The Job Coach Network: a successful resource for the supported employment work force

The Job Coach Network: a successful resource for the supported employment work force

Meilssa Roberts

This article describes the Job Coach Network–an intervention used to address typical work related issues which often result in feelings of isolation and frustration and in high turnover for supported employment job coaches. The Job Coach Network was developed in 1988 in conjunction with a joint venture of the New Jersey Divisions of Mental Health and Hospitals and Vocational Rehabilitation Services to develop supported employment opportunities for individuals experiencing mental illness. The network, which continues today, uses peer support and problem solving, as well as formal and informal training to promote skill development, knowledge acquisition, information sharing, job satisfaction, and professional networking.

Approaches to promote integrated employment for people diagnosed with severe mental illness have received significant attention during the last 10 years. Beginning in the mid- to late eighties, an increasing number of articles appeared in the literature discussing supported and transitional employment. An entire issue of the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal was dedicated to supported employment in 1987. Anthony, Blanch, Danley, Bonds, and others discussed the roots of supported employment for people diagnosed with severe mental illness, the similarities and differences between supported employment for people with mental illness and for those with developmental disabilities, and future directions in supported employment. Danley, Anthony, MacDonald-Wilson, and Mancuso described a comprehensive approach to integrated employment in the choose- get-keep model (Danley & Anthony, 1987, MacDonald-Wilson, Mancuso, Danley, Anthony, 1989). A review of the first 10 years of supported employment as an employment approach was discussed by Isbister in 1990.

Findings have begun to emerge that more specifically discuss the efficacy of supported employment for people with mental illness and the learnings gleaned from comprehensive evaluations (Fishbein, Minsky, & Knepp, 1990). There are also descriptions of exemplary programs (Dalton, 1992). Less evident in the general supported employment literature are references to the human resource development dimension–the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed by staff carrying out supported employment programs.

Moon and Stern have reported on a process to identify the staff development and technical assistance needed to prepare personnel at the preservice, inservice, and technical assistance levels to staff supported employment programs (Barcus, Griffin, Mank, Rhodes, Moon, Eds., 1988). Inge, Barcus, and Evanson have discussed developing inservice training programs for supported employment personnel (Wehman & Moon, Eds., 1988). Kieger and Sales have written about the lack of qualified personnel for supported employment and have offered a design for preservice programs to address this need. (Wehman & Mood, Eds., 1988). More recently, McDonald and her colleagues have written and field tested a competency based training manual for job coaches (DiLeo, Ed., 1992). The manual covers a wide range of topics needed by a job coach in the field, including career planning, job development and marketing, arranging benefits, and supporting persons with a diversity of needs.

While these references focus on the implications of supported employment in assisting the consumer and preparing the system, programs, and personnel, nothing has been written about the human resource needs of staff in sustaining their efforts on behalf of the consumers they serve; and although much has been discussed related to the supports consumers need to enter and remain in employment, little has focused on supporting the staff who provide these supports. This article highlights some of the difficulties faced by job coaches or employment specialists in carrying out their functions and describes a unique and successful method of supporting these staff.


In the early spring of 1988, a joint venture of the New Jersey Divisions of Mental Health and Hospitals and Vocational Rehabilitation Services was undertaken to explore the efficacy of supported employment as a viable outcome for consumers. Resources from both agencies were utilized to establish contracts with four community mental health organizations who would develop countywide supported employment services targeted for consumers. The agencies selected for this first attempt had demonstrated competence in providing a range of vocational services but, because of the lack of resources, did not have the capacity to provide the intensive and extensive levels of support that are the hallmark and promise of supported employment. The initial efforts proved highly successful, starting with 4 countywide programs and expanding to 16 over the past 6 years, collectively serving over 1,000 consumers, and assisting more than 600 people into a range of integrated employment opportunities.

To promote the development of these first projects, an organizational meeting was held among the administrators, supervisors, and job coaches of the four community providers and representatives of the two state agencies to identify those systemic, programmatic, and personnel implementation issues that might impact on the ability of the new supported employment programs to provide quality services to consumers. Many issues were identified and discussed at the meeting, including interagency collaboration, reporting requirements, and other program implementation issues. One of the most important issues to emerge, however, was the unique role of the job coach in the mental health agency. Based on their brief experiences in this role, the job coaches identified the challenges inherent in their duties and what they believed their individual needs would be.

Some issues were readily apparent, such as:

* the isolation of working in the community, away from the facility;

* the need for a new and varied set of skills;

* the absence of peer support from coworkers who did not always understand

* the nature of job coaching; and

* the diminished availability of supervisors, as job coaches spend more of their time in the community.

