A Decade of U: employU Celebrates Its 10 Year Anniversary
A Decade of U: employU Celebrates Its 10 Year Anniversary
This month we are celebrating ten years of U! For employU’s ten-year anniversary, we are thanking our local communities for their support and highlighting the successes of our clients, business partners, and communities as a whole. As we take a look back, it’s incredible to think of how a simple move from New York to Florida started it all. In this post we will explore how this journey, that has led to the career and employment accomplishments of so many, started.
When our Executive Director, Keith Bourkney, moved from Buffalo, New York to Florida to work for his close friend’s marketing company, he stumbled upon Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) by chance. When moving into a new office for the marketing company, VR Counselors, who happened to have an office next door, came by to talk to Keith about signing up as a host business for on-the-job trainings (OJTs). “We needed employees so I signed our business up as a contractor,” explains Keith.
Over the next two years the marketing company had more than 20 employees from VR. “One thing that stood out to me, was that they all appreciated the opportunity. In an industry where loyalty is rare and people often ask, ‘what are you going to do for me?’, it was refreshing to hear people say they were grateful for the chance to prove themselves and ask, ‘what can I do for you?’” Keith remembers.
Keith enjoyed working with VR and their customers. He also had a newly discovered passion for assisting those within the disability community find employment. This is where the idea that would eventually become employU was envisioned. In June of 2012, while maintaining his position with the marketing company, Keith received his first referrals from VR. Keith not only worked with his clients to assist them in preparing for and obtaining employment, he also got to know them on a more personal level to help them discover a tailored career path that was right for them. From there, employU was born.
As Keith received more referrals, he realized he would need some help. His wife, Marsha, was his first job coach, however, with the amount of referrals for job placements coming in, Keith knew he needed to expand his staff. He began networking with organizations that assisted jobseekers with employment. He came across an organization called Christian Help. And while he did find a handful of people who wanted to help employU, Keith found that he needed employment specialists who were more experienced in working with the disability community. After hitting some job fairs, Keith came across Melissa Sherry.
Melissa hadn’t planned on going to that particular job fair that day, however, she heard a business she was interested in would be there so she thought she would check it out. Once there, Melissa spotted Keith from across the room. His visible enthusiasm when speaking to others caught her attention. After walking to employU’s table to hear Keith’s pitch, Melissa explained to Keith that she had experience in developing a company similar to what Keith had envisioned for employU and would love the opportunity to assist in building the organization. With Melissa’s experience and knowledge, employU’s Adult Employment Program was born. Today, Melissa is employU’s Director of Employment Services.
As employU grew, so did its needs. But Keith maintained the personalized, tailored approach each step of the way. “I knew that it was important that we put some very simple and basic expectations into place. For example, we contact every client within twenty-four hours of receiving a referral, maintain contact no less than once per week, take clients out to follow up on applications no less than twice a month, and maintain communication with our counselors and perform as much coaching as necessary,” Keith explains. Keith was confident that his approach was exactly what jobseekers needed to achieve their career goals and would allow employU to grow in order to serve more communities. “There are no boundaries to what we could accomplish. And the future was so vivid that I felt I could reach out and touch it. The things that we are doing today are almost exactly as I pictured it ten years ago.”
In 2014, Melissa made the move from Orlando to Deltona. Here, the VR Counselors were asking for help. The area was one of the lowest performing units and they were getting some pressure. After meeting with their unit and realizing the severity of their needs, Melissa decided to move to Deltona to help. She quickly received a case load from VR. Not long after, Melissa singlehandedly made the area one of the highest performing units.
As employU began adding more Employment Specialists to the team, the organization expanded its services to Osceola, Brevard, and Volusia Counties. As time went on employU evolved and grew rather rapidly. Keith began scheduling company meetings monthly, where everyone would travel to employU’s home office to review cases and discuss any concerns. Eventually, these meetings were held quarterly, and Keith had to start renting space that was big enough to hold the increased number of team members. Making the meetings as interactive as possible, Keith discussed new trainings, updated staff on the expansion and direction of employU, and most importantly, kept the staff connected.
