By Tatiana Peralta

The Bobby Dodd Institute has a lot to offer people with disabilities. Since opening its doors, the organization has expanded its programs to connect people with disabilities to employment opportunities.

We recently talked with Jerry Sutton, director of learning and organizational development for the Bobby Dodd Institute. Jerry is a combat veteran who served with distinction for 23 years in the United States Air Force. He's worked at the executive level in post-secondary education and Federal Contracting in support of transitioning veterans. Shortly after finishing his career in Federal Contracting, Jerry joined the Bobby Dodd Institute. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

How did you hear about the Bobby Dodd Institute?

I was in the federal contracting space for a long time and wanted an opportunity to do something different. As I applied for jobs, I saw an opening at Bobby Dodd and sent them my resume. One thing led to another and shortly after I was taking a tour of the headquarters campus – a 55,000 square foot warehouse. Through the interview process, I saw the passion everyone had for the greater mission and knew I wanted to be a part of that. I didn't hesitate to take the job when I was offered the position.

Something that spoke volumes to me was the number of people who had worked for BDI for long periods of time. There were several whose tenure exceeded 16 years or more!

Tell us a little bit more about your role within Bobby Dodd.

Bobby Dodd Enterprises was born out of "All About Developmental Disabilities." As the AbilityOne Program grew, Bobby Dodd Enterprises focused on federal contract initiatives at a much smaller scale. Today that enterprise has absorbed the original organization under one umbrella called the "Bobby Dodd Institute."

We support all people with disabilities as well as the veteran and disadvantaged communities. Our programs include benefits consulting and trust fund management. To date, our benefits consulting team has helped over 400 individuals obtain Lifetime benefits valued at an estimated $161.5 million dollars.

I have a small team. Between myself, two employees, and three contractors, we help deliver a myriad of training for our staff and participants. I routinely interact with SourceAmerica Academy's learning management system. With such a wealth of training available, it's become a crucial part of our training process. It is now a mandatory strategic initiative within our organization; no one comes on board without being a part of the training.

What are some of the programs you help facilitate?

Our pre-employment transition helps move students to the workforce through training. It is one of our fastest-growing programs. Our phones are constantly ringing. Counties all over the Atlanta area are asking us to help them support their students.

Through a new partnership with the Atlanta Public School (APS) system, we have built out a classroom for 11 students within our institution. APS busses them in daily. Their day is broken out into self-advocacy, work readiness training, and working within a fulfillment operation through an AbilityOne contract. This program allows students to get paid while working with a job coach to train for workplace situations.

Our nationally accredited logistics program is intensive; once students graduate, they see great success. In 2018, the average starting wage of graduates was $16.70 and depending on their background; some have come out making over $30 an hour. For the future of the program, we're hoping to build a pipeline which sustains growth. As participants finish the program, we would love to roll each and every graduate into a new job. Presently, we have started building out a network of employers in the area to support it.

We help veterans translate their military experience into a career. Some of the services we offer them are resume and job interview support, job training, recruitment services, and career planning.

As a veteran, what are some of the most important aspects of transitioning into the workforce?

Our current system doesn't adequately prepare veterans for what they are going to experience in corporate America. I refer to that experience as "corporate grey." When I was in the military, I thought some of the things I experienced came with the highest level of stress. Many of us thought the civilian world would be a walk in the park. But it's just a different kind of stress due to ambiguity… the "you can't say this" or "you can't do that" factor.

Most veterans don't understand the importance networking plays in transitioning [from the military to civilian workforce]. It's an important step to get your foot in the door and gain employment through connections. For those who don’t have an established network or don’t want to work in the defense industry, that can be a rude awakening.

In my ideal world, we would have a process that does more than check the boxes. We would have a job coach who is going to rigorously prepare you for the workforce. That person can work with you individually on your resume so that you can communicate the most information while using the least possible words. They'll help with targeting your job search, interview preparation, and building your network.

What's something you've learned?

The most important lesson: we all need to be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get in the trenches with our teams. I've also learned that patience is important to success. That isn't easy when you want good things to happen fast.  None the less, there's plenty of work to go around. Georgia ranks 37th in the nation for the employment of people with disabilities, and that to me is unsatisfactory. Being a disabled veteran can make it hard to get out of the chair in the morning, but what keeps me going is knowing I am making a positive difference in the lives of others.

It's also great to have a voice where it counts in the Washington D.C. area. Through SourceAmerica and AbilityOne contracts, we can grow and continue our advocacy efforts. Having this organization in our corner gives us a huge network of connectivity. It's a comforting feeling. It makes it easy for us to participate in advocacy and support initiatives.

To learn more about the Bobby Dodd Institute, visit http://www.bobbydodd.org/