Because isolation from peers, untested and unknown skills, and diminished supervisory support are highly correlated with professional burnout and often result in staff turnover, these were of great concern in the newly evolving programs. The importance of professional support has been discussed by others: “…the social and emotional support provided by peers can be critical for survival on the job” (Maslach, 1982, p. 111). Maslach goes on to suggest that during stressful periods, supportive coworkers provide things such as comfort and emotional support, insight by way of a different perspective, increased knowledge through the sharing of experience, and recognition for a job well done (1982). The job coaches found themselves in a true dilemma. They clearly needed support but were also pioneers in roles in which the mental health field had no experience. While their need for support was high, their coworkers and even supervisors had little experience to offer them regarding their tasks, duties, and functions. The formal and informal interactions with coworkers would be minimal at best, and there was already more confusion and, in some cases, resentment than empathy expressed by coworkers. The Job Coach Network was formed in direct response to the recognition of the need for and lack of available assistance.

The Intervention

An organizational network meeting for job coaches, coordinated by the authors, was scheduled. At that meeting, the group decided that the network job coaches would meet quarterly in a confidential place to air the frustration, impatience, disappointment, and confusion inherent in developing a new service while also developing needed skills. The primary purposes for launching the network was to provide the opportunity for job coaches to give and receive support from their peers, to identify issues, and to engage in problem solving. The meetings, which have also been used as formal and informal training sessions on topics of concern to members, typically open with a review of agenda items and a review of relevant statewide supported employment information. This is usually followed by a discussion of issues and specific difficulties experienced by job coaches in their respective agencies, and then by a brainstorming of possible strategies and solutions. Training on new information, methods, and technology, based upon prior requests, may also be presented. The authors have acted as facilitators by coordinating the meeting announcements and agenda development during the network’s formative stages. However the group is self-directive, built upon a peer, mutual support, and empowerment model.

Over the past 5 years, network members have struggled with a variety of issues, some of which were directly related to doing the essential functions of job coaching, such as developing activities which help people with limited knowledge of the world of work, to choose what they want to do, forging new or different relationships with coworkers, other providers, VR counselors, and the business community; developing marketing skills and materials that address the specific needs of each group of customers; providing for the changing support needs of the supported employees; and facilitating coworkers’ understanding of the nature of supported employment and the role of the job coach. Some issues were related to the support needs of the job coaches: facing rejection from employers, dealing with the frustration and disappointment when a job match doesn’t work out, accepting coworkers’ taunts about the perceived laziness of job coaches because they were more out of the facility than in, and staying focused on supported employment while being pulled in many directions by their agencies.

Some issues seem to pose philosophical dilemmas, such as: deciding between helping someone get a first job or helping someone else who has lost or left a job to get another; striving to remain non-exclusionary in service entry criteria while the number of consumers awaiting supported employment service grows exponentially; and recognizing the importance of helping people achieve their life dreams while working in a system that often considers those life dreams “unrealistic.” Finally, there were concerns expressed about the ability of the system to enable competent job coaches to remain on the job. Also, based upon experiences of job coaches serving persons with developmental disabilities, there seemed to be high turnover among their peers across the country, as the vocation is often entry level with low pay, nonclinical in nature, lacking in career advancement opportunities within supported employment, and, therefore, low in status-factors which often made job coaches feel devalued in their mental health agencies.

While answers to all of these issues and questions were not always forthcoming, the job Coach Network was having a significant positive impact on acknowledging the problems and searching for answers. The issues raised were meaningful to all of the participants, and discussions about the issues were not merely complaint sessions but involved brainstorming and problem solving. Training needs were identified and met in timely way Most telling of all, network meetings were attended with remarkable regularity by job coaches whose schedules were routinely full and varied.

This past winter, as the group approached its fifth anniversary, the authors decided to evaluate what had been observed over the course of the group’s evolution: that the network has reduced job coach isolation and increased professional connection, skills information sharing, and overall satisfaction.

A mail survey of members was conducted concerning the special features of the Job Coach Network. Included were questions about job tenure, ways in which the network helped in providing services, and what personal benefits were noted by members. The results, which were tabulated using a simple frequency of response, are highlighted below.

Thirty-seven percent of those responding had been members of the network for 3 to 4.5 years, 16 percent had been members for 1-2 years, and 47 percent were members less than 1 year at the time of the survey (It is important to note that 6 of the 16 supported employment programs had been in operation for less than 1 year at this time.

Job coaches reported that the network has helped them in the following ways:

* Seventy-nine percent said it helped with support.

* Seventy-nine percent reported it helped with training.

* One hundred percent related that it helped with information sharing.

* Fifty-eight percent indicated it helped with problem solving.

* Thirty-seven percent said it helped with job satisfaction.

