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HR in the Car - Episode 26: "Focus on the Job Function"

It’s really too bad you can’t see a smile on a podcast. John Robinson has one of the brightest smiles you’ll ever find. After a successful career in media advertising, John has since started a technology company focused on helping individuals with disabilities find their career home.  We talk about challenges he’s faced, as well as what it means to run into an emotional “flat tire.” 

About John

In 2023, Our Ability's CEO was recognized by the Zero Project as an Innovative Solution. In 2018, John Robinson presented with the Chamber Champion Award in recognition of actions that have advanced the mission of the New York State Capital Region Chamber. In 2014, named "One of ten national White House Champions of Change for Disability Employment."

Robinson is dedicated to connecting individuals with disabilities towards education and employment through mentoring, workshops, public speaking as well as job placement. Our Ability is the only disability owned and operated business dedicated to building employment opportunities through our job platforms, employment webinars, digital profile system and personal empowerment. 

John Robinson is the subject of "Get Off Your Knees: The John Robinson Story" a public television documentary seen around the United States and other countries. Autobiography of the same title published by Syracuse University Press in 2009. 

Since Jan 2020 – Our Ability has delivered 12,000+ “apply” clicks to our worldwide partners! 

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John Robinson
CEO, Our Ability, Inc.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to HR in the Car with Miriam Dushane and Tom Schin of Alaant Workforce Solutions, where exciting HR professionals and business leaders share laughter, insider stories, and maybe even a few tears about HR in today's world. Buckle up for the best half hour of your week.

Tom Schin: So my family and I went on a trip recently, Miriam, and we talked about the difference between New York drivers and California drivers. And it was sort of tongue in cheek, but it was this experiential thing. The New York drivers would be flipping the bird at you for driving a certain way while the California driver would say, "Oh, you look hurt, but I'm going to drive right past you." And it just comes to mind as we're talking about our next guest, John Robinson, from our ability in what's possible, what kind of things can you do, what are you passing by that you might be missing out on just by nature of stopping and asking a question.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. He has a great story. So take a listen so you can learn more.
So John, thank you so much for joining us today. We're really excited to have you. So, as we usually start with most guests, can you tell us just a little bit about who you are and your organization?

John Robinson: My name is John Robinson. I am a quadruple amputee, 54 years old, White male, brush cut. I like to think I'm handsome, somewhat round, but I am President and CEO of Our Ability Incorporated and that's important to me. I'm also married for 30 years, three children. That's also equally important to me. I'm a business leader here in the community, which is really nice. We have turned into a technology company, never meaning to be, and we've kept it here in the capital region, which is also very important to me.

Miriam Dushane: So talk to us just a little bit about your life and your career. And I know you've talked about this publicly, I've seen you in speaking engagements and things like that, but share a little bit about your transition from working for other organizations as a salesperson and moving into Our Ability.

John Robinson: Really starts after I graduated university in 1990, the same year that the American With Disabilities Act was signed, I thought that the world would be ready for somebody three-foot-eight, no arms and no legs, going out and selling advertising in the television world. And I interviewed with TV stations and networks for four and a half years before I got my first job opportunity. And this was at a time when my college roommates in the same program all got jobs right away. And so really it came down to what I looked like. Then I had a really good experience in my first television sales job. I did very well, won some awards, then was recruited to move here to Albany. News Channel 13 here in Albany recruited me out of Syracuse to come here. Had a good five years here at WNYT and then moved over to WMHT Public Broadcasting. It was a great, dream fulfilling opportunity. I'd always wanted to be in media, but in the back of my mind, I've never forgotten the period of time of being unemployed. And at the end of my time at WMHT, more and more companies asked me to speak to their salespeople and I couldn't fundamentally understand why. Why do you want me to speak to your salespeople? And it had to be pointed out to me that because I've overcome a lot in creating a good sales career. That got me speaking more and more often. I started speaking to large companies, Microsoft, Bank of America, Aflac, and the speeches got bigger and bigger. But when I started to say that I was unemployed after university, the very few other people with obvious disabilities would shake their head, nod their head and say yes, they had the same experience. And that really started to formulate a plan that I could create a company, use my business and sales acumen to create a mentor network for people with disabilities to help the next generation. When you start a business, you take left and right hand turns and that's turned into what we are now, which is a technology company that's building a generative AI driven engine that helps people with disabilities find employment. And really it's a solution to something I needed a generation ago.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, definitely. So share with us a little bit, and you might have this statistic off the top of your head, but everyone talks about the unemployment rate being so low, but the reality of the situation is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is significantly higher.

