Ability Pioneers
MDI is saluting those who have stepped ahead, above and beyond in the name of equitable opportunity and employment for people with disabilities. This month we are featuring Andrea and Mike at UnitedHealth Group. Read about UnitedHealth Group’s disability inclusion internship program, and how Andrea and Mike are driving disability inclusion and conversation at all levels of the organization.

See UHG’s internship program in action. 

Meet Andrea Eselunas
Director, Enterprise Disability Inclusion Programs – Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Office | UnitedHealth Group

Ripple Effects 4.1: Disabled People Are Diverse and Diversity Is Key | Mobility International USA

Stock photo purchased from istock.com on 2/7/2022.

We have a very unique, non-traditional internship program for people with disabilities at UnitedHealth Group. It’s an internship for anyone, whether they have little to no experience, or a ton of experience.

The program came together by taking learnings from our early career college programs and our military fellowship. Working off those successes, we made tweaks for this particular population. For instance, in the training that we give our hiring leaders and our recruiters, we’re helping them recognize abilities and skillsets that may look different in an interview. We’re thinking about how we might need to adapt and ask a question a different way.

Another area we had to think about in our talent acquisition and onboarding: how do we handle accommodations? We had recruiters who’ve been with us for a decade but never had anyone ask for an accommodation. We even have people within our talent acquisition team who are five years, 10, 20 years into their career before experiencing that. We needed to prepare hiring leaders who wanted to know more upfront proactively: What can I expect? What should I be doing? What’s my responsibility?

And building on that, we needed to think about what the first 90 days look like for interns. What is that process? How can we inject accommodations into the onboarding checklists that we have? So instead of waiting for someone to ask for something, how can we put it in front of them, right out of the gate.

We took a strategic approach that involved multiple business segments, hiring managers, senior leadership, existing employees with disabilities, state agencies and vocational rehabilitation. We launched the program in 2020 in two markets: our headquarters in Minnesota and San Antonio.

Looking at how our other programs worked, we realized we’d need to expand the time frame from 10 weeks to a 12 to 15 week program. This time allowed for acclamation, additional training, evaluation and feedback. We created career modules, opportunities for networking, culture sessions, all on top of a two-day orientation plus traditional onboarding within their specific job department.

And it worked: out of our first cohort of interns, we had a goal of hiring 50% as full-time employees. The result was 11 out of the 16 interns were hired as permanent full-time—a success rate of 70%. All of the job offers were accepted.

Now we’re in our second year, in six markets, and the head count has more than doubled with 35 interns who started on September 13, 2021. We are till determining how many will become full-time employees. And now as 2021 has ended we expect a conversion rate of over fifty percent.

One aspect I love about our program is our buddy system. We pair interns with a buddy within their department who know day-to-day operations and who the intern can go to on a regular basis for help and support. Another great offering is our office hour every other week. Interns come together and can ask me questions. Many interns attend; even if they’re not asking a question, they want to hear what others are asking. We put it all in a shared FAQ document, so everyone can access the education and knowledge, which instills confidence in each of them.

In this program, we have folks that are in finance. We have a variety of positions ranging from a health economics consultant to project coordinators and shipping clerks to customer service. It means a path to frequently filled roles—hundreds, if not thousands of jobs across the nation. We’re creating a sustainable workforce for a lifetime of career opportunity paths.

I’ve heard so many people ask, “How do we create a job for this workforce?” And it’s not about job carving. The minute we do that, we’ve failed to create something that’s sustainable. We know what our skill sets need to be. We have certain requirements specific to a job. But we also know that we can be more flexible, in terms of education, or full-time vs. part-time. We need to make sure that we have champions within accessibility and accommodation, because it’s the right thing to do.

I think there are a lot of people that want to be comfortable and confident that they can disclose to colleagues they are a person with a disability. But it comes at a risk for all of these individuals, and it take courage as a person with a disability. But it comes at a risk for a lot of these individuals. So we’ve got to do better, to make sure that they feel included. It’s on us to make the environment welcoming for everyone. I would love to see our accommodations team need to be a hundred people, not 10 because we have that many people coming through the door.

We have a lot of desire around addressing gender and ethnicity gaps, but I will say that people with disabilities have the highest intersectionality of all these diversity gaps. So when you focus on this group, you will close the gaps on all those other groups too. We cannot be an innovative company without them.

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Meet Michael Wall
AVP, Sales and Account Management, Optum Health | UnitedHealth Group

I have been passionate about this program because I have a daughter who’s now 21 who has Down Syndrome. I never would’ve imagined when she was born in 2000, that she’d be on a college campus today. She’s at Bethel University in their inclusion program. She’s been blessed with a lot of opportunities along the way, primarily with Special Olympics—she actually ended up going to Beijing a month before COVID hit to promote the program. Gaining meaningful employment for her is an essential goal for parents like me.

There’s an unconscious bias that exists against people with disabilities. You really need strong leadership and financial support to get a program like this going. For instance for us, it was a CEO decision to fund this program so that it wasn’t a full-time employee budget hit. That first 12 to 15 weeks was centrally funded. And look at what it spawned.

This program is a win-win-win. It was a win for the interns, who would never otherwise have the opportunity to work at a Fortune 10 company. It was a win for UnitedHealth Group because it helps us reflect the millions of people we serve. Having more people with disabilities in our workforce is vital for us to really understand the needs of the people we serve.

But the third win—and I don’t think this was anticipated—was the workforce engagement. There are so many people who have now touched or heard about this program. There’s an email that I got from an employee whose niece has a disability and is so proud to work here because we have this, and it gives me hope. Engagement across the board has been so special. And it’s changed our culture for the better.

We learned much from current UHG employees with disabilities. They advocate that – “nothing about us without us.” We included their input and guidance in our program development. It’s opened doors. It’s taken down barriers. It’s done things that we never thought were possible. It’s because we’re open, we’re focused on people’s talents and strengths, and we don’t let people’s limitations or disabilities get in the way. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it is a movement. We’re a better company, a better community and country. We’re all better for doing this.

Read all Ability Pioneer features here.