Seeing the need for a one-stop-shop employment service, Keith began looking into further expanding employU’s services. “Ever since we started, I had known there was a service called vocational evaluations. VR counselors told me it was something that I should get into, however, it required finding someone that had a Certified Vocational Evaluator Certification (CVE) to sign off on the reports,” Keith explains. He began scouring the internet, looking for qualified candidates. He eventually found a foundation that provided the certification, however, on the website it stated that they stopped providing the program in 2011. The website did have the names and emails of all those that wished to be on their directory. So, as a shot in the dark, Keith emailed each person listed in the directory. Out of about forty emails sent, he only received a response from one. It was from a woman in Melbourne who had just had a newborn baby and worked as a School Counselor. She explained she didn’t have time to perform vocational evaluations for employU, but would be able to review and sign off on them. Keith accepted her offer and the Evaluations Program was born. After some time, Keith was able to find evaluators that held a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Degree. Eventually Keith came across Jenn Anken, who helped develop out the Evaluations program and remains employU’s Vocational Evaluation Program Director today.
Once VR announced in 2015 that they had received funding designated for youth ages fourteen through twenty-two, Keith decided to once again, expand employU’s services to better serve our local communities. Keith began holding Youth Pre-Employment Trainings. But he knew this wasn’t enough when it came to providing what youth clients needed in terms of career preparation and exploration. He began looking for someone to help develop out the Transition Youth Program. After two attempts with candidates who were not exactly the right fit, Keith was introduced to Lindy Sinka.
A friend of a friend, Lindy had just moved back from Iraq and was looking for employment. After meeting with Lindy, Keith knew she was the perfect fit. Since then, Lindy has been running a very complex but fulfilling program of which she has grown to be the largest VR youth program in the state of Florida. “It has the most moving parts of the three programs, however, it is clear that she is the right person for the job,” states Keith.
With the addition of new services and programs, the expansion of the support staff has played a role in supporting and fostering the organization’s growth as well. Keith explains the constant development going on behind the scenes, below.
“All of our leaders at employU have really made the company what it is today. We recently promoted Alex, who has been with the company for several years and held several positions, to Director of Operations. He and I see things very similarly and have a very parallel vision of how things should work. We brought, Nef, who created our first CRM, on full time. He has completely remodeled our CRM to allow us to work the way we work and provides solutions for our on-going IT needs. I brought on a CFO, Carrie, who is someone that was partnered with an accountant that I had been working with since the beginning. We’re big enough now where we require someone to help structure our complicated payroll systems and make sure we’re running properly. We brought on April, our HR Manager. It took a while, but I finally found the right person to run our Human Resources department. We have built a Marketing Department and more recently, a Relationship Management Department. I am someone that appreciates the importance and value of marketing. We have found that many aren’t aware that these employment services exist and are available to them. I have said for a while that if we build our marketing with the intention of increasing awareness of these services, then everyone would see the resources we bring to the table, whether it be a client, business, counselor, or potential staff member.”
As employU began to grow as a whole, so did its service area. Averaging close to ten new counties per year, employU’s programs were breaking records year after year. Though the events of 2020 slowed down this momentum a bit, Keith decided to take that time as an opportunity instead of a setback. With everything on pause during the start of the pandemic, employU began to restructure its internal systems for a more streamlined operation. This included the implementation of a new payroll system and overhaul of the organization’s CRM.
During this time, employU’s Virtual Services Program was also created to continue meeting the needs of clients. While other employment services were temporarily closing their doors, employU implemented interactive, virtual services so that clients would be able to continue progressing in their employment journeys.
So, what do the next 10 years hold for employU? Keith explains, “People often ask me what the future plans of employU are. When I think about it, I sometimes start to say we’ll expand our in-person services to all the counties in Florida by the end of next year. And maybe start working out of state by the year after. But that’s not really what the plan is. The plan is to keep making employU better. Have better systems, training, better benefits, better recruiting, build our marketing efforts and relationship management team, and by doing all of that, employU will go wherever it is needed… That’s really how it’s been happening all this time and there’s nothing to make me think it won’t keep on. employU is something that I am extremely proud to just be a part of. I love watching people grow because it’s the people that make this company great. 10 years have gone by really fast, and I cannot wait to see what we look like at our 20th celebration.”