A purpose and a paycheck: Reverse job fair puts candidates with special abilities in the driver’s seat

August 6, 2018

Georjina Dowdell beams as she recounts the phone call that changed her life. “It was June 6, 2018,” she says. “Angela called and said, ‘We would like you to be part of Fairfield.'” That’s Fairfield Inn & Suites in Rochester, where Dowdell is a recent — and enthusiastic — addition to the housekeeping staff.

“I clean the bathrooms, make the beds, dust the furniture,” she says. “I imagine how I’d clean if it was my own home.”

With her strong work ethic and positive attitude, Dowdell is the kind of staff member any business would be lucky to hire. But because she has a cognitive disability, she’s the type of worker many employers overlook. That’s a mistake Dawn Kirchner and others at Mayo Clinic are hoping to correct.

“People with disabilities have many qualities that employers value,” says Kirchner, who is a diversity recruitment specialist at Mayo Clinic. “They’re on time. Retention is high. Absenteeism is low. Plus they bring a positive attitude to the job every single day.”

Those qualities were on full display recently at a Reverse Job Fair sponsored by MaxAbility, an employment task force spearheaded by Mayo Clinic and other community partners. The event drew 20 candidates, including Dowdell, who showcased their skills, work history and volunteer experience on presentation boards similar to the booths that businesses set up at traditional job fairs.

About half of the participants, like Dowdell, were graduates of Mayo Clinic’s Project Search program, which is designed to help young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain the skills needed to enter the workforce.

“This model puts the candidates in the driver’s seat and allows them to showcase their talents and skills,” Kirchner says of the reverse job fair approach. “It’s a great way to open doors for people.”

That’s proven to be the case. While this was the first reverse job fair in Rochester, Mayo Clinic Health System’s Project Search program in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has held two previous events. Half a dozen interns — more than a quarter of those enrolled in the program — have received job offers as a result.


Dan Nelson, area director of sales for TPI Hospitality, was among the nearly 40 employers who attended the Rochester event. Nelson estimates he’s been part of 70 job fairs over the years but always on the exhibitor’s side of the table. He was impressed by the candidates he met with during the job fair, one of whom he invited to join the housekeeping staff at the Courtyard hotel in Rochester.

Nelson admits that not long ago, he would have seen more problems than possibilities in a candidate with a disability. In the past four years, he says he’s hired around 40 people with disabilities.

“I’ve seen the light,” he says. He’s also become an evangelist for the cause. “I’d like to engage other employers and get them to come to the dance,” he says.

“A huge bonus of hiring special ability employees is that some entry-level positions are careers for these people. They’re happy, and we’re happy.” — Dan Nelson

Nelson credits his change of heart to a “breakthrough” staff member he hired a few years ago. Though she had gait and speech difficulties caused by complications after surgery to remove a brain tumor, her “spunk and personality were 110 percent intact,” Nelson says. He knew the minute he met the young woman, who had applied for a position working at the front desk of one of the hotels he managed, that she was the perfect person for the job. He knew that she would be able to connect with hotel guests once I met her. “But I was concerned about whether people would be able to understand her over the phone,” Nelson says. He decided to “take a leap of faith” and hired the woman. “Six months later, I promoted her to supervisor, and she worked for us for three years.”

Since then, Nelson has become a vocal advocate for hiring people with what he refers to as “special abilities.” He acknowledges this may come with some challenges up front. “It takes a little more time and effort to train these folks, and where you think they’ll shine may not work out at first,” he says. “Don’t expect things to go perfectly. You may need to try to find another place they’ll fit.”

Barring any unforeseen hitches, Ferguson says the carillon’s two-phase restoration work will begin Oct. 8 and should be completed in a few weeks, with a concert held “shortly thereafter.”


Nelson says creating job opportunities for people with disabilities “fills my happy tank.” But his new view is not just about good feelings. It’s also about good business. He echoes Kirchner’s list of key qualities he sees in candidates like Dowdell, from positive attitude to long-term retention. “There’s horrendous turnover in the hospitality industry,” Nelson says. “A huge bonus of hiring special-ability employees is that some entry-level positions are careers for these people. They’re happy, and we’re happy.”

“We’re planting the seeds to help people think about how to work differently.” — Dawn Kirchner

For Dowdell, having a job means even more than that. Not long ago, she wasn’t sure what her future held. Now, with a purpose and a paycheck, “I feel more than happy,” she says. “I feel relieved.”

That’s a feeling Kirchner hopes to give many more people in the future. “We’re calling this the first annual reverse job fair,” she says. “We’re planting the seeds to help people think about how to work differently.”