John Robinson: Yeah. The unemployment rate based on the Department of Labor stats, if the unemployment rate for the general population is 4%, the technical unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 10%. But that does not take into consideration people that have left the labor force because they haven't been working in the last 13 months or people that are underemployed in comparison to their ability. The real unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 65 to 70%. And it hasn't changed dramatically in the 30 years that we've left work centers and the Willowbrooks of the world. So we're not doing something right. I think we're all doing what we can do, whether it be state agencies or whether it be nonprofits or federal government. We're trying to do the right thing, but the process hasn't evolved. And so what we're hoping to do is to tackle the process. Can we create technology that makes it simpler for the job developer, job coach entity, as well as the person with a disability to match to open positions? And so, if you look at it from a data set standpoint, every job has a description, every description has qualities that you need in that person. If you take the label off that person and then you look at the person's ability and interests and skills and take the label off that, can you make a marriage? And if you can make the marriage, then can you go back to both entities and say to the person with a disability, "You can do this," and to the corporation, "There's somebody that's qualified that you may not have thought otherwise is qualified." So when we say we're effectively at full employment here in 2023, in July, we are. Except when we consider that certain marginalized populations aren't part of that and especially people with disabilities.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Tom Schin: Yeah. We talk a lot about reaching diverse populations just in HR in general, but that's one piece that goes by the wayside for many organizations. I understand you're using a saw and this and that and the other when you can't, there there's those dynamics. But from a brain power standpoint to project manage something or to do computer programming, you might have to use some tools to audio record different things. The brain power's there to do it, right?

John Robinson: Yeah.

Tom Schin: It's the want and desire. And I've talked to a lot of, even the ARC contingents who use their workforce to supplement things and then they tell me the wage rates. I'm like, "How?. You're not even paying folks the right amounts." And it breaks my heart. But I would love to know the technology piece and how you came to come up with that side of it. I know you mentioned artificial intelligence.

John Robinson: We started as a very simple jobs board. What happened was those first few companies that hired me to speak out in North America would ask us if they could post jobs. They didn't want to mentor people necessarily, although that was nice. They wanted to get their jobs out there to our community. And people with disabilities started flooding us with resumes. What happened just about a year and a half before COVID, we were sought out by Syracuse University. They had a capstone project that they wanted to work on real issues. They gave us eight grad students and they said, "Can we code something that makes more sense?" In the back of my mind, I always thought about my first representative at Vocational Rehabilitation in New Hampshire when I was a kid, the very first question he asked me was, "What do you want to do?" And somewhere that question's been lost in the disability placement world. And so I wanted to create a system, can we ask what do you want to do? What do you have the ability to do? What do you have the skills to do? So when I said that to Syracuse somewhere around 2018, they came back to us with students and they said, "Here's what we think we can do." Almost at the same time, we started conversations with Microsoft and Microsoft AI for Good Program and we received the first Microsoft AI for Good program for employment. And so we received this gift and we received people and we started building what I had wanted to do. And up until about six months ago, the system that we created with Syracuse was up and going and great. And then open AI changes the world. ChatGPT has changed the world just in a little period of time. That's got us changing what we're doing pretty dramatically. And what we're going to have here in the next little while is a conversational AI driven system on your phone, you answer six questions and we start flooding you with jobs that match. And instead of a big long form field now, we can drill it down to six answers, build your profile with your resume and you're ready to go. And we're so excited about the technology that's helping this. We hear the negative to open AI and ChatGPT right now, and people are worried about where it's going and are we all going to be phased out as people? Okay, we can worry about that, but in the meantime, we can solve some problems that we couldn't solve before because of this emerging technology. And that's what we are doing at Our Ability.

Tom Schin: I love that story. I think that it's inspiring to know that there's good being done behind the scenes that's much needed. And one of the reasons we have this forum is so we can talk about these things and share the information to basically give you that loudspeaker. Are there particular messages you're trying to get out there that you haven't been able to broadcast as loudly?

John Robinson: I think the messages are fewfold. One is that we do have the ability to do something. You never know what somebody can do. And I think the best person to answer the question of what you can do is yourself. So a good recruiter, a good HR manager should be asking the question, "How are you going to perform the job function?" Because if I'm interviewing for something, I've already thought about it, I've thought it through. I've thought the positives and the negatives, I've thought the accommodation piece all through and so I'll answer that question head on. So, one of the things we preach all the time with corporate America is focus on the job function. You're always in a safe space if you're asking somebody how they're going to perform the job function. So, that's sort of A. The other part of it is that we are solving problems with technology. Just an example there, I was down in Richmond, Virginia, SHRM meeting, which is really about a 1,000 people in their SHRM meeting speaking.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, big one.

