By Kristin Hoelen
Middle East District
WINCHESTER, Va. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District's first experience hiring a recent graduate with a disability proves that talent comes in many forms.
Pierce Hamilton, who attends the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, is the district's first summer hire under the Workforce Recruitment Program, sponsored by the Departments of Defense and Labor. DOD's goal is to increase the number of individuals with disabilities in the workforce.
Hamilton, who has a double major in political science and criminal justice, spent this summer working in the Office of Counsel learning new skills.
"I am honored to have this opportunity," he said. "I really like USACE. I have an interest in law, but this is contract law, so the rules and policies are very different from what I have learned. It is still fun because I am learning many things. Every week I get more responsibilities."
The Office of Counsel staff has given Hamilton work that will help him hone investigative, organizational and research skills -- skills that are critical in his career field. Working under the supervision of district attorneys, Hamilton quickly became adept at assembling voluminous litigation files, and he researched and wrote draft sections of several motions.
"Pierce is an incredibly hard worker," said Jeremy Becker-Welts, attorney. "He is sharp and understands things quickly. It's great to have someone like him, where there is no real learning curve, in a short-term position. This is good for him: he is getting substantive knowledge through this experience. And it's good for us: we always have the need for extra people to help us with the workload in Counsel. We have a person in the job performing very well, whether he has a visible disability or not."
"I am deaf, but I use a Cochlear Implant," Hamilton said. "I've had my implant since I was four years old, which means I've had the system for 19 years now. With it, I am able to hear very well and communicate verbally."
"Some managers and supervisors may hesitate to bring on people with disabilities," said Jeremiah Scheler, paralegal specialist. "Just because someone has a disability does not mean he or she isn't fully capable. There are those who work here who have disabilities, and they are underrepresented. This program is helpful in bringing top-quality personnel to the district in a different way."
Hamilton certainly doesn't view his disability as a hindrance. "Those with disabilities are still able to perform a great job and pursue ambitious goals like double majors, graduate school, and leadership roles," he said. He will attend the Rochester Institute of Technology again in the fall to get his master's degree in criminal justice.
A recent Office of Personnel Management report showed people with disabilities represent 11 percent of the total federal workforce, and they represent 14.7 percent of new hires in fiscal 2011, up from 10.3 percent in fiscal 2010. The report also found that employees with targeted disabilities such as deafness and blindness only make up a small portion of those percentages of the federal workforce, at 0.96 percent in fiscal 2011.
To improve those statistics, DOD provides salaries and work years to support at least 450 college students with disabilities in summer jobs at DOD activities worldwide. This past summer was the Middle East District's first opportunity to hire students under this program.
"We received five allocations for college students with disabilities but was able to fill only one position," said Kimberly Alcorn, equal opportunity specialist. "We received permission and funding to fill the positions in May, but this was a late start for many college students who had already found employment.
"We are excited about our first WRP success story," she continued. "We need district managers to consider using this program for future summer hire positions to help us address our annual Affirmative Employment Program goals and requirements. We will begin the WRP process again in January 2013 for next year's summer hires. The program is at no cost to the district and provides extra help during the summer months."
Becker-Welts challenges district managers to "walk the walk."
"This is good for the district," he said. "We get the benefit of bringing qualified college students into our organization, and they gain beneficial experience."