The proclamation signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this month explains why Iowans are celebrating the hiring of their neighbors with disabilities – because “support for these employment pathways not only benefits an individual’s independence and self-sufficiency, but also the success of the communities and employers who support them.”

That’s also the message at Hy-Vee, where Dylan Scott and Conner Gjerde recently got their start at work through programs coordinated by the Vocational Rehabilitation Services division of Iowa Workforce Development.

Both are part of 112 Iowans with disabilities hired by Hy-Vee in 2022. Last year marked the 11th consecutive year where Hy-Vee was the top employer in Iowa to employ the job candidates who work with Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Joann Peterson, Hy-Vee’s human resources manager in Bettendorf, said the store’s proximity to a high school makes it convenient for students with learning disabilities to come there with a trainer for a few hours a week. The students learn and gain work experience in exchange for classroom credit.

Dylan took part in the school program as a junior and was hired full time upon graduation. Now, “he’s one of our best bakery clerks,” Peterson said.

Hy-Vee is Iowa’s largest overall employer, employing more than 31,000 in Iowa and 75,000 in eight Midwestern states. The company operates more than 550 retail business units and can provide community-based employment options across its region.

In a 2020 newspaper interview, former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chief author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, praised Hy-Vee for modifying its training program to be more inclusive and for giving people with disabilities the opportunity to move beyond bagging groceries.

“Hy-Vee does a great job of instilling, from the corporate level down to the store level, the requirement that they hire people with disabilities,” Harkin said.

Ankeny high school student Connor Gjerde got his job at Hy-Vee through Project Search, a job training program to help students with disabilities transition to the workforce after high school. Ames-based counselors Carla Reynolds and Erin VanDorin worked with Gjerde to help him explore various career options and find the best fit.

“Hy-Vee was really good to work with,” VanDorin said. “Having an existing relationship with the HR manager was really important. I was able to work with them prior to the interview which helped them frame questions in a way that Conner would be successful in answering.”

With the Hy-Vee’s permission, VanDorin attended Conner’s orientation and online training. The counselors supported him as he began working to ensure he would have success, then faded when they felt it was time to back away.

“Hy-Vee has always valued the education that we bring to supporting our students, and I feel it is a collaborative approach to their success. Many of my students have stayed and made Hy-Vee their career,” Van Dorin said.

Connor’s manager at the Prairie Trail Hy-Vee in Ankeny said he does a great job and that his co-workers like working with him. The feeling is mutual for Connor, who chose to remain at Hy-Vee in Ankeny after completing the program because he enjoys the store environment:

"I love to talk to people and like to cart."