What We Can Learn from the Career of Julie Hocker, Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities

Season 4, Episode 2 — 20 August 2020

At the TASH conference in December, the YES! Center’s, Dale Verstegen spoke with Julie Hocker, the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities at the Administration for Community Living at the Department of Health and Human Services. They have a rather personal discussion of Commissioner Hocker’s path to the success she has achieved, the things she learned and the mentors who’ve contributed along the way, but they also discussed the important cultural lessons and policy prescriptions we can take from her career path.


Julie Hocker joined ACL as the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities on October 1, 2018. Hocker brings to the role extensive experience in operational process improvement, risk management, and effectiveness assessment. Ms. Hocker joins ACL from the Charles Koch Foundation, where has served as a senior manager since 2016. In that role, she has led several key initiatives to improve the foundation’s operations, including development of an integrated technology and data solution for fundraising, grantmaking and expenditures; redesigning process to improve investment tracking and enable better analysis of effectiveness; and creation and implementation of risk-management processes.

Previously, she served in a variety of roles with The Vanguard Group and as an analyst for the Administration for Children and Families. In addition, she has been a senior policy fellow for the Center for Human Dignity at the American Conservative Union Foundation since 2015.

Dale Verstegen is a Senior Research Associate at TranScen and one of the State Liaison for the YES! Center.
Announcer:You’re listening to YES! to Employment, a podcast series that seeks to improve competitive integrated employment outcomes for transition aged youth and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the TASH conference in December, the YES! Center’s, Dale Verstegen spoke with Julie Hocker, the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities at the Administration for Community Living at the Department of Health and Human Services. They have a rather personal discussion of Commissioner Hocker’s path to the success she has achieved, the things she learned and the mentors who’ve contributed along the way, but they also discussed the important cultural lessons and policy prescriptions we can take from her career path.

Musical interlude

Dale Verstegen: Dale Verstegen here with Commissioner Julie Hocker for the Administration on Disabilities. Julie, thank you so much for working us into your busy schedule and taking the time to talk to us today.

Julie Hocker: Yeah, I’m just, I’m really happy to be here in Phoenix at the TASH Conference and grateful to talk to you this morning.

Dale Verstegen: Great. So, uh, what was your education and training like in the early years of both your life and your career?

Julie Hocker: Oh, goodness. Well, I guess we could start all the way back at the, the, the true beginning. Um, when I was in a preschool, I like to tell this story that I actually started off in, um, a preschool just for children with disabilities. And, uh, I think on the third day they told my parents, uh, that, that wasn’t the right school for me, cause I actually didn’t know I had a disability. Uh, I just thought that, uh, if I didn’t walk that wasn’t really that big of a deal. And, uh, so that was my first experience with also understanding even at that age of four, uh, what it meant to have the right services and supports to learn in an a truly integrated and inclusive setting, uh, went into elementary school, had a great experience, uh, middle school was a pretty, a normal for me, as you might say, all the ups and downs of adolescence.

And then in high school, um, I started my very first internship and I remember it, it was in local government and I’m confident I, you know, uh, probably did not make phone call connections correctly. I probably broke the copier machine, um, and did all those things in my summer internships. But, you know, looking back on it, um, those early experiences, both in high school and in my internships, um, were my first taste of what would it be like for me to go to work? Uh, what would it look like for me to be in an office? to be a member of a team? And so, uh, while it seemed inconsequential at the time that I was just making copies or just transferring the phone calls to people in the office, for me personally, it built up this sense belonging in our nation’s workforce and I’m just so very grateful for those early experiences, because I, I don’t know that I would’ve had the confidence later on to explore a career had I not had the chance at age 14 to start to think about, “Wow! I could go to an office every day. I could be successful here.”

Dale Verstegen: Yeah. There’s some recent research that’s come out that’s, uh, looked at, uh, preemployment transition services as part of WIOA (workforce innovation and opportunity act) and they’re saying that there’s five elements of the preemployment transition services and the work based learning is the one that is being implemented the least. So could you kinda just describe, like, how did you get those internships? Did you get any help? Was the school participating and encouraging those internships?

