19. And were indeed fortunate to actually pull Dave Kelly off the manufacturing floor for a few minutes to talk with us about his job and the Career Pathways Advancement Project. Welcome to the podcast, Dave.
Dave Kelly: Well, thanks for having me.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, let’s get started with a quick overview of Todd’s. They have certainly been around a while. It seems like a great company. Tell us a little bit about Todd’s operation today and your job there.
Dave Kelly: Well, it started in Des Moines, Iowa as a seasoning factory. They would blend and make different types of seasonings. And then they purchased a bone company called Bone Brokers International, hence our name Todd’s BBI. After they bought Bone Brokers International, I think about 10 years ago, five years ago, they bought a company called Summit Foods here in Madison, Nebraska, and it was a sauce manufacturer. And that’s when I joined. And essentially what we do here in Madison is we make batches of sauces for barbecue, the bloody mary dressings to soups to hot sauces, salsas, and we pasteurize it and bottle it.
Rick Sizemore: It’s a fascinating operation. You can go online and just see there’s a wealth of activity going on at the plant. How did you get started at Todd’s? And it seems like maybe you’ve worked your way up the ladder there.
Dave Kelly: I did. The previous plant manager was a friend of mine and I was leaving a job at Affiliated Foods due to some discrepancies with the union. He brought me on as a maintenance warehouse guy five years ago. From there, I went from working maintenance and warehouse to quality control technician because they had someone quit. And essentially what that job did is I would monitor the temperature, the pH, the level and the filler for all the bottles going in and make sure that we have shelf-stable quality product. And that gave me an interest in food safety. And then all of a sudden between voc rehab and my company, they started sending me off to all kinds of training courses from preventive controls to nutritional labeling to food microbiology.
And about after a year being quality control technician, an opportunity for production manager and came about. So I became production manager and I was there for about three months and their quality control manager job opened up, and obviously because of the training they sent me to and in my past knowledge of food safety, I became a quality control manager. And then when the plant manager left three years ago, again, I was the obvious choice. And even as plant manager for the last three years, I have been ongoing with my training, three or four different courses a year. Our company is ever expanding, and so just recently they’ve promoted me to operations manager. So obviously the whole operation of the building and as well as some things are going on with Des Moines.
Rick Sizemore: Well, congratulations on one has been a meteoric climb through the company and finding new skills and talents and career pathways. Now we have around 40,000 people who listen to the show and they first met you a few years ago through a woman named Janet Drudik. She talked about the VR experience going on there at your company at a conference, and she described great success with Todd’s and in fact, you. You’ve been so very successful. You talked about having some humble beginnings after being incarcerated. How did you connect with voc rehab and the Career Pathways Advancement Project?
Dave Kelly: So pretty much what happened is I’m a recovering drug addict. I’ve been clean nine years as of December 10, 2019, but I went to rehab in Norfolk, Nebraska, Sunrise Place. When I left rehab, the rehab center and connected me with voc rehab to help me find a job. After rehab, I had to go to a stint in prison for a year and a half or two and a half years for some previous altercations. So I had met voc rehab before that and then when I got out, I knew about it. So I approached them again as well. And they actually helped me get my job at Affiliated Foods first. Helped me with, just fresh out of prison. Didn’t have much.
They got me clothes for the interview, work boots, and that was seven years ago. And then I was there for two, two and a half, three years and came here and I was approached by Zach Arter because of my position at the company. And it just went from there. And then even after my success with voc rehab here, because every time I took a course from voc rehab, I essentially got another promotion. The more I knew about food safety, the more than my company’s seen my qualifications for the next position up but in retrospect, my successor for the quality control management job as well, went through the voc rehab program, took a couple of courses, and she was able to be promoted almost simultaneously as I was.
Rick Sizemore: That’s such a fascinating story. People sometimes get off track and it seems like you had this experience in your life. And then you’ve moved ahead and been extremely successful with the help of, voc rehab just kind of from a boots on the ground standpoint, how did the program, the Career Pathways Advancement Project, how’s it really helped Todd’s and you?
