Interview with Dave Shaffer – DePaul Industries

Providing People With Disabilities The Opportunity to Work

depaul-industries-interviewRecently I had an opportunity to interview Dave Shaffer, the President & CEO of Portland, Oregon staffing and outsourcing firm DePaul Industries. DePaul Industries aims to help create employment opportunities for the underutilized population of people with disabilities. Their goal to put 3,900 people with disabilities into jobs by 2016 is currently underway and exceeding expectations. Here’s what Mr. Shaffer had to say about work, hiring people with disabilities, and following your heart.

Online Human Resources: What was the initial goal for DePaul Industries when it was begun? What did the organization hope to achieve?

Dave Shaffer: DePaul Industries was incorporated in 1971 to provide specialized vocational opportunities for people with disabilities who were leaving a training institution in Salem, Oregon that was being shut down. Essentially, the goal was to train and employ people with disabilities—the same as it is today.

Online Human Resources: You’re currently on the steering committee with The New City Initiative and you’ve worked with the Incight Foundation in the past, so obviously philanthropy is something you’re passionate about. What inspired you to start working for DePaul Industries in 1997 & to focus on the non-profit or philanthropic side of business?

Dave Shaffer: My wife was a teacher and I was a business guy. I always did good work for the community separate from work—I had never thought about business and positive work for the community working together. When I discovered DePaul Industries, I felt like I had to take the opportunity to use business to do good work in the community at the same time. Previously, I hadn’t known an organization that put those together. After getting burnt out on business, the position of CEO at DePaul seemed like a perfect fit. When I was going over the decision, my wife Jean advised me, “Lead with your heart, and your head will follow.” Fifteen years later, we’re still happily married, and I am still happy at DePaul.

OHR: You’ve been named a ‘Best Company to Work For,’ so beyond staffing and outsourcing, you obviously provide great HR for your in-office team, as well. Any advice for small new companies on how to provide great HR with a smaller budget?

DS: First—and this may be the hardest thing to change, but it doesn’t cost anything—you have to look at the workplace culture and the autonomy you can offer employees. If they feel they can contribute and have room to make mistakes and learn, they’ll feel more ownership and engagement in the company. Instilling this kind of culture has to be authentic and not just lip service. Being friendly and nice, having an open-door policy with employees, flexibility—these are key to workplace culture.

For example, if an employee has to leave the house an hour and a half earlier just to get to work by 8:00 a.m., but can get there at 8:10 if they catch the next bus, let them come in at 8:10. Really listening to your employees, and having your employees believe and understand that they’re being listened to, is key. You’re only as strong as the weakest link. It’s important to have transparent communication. When people feel free to make suggestions, they feel more involved and in turn are more loyal and dedicated. It makes good sense for the company.

OHR: What advice do you have for small companies thinking about hiring people with disabilities?

DS: First, they need to erase the stereotype of what a person with a disability is or looks like. Many disabilities are hidden, and there’s a huge range of disabilities. Dispel the accommodation myth. Many managers are fearful of the perceived cost of accommodating employees with disabilities. Most accommodations cost nothing, or at most a couple hundred dollars. Most accommodations often just mean things like allowing for a flexible schedule for medical appointments.

People with disabilities can learn perfectly well, but they just may learn a little differently—so being willing to alter your training style. Also, people may fear that visible disabilities will make co-workers less productive, or be uncomfortable, or create communication barriers. We have proven, in fact, it’s actually the opposite. Productivity goes up, and it ends up building community. It helps workers become better listeners. My advice would be to speak with organizations that understand your needs, and make sure your industry is a good fit for the person with a disability to have a high chance of success. Just like all hiring, it has to be a good fit.

OHR: What do you consider DePaul Industries’ greatest achievement since you’ve been there?

DS: More than anything else, we have proven that we can provide people with disabilities opportunities within the commercial sector on a fairly large scale, and that those individuals can succeed. That’s made evident by the fact that we have improved our relationships with customers and the number of people we have helped put to work. Knowing we have helped that many people with disabilities is extremely rewarding.

One of DePaul’s strengths is knowing where there is demand for services. Our development of a food production packaging service from a small service we offered into a multi-million dollar operation in just half a decade is quite an accomplishment. Like everything we do, the bigger the business gets, the more employment we can secure for people with disabilities.

Getting recognized locally, nationally and even internationally for our model of hiring people with disabilities is another amazing achievement. The prospect of having our model used by companies across the globe is an exciting possibility that I’m very proud of.

OHR: Have you had any trouble accommodating employees with disabilities?

DS: We’ve had no challenges accommodating. The reason we haven’t is because of communication. When people work with DePaul, they communicate back and forth between the customer and employer. The employer knows exactly what their employees issues are up front, and therefore can easily accommodate. For example, if an illiterate person is stocking shelves in the back of a grocery store, instead of a label on the shelf that says “mayonnaise,” they use a picture of mayonnaise. Often accommodating an employee with disabilities just means having to think about things a little differently. It exercises creativity in the workplace, even. We’ve never had any problems that ended with anything less than satisfaction on both ends.

OHR: Aside from the social responsibility aspect of hiring people with disabilities, what’s the business incentive?

DS: Many people with disabilities who are unsuccessful or shut out of workforce, are on various state and local subsidies. Enabling them to get and stay working provides a great financial contribution to society. It gives the business the chance to match people with the right position. People with disabilities are often anxious and excited to get to work, and most are dedicated to being successful. They can become great, loyal employees, they often have less turnover than peers who have no disabilities, and they can provide a stabilizing influence to employers and the workforce.

To learn more about DePaul Industries and its innovative model, please visit

Interview & Article By Emily Manke

Hello, my name is Emily. I am a musician, blogger and Outreach Coordinator for Online Human Resources. I love riding my bike, murder mysteries and spending time with loved ones.