Julie Hocker: Absolutely. Um, yes. And, you know, I, we, my family still reflects back on how critical those early opportunities were. You know, what happened? You know, I had an older brother and sister are very close in age and I remember their summer jobs were doing jobs I wouldn’t be able to do. They required, um, notable physical labor and my disability — I’ve brittle bones — those just those tasks, aren’t, aren’t things I’m going to be successful at, or really ready to do or able to do with my disability and oddly enough, you know, it was maybe April or May of the school year and my school guidance counselor introduced me to a job training program that I could do that summer. And it was, it was on the job training through internships and it was paid. And so they connected participants, um, they were mostly individuals, high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And we got, uh, we, you know, we got interviewed for what our emerging talents and skills might be and career interests. And I was really fortunate enough through that program to be placed with the local government. Um, I was working in emergency operations, the 911 center and through that met other local county leaders and eventually got offered an internship, a couple of summers later, outside of the job training program and in their competitive internship program for college students and I actually started a year early.

Dale Verstegen: Oh wow, good. How old were you in that first interview?

Julie Hocker: I was 14, 14 years old.

Dale Verstegen: Wow. Boy, that’s that says a lot for your school and really thinking ahead that much and creating those.

Julie Hocker: Absolutely. I’m tremendously grateful. And like I said, I didn’t just learn skills that summer or those summers did that program for three, three years in high school. But, um, I just began to envision a career that I don’t know how I would have envisioned it otherwise.

Dale Verstegen: Yes. That’s really exciting opportunity for you. What challenges do you face and what supports have helped you be successful in those early years?

Julie Hocker: So I’ll hit the challenges first, and I don’t know that these are much different than what a lot of folks that I get to meet, uh, would experience. And so when you look back, you know, my family and my teachers and supports and me, it was sometimes we just didn’t have the information we needed to connect to programs. Um, things came together for me to have that first internship, but sometimes we didn’t have the information about a training opportunity or a conversation that would have made sense, um, or other, you know, the ability to know peer mentors in my community who also had disabilities. And what we find is that when we lack information, particularly when it comes to living a life with, with a disability, that lack of information often leads to low expectations. And I have a ton of people in my life who love me and support me, but often out of fear, you see that we have lower expectations as a result of that lack of information.

Julie Hocker: And so I think that’s an opportunity that we have in the Administration on Disabilities to change how our nation talks about disability and to always have the same high expectations that we have for everyone, uh, to pursue their dreams. And so, uh, I can’t go anywhere these days without talking about it. So I’ll mention it here, we have an employment challenge that we’ve announced, uh, to American businesses. And what we want them to do is to come alongside everyone else and set high expectations for workers with disabilities. And so we have a press competition and there is a money involved. They are going to be competing for, for a prize, um, at the end of this. And what we’re looking for is for American keep great talent and to really use those same avenues to attract great people who have disabilities into their workforce for longterm careers. And so I’m going to put a plug in because that’s what I do and encourage everyone listening today to go to challenge.gov and learn more about our prize competition. I might be a little biased, but I think that prize competition is, is awesome and we were looking forward to hearing what businesses want to come alongside us in changing these expectations.

Dale Verstegen: Yeah. So I had a chance to kind of look at that and I think it’s, it’s such an exciting opportunity. Uh, it, and, and I mean this sincerely for businesses because when they adopt practices that bring talent into their organizations, uh, particularly when it comes to folks with disabilities, um, we’re starting to learn more and more how that can have a positive impact on those businesses bottom line.

Julie Hocker: That’s right. I’m, you know, I’ve spent time in the private sector. I worked in asset management for a number of years, and it was incredible to see that the more diverse a team was that I was on and, and diversity comes in all forms that includes life experiences and where you’ve lived and the places you’ve gone and where you’ve gotten trained and educated. Um, it includes all kinds of things and it includes, uh, having a disability, you know, uh, that lens that I think through. But, um, it improves the ingenuity that you see, the innovation, the problem solving, but we now know too that it actually improves the bottom line, that firms that employ, uh, people with disabilities in their workforces have higher revenue, um, and better performance than their peers. And, you know, that might surprise some people, but it doesn’t surprise me, um, because you can just, when, when I was working in the private sector, we just saw the power of diversity and inclusion every day.

Dale Verstegen: Yeah. And, and I’m so excited to find out kind of where the innovation is but one area that I’m going to particularly be looking at is how, how corporations and businesses flex the way they recruit and hire and the way they, uh, create positions that match to the abilities of the individuals.