John Robinson: Yeah, great group. In the spring. And prior to that we had a meeting with Voc Rehab in the Commonwealth of Virginia and they know what we're doing in technology and they turned around and said, "We've got this backlog of a database. And in the database, the people that are inputting information about each person with a disability in Virginia need to create a resume out of that." And I'm thinking, wait a minute, we're doing that in reverse. We can reverse engineer that pretty rapidly. So now we're talking about the state of Virginia, that we can take that backlog, almost instantly fix that. So that that will help the state of or the Commonwealth of Virginia work with more people in a much faster situation.

Tom Schin: And I imagine state by state, region by region, you're going to pick up more and more lessons on how to translate all this in a universal system?

John Robinson: That's exactly right. There have been other entities around the United States that have tried, but because we've focused on the information from AI rather than your typical form field, the way Facebook started or LinkedIn started, we've lent to something else. And that's rapidly sped up what we're doing.

Miriam Dushane: I know, because I've done a demo of the site, and so what you're talking about, the thing that I was interested in was, is it common for people with disabilities to not have resumes? Because I know that's part of that whole system, is to help them build a profile that demonstrates their skills and their abilities. And that was interesting to me because it had never occurred to me that that was an issue that needed to be solved.

John Robinson: I think it's an interesting dynamic. I think those of us in a professional space are used to having a resume or a profile, that's just second nature to everything we do. But there is a segment of our population, whether it be intellectual developmental disabilities or physical disabilities, early on in the process, you may not have a resume. So what we've tried to create is, we call it a profile. We tried to create a profile that can act as a resume for those that don't have it. That's really important for us, because we're trying to lower any barrier to entry. And if not having a resume is a barrier, let's fix that.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. Definitely.

Tom Schin: That's really interesting that you bring that in. I think from a lot of landscapes, a lot of the candidate populations. So we can even think about folks who might have some visual impairment, maybe they don't have access to the tools to input the information, right? So you're giving a whole bunch of folks a new voice to get a chance out there. And it's probably more education with the employers, in my mind, of being open-minded to it.

Miriam Dushane: I think the natural incorrect presumption is that an employer who wants to hire for their organization, it's going to be added costs if they look to hire people with various disabilities, physical or intellectual. And are you working on education for those employers to break down that barrier too? Because I think it's a misperception.

John Robinson: Yeah, over 50% of accommodations are $ 0. And once you say that to a company, they've got the solution already there. The accommodation for me here at News Channel 13 was the sales offices were on the third floor with no elevator. The accommodation wasn't put an elevator in for 50 grand, it was move my office downstairs. That's free. So it can happen. But to your point, yes, a lot of what we're doing is acting as a resource to the business. So, yup, the corporation subscribes to us, we put the jobs up on the website, we've got a funnel of candidates on through, but it's more than that. We get phone calls or emails from the company to say, "How do we deal with this? What is the accommodation process that we should be looking at?" We're not attorneys, but we know people in every situation. If we can't answer the question, we can help them answer the question.

Tom Schin: We run into those questions regularly. You have that accommodation piece?

Miriam Dushane: All the time. And I was just going to ask that. I was just going to ask, can employers seek you out or seek out the organization to help navigate those waters?

John Robinson: Absolutely. And we hope that they do. We want our partners and even those that are not our partners, call us, ask us questions. We've acquired an amazing knowledge base without ever meaning to on helping the process of matching people with disabilities to jobs and accommodation is part of that.

Miriam Dushane: Right. Absolutely.

Tom Schin: Right. And that's an interesting dynamic, in that most of those accommodations, we've seen it on our staffing days, where someone were request an accommodation because they "had to", with air quotes. Sometimes it's something simple, like you said, moving the desk and it becomes that argument of, "Oh, we can't do that." Is it that you can't do it or you won't do it?

Miriam Dushane: Don't want to do it.

John Robinson: Right.

Tom Schin: Or that. Right? It's not a, "Could it be done?" Yeah, moving a desk, easy. It's just having a station and you can come up with that.

John Robinson: Exactly.

Miriam Dushane: So I know that we are partnering with the organization, we have the jobs, our jobs listed, but do have any examples or stories of success with people that are using this system or employers that are using this system?