Dave Kelly: Well, as we keep growing, my knowledge of food safety and now it’s to the point that we can actually help the company grow. Same with my quality control manager. When we took Summit Foods over, we incorporated their programs. Well, their programs were so outdated and not up to par anymore of the new laws and regulations that the FDA governed that we were pretty much behind in the industry. So with voc rehab, we are now running par with the rest of the industry. Zach was a Godsend.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah.
Dave Kelly: Especially in that time of life.
Rick Sizemore: And so many plant managers or HR folks today, they might shy away from someone who had had a similar background to yours, but you’re living proof people turn things around and become exceptional employees. What would you say to another plant manager that maybe had not hired someone with a disability or someone who’d had incarceration in their background? What would you say to them if they were thinking about giving it a try?
Dave Kelly: Well, I’d tell them to do it. Some of the best employees are ex-felons and ex-drug addicts. Being where I came from, I kind of have a second chance program I do here. I don’t judge people on their history. It’s about their drive and if they’re willing to put in the work. And most people that hit rock bottom like I have, you can tell when enough is enough. Some of my hardest workers are felons. They got something to prove. The new plant manager, he’s a felon just like I am.
Rick Sizemore: What we hear so often is the appreciated worker is a dedicated worker.
Dave Kelly: Oh, definitely.
Rick Sizemore: So what do you think the future holds for Todd’s in terms of working with voc rehab and programs like Career Pathways Advancement Project?
Dave Kelly: Well, right now I’m in some talk with Zach with trying to get a couple of my other employees that have disabilities as well into the programs. That way, the more people that have food safety knowledge, especially in our industry, the better practices for general manufacturing practices they can do on a daily basis. One of our major concerns here is making sure that we put safe, quality food out in the market. So that’s kind of our major focus during production.
Rick Sizemore: What else would you like to say about voc rehab and how it’s impacted your life and career?
Dave Kelly: Voc rehab gave me an opportunity when I had nothing. They gave me the assistance to become something. When I got out of prison, I pretty much had the clothes that they gave me when you get released, and so voc rehab helped me get nice dress clothes to go the interview, which got me the job. And once I got the job, they helped me get the materials I needed for the job, the steel toe boots, the pliers to do the job at Affiliated Foods, and since then the Career Pathways program has helped me excel tremendously fast through a company that’s growing. When I started here, we were making about 300,000 a year. Now we’re in the millions. So that’s the growth the company’s made because of programs like voc rehab. Without the knowledge that I was able to obtain and my other employees were able to obtain through these training programs, we wouldn’t be where we’re at as a company either.
Rick Sizemore: Security and safety in food manufacturing has become so much more of a concern for large commercial manufacturers and, Todd’s BBI fills that demand and guarantee safety as we navigate the challenges of the coronavirus. Dave is the operations manager at the plant. Thanks for being on our podcast, Dave.
Dave Kelly: All right. Thank you, Rick.
Rick Sizemore: Janet Drudik is the program manager for the Career Pathways Advancement Project. Janet’s been responsible for so much of the success of this program. If you’ve listened to our podcast for a while, you may remember Janet from an episode we did at the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation’s national conference down in South Carolina, along with some other states who have been involved in the Career Pathways for individuals with disabilities, great Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia.
Now Nebraska has some great videos on their website with some amazing success stories, including one about Sarah Stewart, who you heard here on episode 81 and a welder Craig Ingle, who’s now working following a very serious accident. Both Sarah and Craig had parts in the new music video Lead On VR. It’s being featured on RSAs VR 100 webpage celebrating the 100th anniversary of vocational rehabilitation. We’ll have links to all those videos and some additional information about the program in the show notes, along with contact information for Nebraska’s VR and Career Pathways Advancement Project.
Such a pleasure to welcome the person who has been leading these extremely effective efforts in Nebraska, the project director, Janet Drudik. Welcome to the podcast, Janet.
Janet Drudik: Thank you for having me. It’s always exciting to talk about our CPAP grant, so I love being here.
Rick Sizemore: Well, let’s get started with the story of Dave Kelly and Todd’s. There are so many things to talk about, but he really represents in so many ways the success that you’re enjoying through this grant, what was your reaction to hearing Dave’s story?