* Sixty-eight percent reported it helped with issue identification/clarification.

* Thirty-seven percent stated it helped with intervention with their employer.

* Twenty-one percent said it helped with intervention with funding source.

* Sixty-eight percent reported that it helped as a resource for knowledge, technology, and research findings.

In response to the question, “What network benefits would you identify?” job coaches responded as follows:

* Eighty-four percent reported a decrease in feelings of isolation in their role.

* Ninety percent described an increased feeling of self-worth.

* Ninety percent told of an increased feeling of competence in their role.

* Seventy-four percent reported enhanced professional networking.

* Ninety percent related they felt better about the value of the job coach’s role.

* Eighty-four percent described increased feelings of connectedness to their colleagues.

When asked “Has membership in the network influenced your decision/ability to continue in the job? If so, how?” 53 percent of the total respondents said yes, and 60 percent of the job coaches who were in their jobs for 1 year or more also answered affirmatively.

Specific comments from the survey included:

“Many network members feel similarly to me; hearing their stories has made me feel good about where I work and what I do.”

“It has made my job easier; sharing ideas and hearing other coaches’ difficulties.”

“It has enriched my job.” The group’s input has made difficult days easier and deceased my feelings of isolation.”

“It has helped me to see that my skills will increase with time.”

“It provides support and information sharing.”

“It gives me a break from a job which can be overwhelming.”

When asked “How has membership in the network effected your feeling about the role of job coach? ” members responded:

“It has shown me the importance of our role to consumers and to the field.”

“It has given me support when I felt my agency neglected to.” “It lets me know I’m doing a good job.”

“It gives me a chance to see how others feel about the role.”

“It has made me more aware of what I should be doing.”

Coaches added additional information in response to the question, “Are their other benefits of the job Coach Network? “

“Networking with peers and colleagues and information sharing promotes a feeling of professionalism.”

“It has enabled a consumer I work with to make contact with another person with similar interests.”

“It aids the learning process for job coaches and leads to feelings of connectedness.”

“It gives me a chance to get away from my regular routine.”


Clearly, the job coaches’ responses confirm the network as a valuable and effective resource. The survey results indicate that this form of work force support has real potential in influencing job retention, continuing education, and continuous quality improvement. The success of a network for job coaches who work with consumers has led to the creation of a network for coaches working with individuals with developmental disabilities in New Jersey

Supported employment programs, as with most human service functions, are highly labor intensive. Typically, 85 percent of organizational budgets are dedicated to personnel. The effect of staff turnover in continual recruitment, retraining, and time spent in job acclimation is costly to the organization, to the individual staff person, and, most importantly, to the consumer served by the organization. The development of a job coach network is a work force intervention that is cost effective, easily replicated, and successful. The return on the investment in starting a network is clear. The increased satisfaction and effectiveness of staff can only have a positive effect on consumer success and satisfaction in gaining integrated employment opportunities.


1. Dalton, B.A. (1992, March). Outstanding integrative employment agencies: Creativity, leadership and commitment. Developmental Disabilities Training Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. 2. Danley, K. S., & Anthony, W. A. (1987). The choose-get-keep approach to supported employment, American Rehabilitation, 13(4), 6-9, 27-29. 3. Dileo, D. (Ed.) (1992). Supported employment training, competency-based instruction modules. The University Affiliated Program of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ. 4. Kerger, J., & Sales, P. (1988). Preservice preparation of supported employment professionals, in P. Wehman M.S. Moon (Eds.), Vocational rehabilitation and supported employment, p. 129. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks. 5. Everson, J., & O’Neill, C. (1988). Technical assistance and staff development, in M. Barces, S. Griffin, D. Mank, L. Rhodes, & M.S. Moon (Eds.), Supported Employment Issues. Virginia Commonwealth University. 6. Fishbein, S. M., Minsky, S., Knepp, D. (1990). Supported employment project evaluation: Preliminary results (unpublished manuscript). New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Hospitals, Trenton, NJ. 7. Inge, K.J., Barcus, J.M., & Everson, J.M. (1988). Developing in-service training programs for supported employment personnel, in P. Wehman and M.S. Moon (Eds.). Vocational rehabilitation and supported employment, p. 145. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks. 8. MacDonald-Wilson, K.L., Mancuso, L.L., Danley, K.S., & Anthony, W.A. (Fall 1989). Supported employment for persons with psychiatric disabilities, Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 20, 3. 9. Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout–the cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ms. Roberts is Project Coordinator, Supported Employment Training and Technical Assistance Services, University Affiliated Program of New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Mr. Fishbein is Director, Office of Human Resources and Rehabilitation Development, New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Hospitals.

COPYRIGHT 1994 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group