John Robinson: We do. We've had some great success locally with Price Chopper Market 32 and SEFCU before they changed to Broadview. I think the best story of success comes again from Virginia. We had a friend of ours in a meeting with Dominion Energy talking about what was going on with jobs ability in our system. And one of the persons in the meeting was from Performance Food Group and he spoke up and said, "We hired two people from the system last week." And he just happened to be in the meeting for a different reason. And Dominion was asking our counterpart in Virginia, "Does it work?" And performance got a chance to say it out loud. We didn't know. We knew that everybody was using it, but we didn't know. And so it's great to have a moment like that where, okay, there's some validity. You build something, you hope people use it, you know the traction on each side, but does the marriage get made? You don't know. But then we get to find out once in a while.

Miriam Dushane: Gotcha. I have to do a better job of tracking that. I got to make sure the team knows, uh-oh, I better do a better job of that. 'Cause I want those success stories.

John Robinson: We'll help you.

Miriam Dushane: Sounds good.

Tom Schin: So how does someone go about connecting with you? We'll include your contact information in our show notes when we publish the episode. But in terms of is there a specific website that can just start for, starter information? I'm curious, where do I go?

John Robinson: Ourability. com and the product is jobsability. com. So if you got the word "ability" in it and "our" or "jobs", you're going to find us. And I've been a pretty public person for the past 12 years, so you can find me through any of the social media channels as well.

Tom Schin: Awesome.

Miriam Dushane: If you ever have an opportunity to see John speak live, please take advantage of it. It's inspiring, it's hilarious. You are an amazing storyteller.

John Robinson: Thank you.

Miriam Dushane: But I highly recommend that if you can talk to John, get to meet John or see him speak in person that you will not regret it.

John Robinson: Thank you.

Miriam Dushane: So as we wrap up and in keeping with our HR in the Car theme, what is the tool in your roadside assistance kit that, your go-to, when you are performing work, doing whatever, what is your go-to?

John Robinson: So I've got two go-tos and I thought about this. If I'm driving to a meeting, if I'm driving to an appointment, if going somewhere fun, my mental go-to is to play The Tragically Hip, Canadian rock band. Gordon Downie passed away recently, but I saw them 30 times before he did.

Miriam Dushane: Oh my gosh.

Tom Schin: 30?

John Robinson: Yeah. So my go-to is I'll put on The Hip and zone out while I'm driving. My emotional toolkit go-to are the friends in my life. I lived with eight guys in college and I talk a lot about them when I give my talks, but the truth is, they've raised me as much as I've raised them and have forged me in my life. And so if I have a situation, if I have a problem, if I want to vent, if I've got sort of an emotional flat tire, I'm calling one of those guys and just touching and that's it. It's not about the situation specifically. They grounded me when I was 17 years old and then they've always continued to be able to ground me at certain times. And so that's my toolkit.

Miriam Dushane: That's awesome.

Tom Schin: John, we're going to use that emotional flat tire again. I'm sure of it. That's a great euphemism.

Miriam Dushane: Oh my God, yeah. It's a perfect euphemism for our podcast.

Tom Schin: Well done. Well done.

Miriam Dushane: So thank you so much for joining us today, we really appreciate it. And we look forward to learning more in the future about the success of the organization.

John Robinson: Thank you very much. It's been fun.

Tom Schin: Thanks.

Miriam Dushane: So you employers out there that are complaining about a labor shortage, that are complaining about not enough people to hire from, are you really looking in the right spots?

Tom Schin: It's so true. And we've been doing this staffing thing for a long time. So we fly through resumes like there's no tomorrow. And we know there's tons of conversations out there where they just bleed past the resume because there's a gap versus, and that filter out, right? Let me filter them out, filter them out first.

Miriam Dushane: Filter out instead of filter in. Absolutely.

Tom Schin: Right? And you heard John talk about that four and a half year span after college of not being able to find a job, when realistically and objectively you should have hired him.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely.

Tom Schin: And they missed out on such a great person.

Miriam Dushane: Mm-hmm, agreed. And I think it's really important for people to start focusing on the functions. Let's start breaking down those boxes and breaking down those barriers of what the traditional norms were when it comes to hiring, when it comes to our applicant pools, when it comes to the candidates. Because we are not doing a good service to, not only us as employers, but as the community as a whole. So to learn more about Our Ability and Jobs Ability, talk to John. He's a great resource. He is the most welcoming person you will ever meet. Go to our website, which is, check out the show notes for John and you will see the links to Our Ability, Jobs Ability. And we thank you, once again, for listening. Have a great day.