Janet Drudik: Oh, I just always enjoy hearing Dave’s story. His comment of not letting your past define you definitely applies to Dave. It’s good to hear CPAP has helped Dave, but also has helped Todd’s BBI grow their company from 300,000, he said, to millions, partially do this training for Dave and his other employees. It really reinforces the VR and CPAP philosophy and having a dual customer approach, serving both the clients and the business. So as always, it’s fun to hear Dave’s story.
Rick Sizemore: That’s awesome. Well, we’ll get into some of the specifics about how CPAP built in those services that helped Todd’s grow, but give us, if you would, just a quick overview of CPAP and what you’ve been up to for the past couple of years.
Janet Drudik: Well, the Career Pathways Advancement Project, it’s what it’s referred to a CPAP and it’s a five year grant through the Rehabilitation Service Administration, which is RSA. The grant will be coming to an end now this coming September. The grant is an up-skill backfill model. CPAP staff contacts past successfully closed VR clients who are closed in a high wage, high demand career pathways of information technology, manufacturing, healthcare, architecture and construction, and TDL occupations with stands for transportation, distribution, and logistics. And our goal is to help people advance by completing a credential. And those credentials can be like an industrial certification like Dave and his staff received, or anything from diplomas, associate degrees, graduate work, whatever it may be.
The goal is to help individuals with disabilities to become economically self-sufficient and to receive benefits. CPAP staff works with businesses to up-skill the clients within their current business, and then once we establish a relationship with the business and provide training to the client, we backfill with the client from the regular VR program. The key to the model is up-skilling clients, building relationships with businesses and backfilling with individuals who have entry-level skills and want to enter a specific career pathway.
Rick Sizemore: Well, you’ve had a profound effect on not only Dave, but on Todd’s. How did you evolve the relationship with Todd’s? We’ll start with them, and there are others of course, but how did that outreach occur?
Janet Drudik: Well actually it was a little different with Todd’s because they had already understood the importance of an untapped workforce. And so they understood the importance of hiring someone with criminal histories and also with disabilities. So that was a good fit for us. So we were able to go in and help them advance Dave, as well as up-skill other employees and backfill, which was a real benefit, but we’ve also been able to work with other companies that maybe haven’t been as advanced as Todd’s is already tapping that disability workforce.
So we have done things with other companies like doing disability awareness, helping them understand who Nebraska VR and CPAP serves, providing training to their HR directors, their shift managers, things like that, all to help them understand that that many times they may have people working in their companies that they don’t even know have a disability. And as we advance incumbent workers, often we find that those incumbent workers that the HR directors are saying, “We would not have imagined that VR would be serving some of the individuals,” because they don’t recognize them as having a disability because they are not visible.
Rick Sizemore: As part of getting ready for this interview, we talked with the head of the Nebraska Trucking Association. He said the same thing as the HR manager out at Hill Brothers. In this economy, we have to reach out and rethink the workforce and how to find them. It sounds like Todd’s really has a great attitude about embracing people with disabilities and people who have been incarcerated. Give us your perspective on why voc rehab should be reaching out to people who have criminal histories,
Janet Drudik: Just to show that many individuals in the correctional institutions have a disability and these incarcerations, maybe a result of difficulty dealing with the impact of their disability, so helping individuals understand the resources like VR services and grants like CPAP can help businesses find competitive employment with clients. It helps clients also, or individuals that are incarcerated that have disabilities pursue a career pathway. So we try and match the two, more or less. We try and help businesses find a workforce. We also help them realize that we have many individuals with disabilities that statistic show they stay on the job longer, they’re more dependable, they’re team players, all the things that employers are saying they need. And they can find that when they work with individuals with disabilities and also individuals who have criminal histories.
Rick Sizemore: Well, you heard Dave say that some of his best employees have criminal histories and they’re great workers, and they’ve become tired of a failure in their life. And they are looking for that opportunity to connect with something like VR and plan a pathway forward. So it’s exciting to hear what you all have been able to accomplish in building the workforce. One of the other things Dave said is if he had an opportunity to talk to another plant manager who had not been involved with voc rehab or disability employment, he’d say, “Do it. Get in the game, because this is a place where you can find workers.” How do you, as the head of the CPAP grant, try to impact those plant managers and operations managers who still haven’t warmed up to the idea of working with VR?