Julie Hocker: And, you know, we see that more and more in the workforce. Generally, one of the things that you can really see over the last, you know, maybe 10 years in particular in the private sector is they want to build on people’s strengths and talents. And what they want to do, is get the best results for their business. And if that means that at no matter who the employee is, they want to make sure that they’re maximizing those talents and skills every day. So we see customized employment, oftentimes in many forms already in the private sector. So introducing meaningful recruitment and retention strategies to bring individuals with disabilities into the workforce is sort of a natural fit. And all we want to do through this price competition is recognize it and make it happen faster because we just think now is the time, right? There’s over 7 million jobs open in the United States today, and more than 10 million Americans, uh, of working age who have disabilities, um, who aren’t in the labor force. And we just think what a terrific opportunity. And so, uh, our challenge is to the private sector to really come alongside us in meeting this great opportunity that we have.

Dale Verstegen: Yeah and when I’ve talked to employers, they don’t necessarily relate to our terminology like customized employment, but they do relate to the concepts of total quality improvement. And, and what we’ve found is when they adopt those practices and try to reduce waste within their labor force, the notion of flexing these jobs to match the folks that we have, I think is really an exciting opportunity at this point in our evolution of employment.

Julie Hocker: Well, call me biased. Um, you know, I’ve worked in the private sector, the public sector, I’ve worked in nonprofits and, uh, I’ve just had a tremendous career in across all of those sectors. And I have seen in every opportunity that I’ve had, that when a business looks at the true skills and opportunities of a worker, when they have a diverse and engaged workforce, there isn’t much that they won’t do, and they remain competitive, um, in the market places where they can compete. And we’re just, it’s such a win-win, uh, that makes, it makes so much sense when you talk to employers. And so now’s the time to bring this to the forefront and make it happen in large numbers.

Dale Verstegen: Well, you have such a important, impactful job now that I’m not going to assume that it was customized, but do you believe that early on in your career, that there was that notion of customizing opportunities for you when you were working within the businesses that you were in?

Julie Hocker: You know what? Um, I think every job is somewhat customized. Um, I don’t know that any of my roles were customized specifically or based solely on my disability. Um, but you know, looking back on my early days as an analyst at HHS or in the private sector and right out right out of graduate school, um, every employer wants to know what you bring to the table and where you want to grow. And I think naturally jobs are often, uh, they’re pliable, they’re active, they’re, they’re changing all of the time. And now as a manager myself, I’m always looking and asking, you know, am I using, is that person doing the right work? Um, are we using their talents and skills? Are they growing and developing? Are we sort of challenging them and getting their best ideas and their best output? Um, so I think it’s just a natural part about how many people think about managing and leading.

Dale Verstegen: Wonderful, wonderful. Uh, so in terms of education, training and work experiences, um, what stands out to you in terms of preparing you for the responsibilities of your current job?

Julie Hocker: Absolutely. So, you know, my career has always, uh, one experience leads to another, right. Um, every job that I’ve had has taught me, um, tremendous skills and experiences, but, you know, I’ve had setbacks and failures and just complete mess ups, um, in my career and things I would redo completely differently if I could, um, and start over. Um, and so they build on themselves, but for me, one of the things that just stands out so clearly to me, um, is that I’ve had amazing people who have been, whether they were my teacher or my professor, or, uh, you know, family members or friends, um, or managers, the leaders that I was working for they’ve really come alongside of me and coached me, talk to me about my frustrations, those moments when I didn’t know how to talk about a reasonable accommodation that I needed or something that I knew would work different better if it was different or just my own fears and my own uncertainties.

And for me, that having people in my life who raised my expectations for my own self, has been one of the biggest differences that I can point to, you know, early in my career, I have the great fortune of my first, uh, internship in Washington DC. And my first jobs out of undergraduate school were all at HHS where I am today. So being commissioner is, was coming home for me after being gone for a number of years. But my first boss out of undergrad was at HHS. His name was Dan, and he saw me set low expectations for myself and really subtle ways, but he noticed them. And one day, a couple years into me serving as a program analyst, he asked me what I was doing, and he meant with the rest of my career, the rest of my life. And it was a question I just hadn’t been asked to in so long, and I never would have thought about business school.

