Spokane Journal of Business

Skils’kin looks to build stronger bonds with Spokane business community

Organization seeks more partnerships with employers

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Skils’kin’s Mark London, left, and Steve McBride say the organization has bolstered its commercial services department in hopes of finding more job opportunities for its clients.

 Skils’kin, a Spokane-based nonprofit that provides employment and financial-management services for adults with disabilities, is looking to re-introduce itself to the business community by improving its marketing and seeking new partnership opportunities.

“We’re trying to present ourselves as more of a business partner that happens to also be a nonprofit with a social mission,” says organization CEO Brian Behler. “There are still a lot of businesses that haven’t heard our story and aren’t aware of what we can offer.”

Skils’kin is headquartered in a 24,000-square-foot office facility at 4004 E. Boone. The organization has operations in four states, employing 350 disabled individuals directly, while providing support in areas like financial management and housing to up to 1,200 others monthly. 

 “The bulk of our work takes place in the Spokane area,” Behler says. “Our revenues (this year) were $18 million as of September 30.”

Behler says this year Skils’kin has increased its marketing to spread awareness of the organization’s mission and services and has expanded its commercial services department to serve current clients better and seek out new partnerships.

“Many business leaders I talk to have never even met someone with a disability, let alone interviewed them for an open position,” he says. “There’s still a lot of reluctance and fear when it comes to hiring these individuals, but we’re hoping to change that.”

Founded in 1970 as the Pre-Vocational Training Center, the organization changed its name in 2004 to Skils’kin, a Native American word that means “a place where a person goes to seek personal identity and self-empowerment.” 

Behler says Skils’kin’s services are divided up between four departments; Ability One, payee services, employment services, and commercial services.

He says Skils’kin’s employment services department helps disabled individuals and groups to build their resumes and find jobs, while its commercial services department builds collaborative relationships with area businesses, providing them with skilled laborers that best match their specific needs.

“It used to be that the top three industries for the disabled were food, facilities, and filth,” says Behler, with filth referring to janitorial services. “By increasing our focus on marketing and commercial services, we’re looking to find opportunities in new industries, that aren’t typically thought of as disability-friendly.”

Although the organization’s mission to help disabled individuals find employment is charitable, Behler says Skils’kin doesn’t do any fundraising or charity donations. 

“Like any business, we’re looking for opportunities to generate revenue and cover our expenses,” he says. “But if we can do both those things and find employment for people with disabilities, that’s a win.”

Behler says for the past three years Skils’kin has spent about $150,000 on marketing annually, in an effort to increase awareness of its mission and bring the concept of employing disabled individuals to new business partners.

“Part of that increased spending includes the expansion of our video production internship program, and the addition of our photography booth,” he says.  

Skils’kin’s vice president of marketing, Mark London, says this is the organization’s second year operating its video production internship program, through which it designs and produces marketing videos for local businesses. 

“We had two interns last year who went on to find jobs in the community,” he says. “This year, we’ve done work for Key Tronic Corp’s wellness program and SNAP. We also have several other video projects in the pipeline.”

London says Skils’kin’s new photo booth, which offers professional head shots, also has brought it more opportunities to tell its story.

“The photo booth has several facets,” he says. “It gives our employee photographer work experience. It gives our job seekers a professional photo to go with their resume, and offering the service to other businesses gives us yet another chance to create larger partnerships.”

Through its video production services, London says the organization also creates videos of its employment success stories that help to discourage negative perceptions.

“Sharing stories about how employment changes the lives of these individuals as well as the culture of the businesses where they work can be very inspiring,” he says. “We’re able to show potential partners that we can produce quality work in a variety of areas, while also employing the disabled.”

 Overall, he says, the organization’s goal is to help disabled individuals begin to create a career in a field they enjoy.

“Rather than focusing on what they can’t do, we start with finding what motivates them, what it is they’re already good at,” he says. “We then help them build a resume, practice interviewing, and use our contacts to place them in positions where they can grow.”

As part of the organization’s efforts to form new partnerships, Behler says Skils’kin hired Steve McBride to serve as vice president of its commercial services department in September.

Currently, some of Skils’kin’s larger commercial services clients include Kaiser Aluminum, Empire Health, Reliant Pharmacies, and the fire departments in Spokane and Spokane Valley.

 “Going forward, the goal is to get out into the market and really expand everything we’re doing, from custodial work and grounds maintenance to light manufacturing and kit assembly,” McBride says. “It’s about re-introducing Skils’kin to the community, showing them what we can do.”

“We’re always asking our current clients what else we can do for them,” adds Behler. “If we’re already providing one service for you, what other areas can we help with?”

Behler says Skils’kin’s largest employer is the U.S. Department of Defense, which it contracts with through Ability One, a federal initiative that helps disabled individuals find employment working for nonprofit agencies that sell products or services to the U.S. government. 

Through the Ability One program, Behler asserts, Skils’kin is considered Spokane County’s largest employer of people with disabilities.

 “Through Ability One, we have contracts with Fairchild Air force Base, as well as the General Services Administration,” he says. “Those contracts enable us to complete custodial and grounds-keeping work at the federal building, the post office, and the border patrol station north of Spokane.”

Looking ahead, McBride says the organization is positioned for expansion of its light manufacturing, commercial laundry, and medical kit packing services.

“Those areas are our main focus right now,” he says. “We’re also evaluating other new manufacturing industries, one of which is the re-manufacturing of latex based paints.”

McBride says Skils’kin’s light manufacturing operations haven’t had any major recalls or returned products in over a decade. 

“Our quality-assurance department checks all our work, and the attention to detail is incredible,” he says. “We’re proof that you can have a diverse labor group, while still creating a high-quality, high-tech product.”

In addition to forming more commercial services contacts, Behler says Skils’kin also is working to improve its collaboration with other nonprofits and employment service providers.

“We’d like to find more opportunities to collaborate with and support the work other organizations are doing good work in the community,” he says. “Some of our partners so far have been the Northwest Autism Center, and the Spokane Rotary Club’s Partners for Work program.”

Behler says Skils’kin recently met with representatives of Frontier Behavioral Health, Catholic Charities Spokane, the city of Spokane, and other similar agencies to talk about disabled individuals who fall out of their services, and discuss ways in which Skils’kin can help.

“If someone has fallen out of service with one agency, but is still in contact with us, perhaps there are ways we can work together to meet their needs,” he says. “We’re hoping to collaborate more with these organizations, and become part of a larger integrated case management delivery system.”

While Behler and his colleagues aren’t social workers, he says their work has given them insight into just how much having employment can help disabled individuals.

“Almost 80 percent of disabled individuals are unemployed, so simply having a job takes care of a lot of issues,” he says. “Hiring someone with a disability helps to diversify the workforce, but it also creates a personal connection with these individuals and gives them a place in the community.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken is the most recent addition to the Journal's news team. A poet, cat lover and antique enthusiast, LeAnn is also an Eastern Washington University alum.

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