Janet Drudik: So originally the grant was for, and still remains to be for advancing individuals who were past successfully closed VR clients, but we also found there was a niche to help people advance their incumbent workers. As we work with businesses, they indicate they don’t have the training dollars. So as we help advance and provide credentials for their incumbent workers, we then advance that individual and then we can go in with that same employer and then backfill with a new employee with a disability. And many times over, I mean, more times than I can count, the business is saying, “We did not realize that incumbent worker had a disability.”
In fact, they had either come to the HR and identified themselves to having a disability, or also we had been putting out brochures. A company may allow us to put out brochures, talk to their staff, go to their staff meetings, put information in their paycheck stubs, and if they have a disability to contact the CPAP directly. And when we’ve done that, HR had said, “We did not realize that person has a disability. We want to work with that individual and their disability.” But also the greatest thing they take away from there is saying, “We understand now who you in VR and the CPAP grant.” Think someone that, let’s say in manufacturing, in Dave’s industry, a lot of people may say to us, “Someone with a disability couldn’t do the job.” I was recently working with a manufacturing company that said 28% of their workforce has a disability. So they also have seen, and we have worked closely with them to help them advance their incumbent workers. And they see the benefit of having us involved in advancing their workforce, as well as helping them bring in additional people with disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: So instead of going in trying to sell the idea of working with disabilities, you show up with resources and assistance, sometimes for people who are already working there, that happened to have a disability.
Janet Drudik: Right. Right. And I think the goal is not to sell the business on that, but we provide an excellent resource for them. We help them provide a workforce for them, help them see what opportunities are available. In Nebraska right now we have about a 3% unemployment rate, so people are looking for good employees. So when they realize that what they are asking for in an employee can be provided with someone from the corrections or from someone with a disability or both, they’re encouraged. And so a lot of times we’re going in and saying, can we help their staff understand disabilities? We can do disability etiquette, we can work with their supervisors. We can work with the person with the disability, their team to help them understand how that disability impacts that employee. So there’s many things we can do. We can also look at modifications, our assistive technology partnership can come in and make recommendations for what kind of assisted technology the person may need on the job site.
Rick Sizemore: Well, this is really exciting. I want to get to, in just a moment, what you see as the key impacts that you’ve had over the past few years. But right now, I want to talk about the Zach factor. We have heard throughout these conversations that we’ve had in interviews in Nebraska about this guy named Zach Arter. So what’s the magic of Zach? Because he’s out there in the mix, connecting with businesses. Tell us about your approach to using Zach as a business development manager.
Janet Drudik: Zach is just one of those ideal employees. I have three and they all just do an excellent job working with clients and working with business. But Zach is our business contact person. He’s kind of like a business account manager and he contacts businesses across the state to see if we can advance our incumbent workers. And he has a very soft touch approach. He talks to the business about what their needs are, how he may be able to help them, the importance of advancing their workforce and then also backfilling. And so that has been a real benefit to us. I guess I’m just lucky as a project director to be able to have hired Zach as a staff person.
Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s, it’s obvious that he has figured out the magic and thank you for going through that list. He has a soft touch, he’s knowledgeable of the industry, he’s not doing a hard sell, he’s offering models that might help the business advance. And I think those are key takeaways from this CPAP initiative about how to be successful in connecting with business, because when you get down to WIOA you have to begin with the end in mind of that last measure of business engagement. If you’re not building the programs to in fact, respond to the needs of business, it’s just not going to work. And Zach obviously has been able to really be effective based on all the numerous compliments that we’ve heard about this guy and his work.
Janet Drudik: Yes, he does a great job. And I will tell you, it’s listening to the employers and trying to figure out what they need. What does that business need from, or how can we help them as the CPAP grant or VR? How can we help them to meet their needs and help them be productive in the location where they’re at, or just help them bring in new business? I mean, I was thrilled to hear when Dave said BBI has increased their revenue immensely, from 300,000 to over a million.
Rick Sizemore: Millions.
Janet Drudik: Yeah, millions. And just as a result of some of the training that was provided, he felt, through CPAP and through their company and how important it is to have that trained workforce.
Rick Sizemore: Let’s get into this conversation based on the reality of what I so often hear about government services. So what? So you’ve had some money, you’ve partnered with four other states who’ve been part of career pathways initiatives in various places. How is Nebraska different and how is it better off because of what you’ve been able to do over the past few years with this Career Pathways grant?
