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magazine home > archives > fall 2001 > features

Unemployment in the United States is again on the rise, but a formiddable foe in the form of two U of M researchers and their Center for Rehabilitation and Employment Research are fighting back.

Employing Research in People's Lives
by Kristen Epler

Thrower, Vigil, Strauser, Lustig, Barnes

(From left) Carla Thrower, Joe Vigil, Dr. David R. Strauser, Dr. Daniel C. Lustig and Peter Barnes discuss a new program Strauser and Lustig wrote for the clients of The U of M's Center for Rehabilitation and Employment Research.

Employment issues plague the nation, and while many sit and talk about solutions, two University of Memphis researchers are putting words into action.

Associate professor David R. Strauser and assistant professor Daniel C. Lustig of counseling, educational psychology and research are working through the University's Center for Rehabilitation and Employment Research to help nearly 400 people retain meaningful jobs each year.

"We provide a service while obtaining information at the same time," Dr. Strauser says. "That's why I think our work is so unique."

Men At Work

Strauser, the Center's director, and Dr. Lustig, assistant director, have been conducting employment research together for three years, focusing on individuals with disabilities. The pair look for reasons these individuals cannot perform or retain certain jobs.

"Research has shown that the number one reason people lose jobs is not because they don't have the skills required to do the job," Strauser says, "it's their lack of interpersonal skills."

So Strauser and Lustig build employment-enhancing programs to help individuals develop essential skills to get and maintain jobs. One such program, The Community Based Job Readiness Training Program, has already been successful, teaching clients how to overcome hardships, handle stress on the job, understand time management, use effective communication skills and dress appropriately. The curriculum even has an anger-management component.

Research for these programs begins by obtaining background and demographic information about unemployed populations from various human service agencies. The researchers examine the psychological, social and interpersonal variables that relate to employment.

"A lot of programs get people jobs, but the critical thing is to get people meaningful jobs and then help them keep the jobs they get," Strauser says.

Strauser and Lustig dip into the Memphis metropolitan area to find their clients. Most are from low-income situations, are of low socio-economic status and have a disability, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional. In addition, they also research individuals who are chronically unemployed because of a lack of social skills, or those who are underemployed, such as women, minorities and recipients of financial assistance.

Strauser's research focuses primarily on strategies to improve work personality and the psychological factors that affect the employment of individuals with disabilities. Lustig mainly concentrates on family adjustment to disability and the impact of the client/counselor relationship on employment outcomes for individuals with
disabilities.

Often, a college student population is used as a comparison group in their research. They examine the skills of those who can retain jobs and compare them to the adeptness of those who cannot. Differences between the groups are noted. Subjects then become clients as the Center's staff executes programs outlined by Strauser and Lustig to teach those who cannot retain jobs the skills of those who can.

A Job Well Done

After comparing current data to that from two years before The Community Based Job Readiness Training Program's implementation, Strauser and Lustig have been pleased with the results.

"Our program is very effective in helping people retain jobs, so that has been very encouraging news for us," Strauser says. "We have not increased the number of people who have found jobs, but we have increased the number of people who have kept jobs, which is what we wanted to do."

Four grants totaling $2.2 million per year from the Tennessee Division of Rehabilitation Services fund most of Strauser and Lustig's labor. Their current project, "Expectancies for Rehabilitation Counseling," focuses on the relationship between the Center's clients and counselors to gauge how that bond facilitates positive employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

Toiling Ahead

Strauser and Lustig are currently partnered locally with Access Center for Technology (ACT), Clovernook Center for the Blind, Goodwill Industries International Inc., Memphis Works, New Directions, Partners in Placement Inc., the Tennessee Division of Rehabilitation Services and others.

"We have a diversity of subjects that we use from the community," Strauser says. "We don't bring people in. We really work with human-service agencies who are already trying to help the people we study."

The driving force is to change lives.

"If we help people capture some kind of occupational identity, it will help their overall global functioning," Strauser says, "and when that's achieved, the outcome is very rewarding."

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