How Workforce Navigators Is Bridging the Disability Employment Gap

A Salesforce mascot standing and holding an a11y flag on a field of blue.

Image Description: A Salesforce mascot standing and holding an a11y flag on a field of blue.

How Workforce Navigators Is Bridging the Disability Employment Gap

Salesforce’s Workforce Navigators program not only aids in skill building for professionals with disabilities, but also promotes an accessibility-first design approach prioritizing digital inclusion from the start—benefiting all users.

Jun 06, 2024

The origins and future of Workforce Navigators at a glance:

  • Salesforce launched the Workforce Navigators program within its Office of Accessibility in February 2020 to improve job inclusivity for professionals with disabilities.

  • The program supports job seekers with disabilities who want to find work in the Salesforce ecosystem, including as Salesforce administrators.

  • Through partnerships such as that with the Blind Institute of Technology, and integration of features such as ASL interpreters, the program enhances accessibility in Salesforce training and supports career advancement for professionals with disabilities.

  • Workforce Navigators not only aids in skill building, but also plays a crucial role in providing product design feedback—promoting a design approach that prioritizes accessibility from the start, benefiting all users.

  • Despite participants facing challenges with disability bias in employment, the program's mentorship initiatives and partnerships aim to bridge the gap between certification and employment, showcasing a commitment to inclusive and accessible career paths within the tech industry.

Salesforce established its Office of Accessibility in November 2019, while its Workforce Navigators program was launched in the weeks just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sarah Mark recalls the uncertain circumstances when she began her role as the Program Manager of Workforce Development for People with Disabilities.

“When the Office of Accessibility started, we didn’t know what was just about to hit,” she says. “The beginning of the COVID lockdown was my first day at Salesforce. So I spent a few months trying to orient myself, but also a pandemic was happening. People were preoccupied, to say the least, so it took a little while to get a sense for what was even going to be possible.”

A vast number of businesses across the globe hire people to run their Salesforce platforms, and the Fortune 100 cloud-based software company knew it needed to do better at ensuring those jobs were inclusive and accessible for professionals with disabilities. For that reason, Workforce Navigators was created as an external-facing program within the Office of Accessibility.

“We operate in what we call a hub and spoke model,” she explains. “Rather than owning accessibility in product, we aim to influence all aspects of the company. We're trying to impact every aspect of a career seeker’s journey on their way to becoming a Salesforce admin or developer.”

Partnering With the Blind Institute of Technology

Workforce Navigators features a fundamentals course that serves as a discovery experience for professionals with disabilities. It helps participants understand what goes into a career as a Salesforce administrator. Since launching the course, Workforce Navigators has also provided ASL interpreters for classes on an as-needed basis.

The career advancement program has also developed a strong partnership with the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT), a staffing and recruiting nonprofit dedicated to helping not just blind and low-vision professionals advance their careers, but other professionals with disabilities, as well.

“They have instructors who are blind and low vision and who are assistive technology users teach these classes,” Mark says, “which has embedded a specific layer of learning around using assistive technology in the Salesforce product suite."

Workforce Navigators also works in tandem with Salesforce’s Trailhead program, a skill-building platform that helps professionals prepare for jobs within the tech industry. It’s been especially helpful for professionals with disabilities, including Strini Naidoo, an engineer who recently switched careers to IT after completing the program.

“With my experience over the years of being visually impaired, I've not found a software developer or a company that truly supported the accommodation of a blind person,” he explains. “I’ve battled. I wish I knew about this 10 or 20 years earlier. I would have been far ahead in my career and advancement.”

Supporting Accessible Product Design

In addition to supporting professionals with disabilities, Workforce Navigators has become a vital source of feedback for Salesforce’s product design teams.

“We get a lot of feedback from the community about whether aspects of products, learning, or Trailhead are accessible or present obstacles,” Mark explains. “Then we try and get those things addressed and remediated.”

A major part of the company-wide efforts to increase digital accessibility is informed by the “shift left” mentality, a design approach that moves accessibility concerns to the beginning of the process rather than leaving inclusive design an afterthought.

“We're creating better experiences for our marginalized communities, but we're also creating better experiences for everyone,” explains Jacqueline Tolisano, Senior Director of Product Accessibility at Salesforce. “When you think about accessibility, it's usability. You're building a better product, and in the course of making things accessible, you're also making your job easier because your designs are cleaner and your code is cleaner.”

By beginning with accessibility in mind, you streamline your company’s processes and simplify the overall design approach.

“We try to get folks to think about accessibility in the very early design stages rather than after we've identified a problem,” Mark continues. “It's much more expensive and a much higher labor cost at that point. It's not ideal to realize we made a mistake and then have to go back and fix it.”

For instance, if some instructions or functionality in Trailhead don’t align well for an assistive technology user, Mark’s team will escalate the issue and fix product bugs.

Biggest Barriers for Workforce Navigators

Preparing professionals with disabilities for roles as Salesforce administrators or developers is one thing, but ensuring jobs are available for Trailhead participants after completing the program remains one of Workforce Navigators’ biggest challenges.

“At the point where people are ready for employment, they're facing potential bias and discrimination in the employment area itself,” Mark explains. “We're quite candid with folks as they're coming into this. We say, ‘We know you can do this. We know that there is a career on the other end. We know that just because you have a certification you're not going to have a job right away.’”

In fact, there’s usually a period of time that involves program alumni gaining part-time or not full-salaried employment experience.

“That’s part of what BIT does. It creates paid opportunities, but not necessarily full-time work,” she continues. “This includes project-based work for interns and apprenticeships to get some hands-on experience working with Salesforce on a consulting team and creating some experience for their resume, because just having a certification is usually not what an employer is looking for.”

Regardless of disability status, she observes, most employers want to know if job candidates can do the work before hiring them:

“Getting a Salesforce certification is probably not going to mean a job will just land in your lap. And there is, of course, this added layer of bias and discrimination when people are in the job market and have a disability, especially if it's one that they don't have a choice about whether or not they disclose because it's obvious.”

Fortunately, Workforce Navigators has dreamed up a mentorship program that’s proving beneficial in helping Trailhead alumni find jobs in the broader Salesforce ecosystem. Professionals with disabilities interested in Salesforce-adjacent jobs are matched with Salesforce employees and participate in a rigorous mentorship curriculum developed by Workforce Navigators Program Associate Lucia Rios.

“It has been a wildly popular and successful program based on what participants are reporting,” Mark explains. “We have a lot of folks who are getting jobs at the end of it, which is always our success metric. We've received wonderful feedback from employees who have engaged with it as a VTO [volunteer time off] opportunity and it is driving engagement in our office as a whole.”

They are currently expanding the mentorship program and expect to double the number of professionals with disabilities coming through it this year compared to 2023. Mark says her team is “looking to scale growth opportunities and ways to encourage more and more people to come through and learn.”

So while Salesforce’s Office of Accessibility is transforming the tech landscape to be more inclusive and accessible, its Workforce Navigators program is at the forefront of empowering professionals with disabilities with the technical skills needed to advance their careers.

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility dedicated to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. You can learn more about accessibility and inclusion in the workplace by visiting Salesforce’s a11y website.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

Leave a Comment