Janet Drudik: There was a requirement that we advance clients in their employment, but sometimes due to lack of funding, states have to put more emphasis on helping individuals obtain employment rather than advancing. So one of the goals in Nebraska, because of the grant, is to provide economic self-sufficiency and help people advance that had been closed prior, successfully in VR, and really help them advance in those high-demand, high-wage jobs. And after approximately four and a half years, we feel like we’ve been really successful. The results of the CPAP has shown the mean wage at CPAP application was $532 a week. And after completing one or more credentials, the average wage at closure is $888, which is an average increase of approximately $18,577 annual. So I don’t know of any employee who wouldn’t mind taking home an extra $18,000 a year.
And besides that, our goal was to increase the benefits people were receiving, and the benefits increased on an average of 2.05 benefits per each case that was closed successfully. And many of those benefits that were increased, a lot of people come in with vacation and sick leave, but they may not come in with health insurance and retirement. So besides receiving an average increase of over 18,000, we increased health insurance and retirement in many of these cases. So in the long run, I feel like the grant has really provided long-term dividends for many of our clients, and also for the businesses we serve, because we were able to provide additional training for employees that work for them.
Rick Sizemore: As the grant winds down, how many times have people been through, well, we have some grant funding, we had this experience, now the money goes away. So does the service, leaving everyone wondering what’s next. So I have to put you on the spot just a little bit. How are you going to move forward in Nebraska as this grant winds down?
Janet Drudik: Well, I think the one thing is, as I pointed out a little bit earlier, WIOA has always indicated we should be advancing clients as they come back and work with VR, and I think that’s the one thing that we will need to take a hard look at is, how can we continue that grant and the need? Because we can see that it paid off such long-term dividends for our clients. I think the other thing we’re going to really see a difference in Nebraska is the whole Career Pathways model. The Career Pathways model is exceptional. I mean, one thing we need to get away from, a lot of times, if it’s your own high school child saying, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” We’re looking at an occupation.
We really need to help clients and just people in general to look at, what is a career pathway? Because there’s so many exit and entrance points in a career pathway. You can start a career pathway in high school and do various things within that career pathway throughout your lifetime. So I think that’s the thing too we’re really going to work with in Nebraska, is helping VR in general, look at helping people get into a career pathway and moving up and how can they come back and maybe not looking at that four year degree, right when they get out of high school, but how can you start entering that career pathway with a short-term credential or even associate degree, and then moving up, maybe as you get more experience and deciding which way you want to go in that career pathway, deciding what additional training you may need.
I go back to Dave and Todd’s BBI. He completed over seven credentials with CPAP, and they were all very short-term training programs through the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and through online courses. Many of the courses were only three days or a week, and how in five years, he moved from quality technician and now is operation manager with very short term credentials. But in VR, I would not have known that those credentials short-term classes were available through the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but it was working with that industry and working with the business to understand that these are things that are needed in the food processing business.
Rick Sizemore: The Career Pathways Advancement Project in Nebraska, headed up by Janet Drudik and the staff of the VR program there in Nebraska doing some amazing things, impacting business and industry and helping create career pathways for individuals with disabilities. Thank you for being on our podcast today, and the best of luck to you and the team in Nebraska.
Janet Drudik: Thank you so much for having us.
Rick Sizemore: Here’s Lynn Harris, director of the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center Foundation.
Lynn Harris: The foundation is so pleased to bring you these exciting stories of how vocational rehabilitation is changing people’s lives by helping them gain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in business and industry. We thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. Able Now, Aladdin Foods, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CVS Health, and the Hershey Company. You can find out more by visiting us at wwrcf.org, or find our contact information in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com.
Rick Sizemore: Well, thank you for joining us for this special episode of the VR Workforce studio podcast, brought to you by Nebraska’s vocational rehabilitation through the Career Pathways Advancement Project. You can always find another exciting episode, as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation here at the VR workforce studio. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.
Announcer: The VR Workforce Studio podcast is owned and operated by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation. The Foundation publishes and distributes the VR Workforce Studio and manages all sponsor arrangements. Audio content for the podcast is provided to the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in exchange for promotional considerations.