I never would’ve thought of leaving my job in Washington DC and all of my friends and all of my supports and starting over in a new town, uh, hundreds of miles away. But Dan couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t do that, that I wasn’t going to do that, that I wasn’t going to achieve my next degree and my next opportunity. And so I look at that and say, what a tremendous opportunity that I’ve been given simply because someone said, you’re not, you’re not seeing this the way that I’m seeing it. I see potential, right? Not seeing me the way that, um, the way that he did. And, and, and constantly saying to me, “Julie, you’re, you’re, you’re setting this bar way too low for yourself. I see you going to business school and earning your MBA. I see you being successful in asset management. I see you being successful at any number of leadership positions and even seeing me potentially returning to federal service in a leadership role.” And I simply just didn’t believe that that was in the cards for me. And I don’t know that any training or education would have connected me to that the way that simply another person coming along side of me and having the confidence that I could do it, uh, that was the biggest life changer for me.

Dale Verstegen: Wow. That’s a big shout out to Dan! And, um, would you say there were others along the way?

Julie Hocker: Absolutely. You know, oddly enough, uh, when I went into the private sector, I was at an, uh, a large asset management firm outside of Philadelphia. And the very, one of the very first leaders at the firm that I met, uh, was head of government affairs. And she had been an assistant secretary at the department of labor, and we became such good friends and we are to this day, uh, we still chat regularly. And, uh, when, as I was, you know, switching roles and getting moved around the company and, and trying out different job opportunities and joining new teams, I always went back to her and the conversations we would always have, or what is this preparing me to one day return to Washington. And one day, uh, take up a leadership role back in federal service. I just find, uh, federal services, such an incredible opportunity and, and just did, she was so committed to also not only keeping my expectations for myself in the private sector high, but always challenging me to think about how all of my experiences were building on themselves and was I stopping and reflecting on what I was learning and seeing how in the moment a job can feel, you know, “Oh my goodness, the stop is hard, or shop is frustrating or, you know, I don’t really like the work that I’m working on. We all have those days, but being able to sit down and talk to her and have her reflect on her own career and see how they were, all these experiences build on one another. Um, she was right because there are days now when I’m in Washington and I remember back to, uh, my rotation in marketing or risk management or on the fixed income floor fixed, no, the bond market is tough. Um, how it all has informed how I think about the day to day work that we do at the Administration on Disabilities.

Dale Verstegen: That’s wonderful. Uh, so have, so how have these experiences impacted the programs you’re working on at ACL now?

Julie Hocker: Well, it’s convinced me that a competitive integrative employment uh, it should be our expectation for people with disabilities. Um, you know, I’ve seen it work not only in my own life, but in the lives of so many people. And so, um, you know, in my own life, I’ve had the great joy and opportunity to work alongside people with and without disabilities, who all just see the opportunity to have a diverse and inclusive, uh, workforce. And so to them, it was a natural fit, but I’ve had the opportunity to see that there are many great Americans out there working in the public space, the private sector, in nonprofits who want to welcome more individuals with disabilities, into the workforce who just get it. And I’ve seen that not just in Washington, but all over the country. And so every day that we come to ACL, um, I can’t imagine advancing our programs or advancing our priorities that aren’t built on this inherent, uh, idea that every single person, whether they have a disability or not, um, can go out there and achieve great things, they can contribute to the families that they’re a part of the communities where they live at the places where they work. Um, it’s just so incredible. And it, it blows my mind whenever I hear people who have any, who have an expectation any different than that.

Dale Verstegen: Yeah. Good, good. Uh, so what advice would you give to others who are interested in a career in public service? You, you were, you, you started out your first 14 years old, started in public local government.

Julie Hocker: That’s right, in local government!

Dale Verstegen: Then, then you moved into the private secretary and your back. How, what, what would you say to others who, who, uh, have an interest in serving?

Julie Hocker: Absolutely. Well, the first thing I would say is that a career in public service, or even the opportunity for some time of your career to be in public service is first and foremost, a tremendous opportunity and duty. Um, it’s also a great responsibility. You know, we make decisions in Washington that can impact many, many people, um, from rural communities, uh, to downtown parts of cities. And that’s an incredible, you know, just a tremendous responsibility, but it is such an incredible opportunity. Um, I would say, you know, for me, I think that bringing experiences from outside of Washington, from outside of the public space, has really been a tremendous asset. It’s been an important part of helping me be successful in my job as commissioner and so I would say this to anybody who is, you know, thinking, well, maybe I want to be commissioner on disabilities one day.

Julie Hocker: Um, it’s, it’s an awesome job. So it’s a great job to set your eyes on. Um, for sure I have a blast. It is fun and exciting and energizing, and it’s just a tremendous, uh, I’m having the time of my life. So it’s, it’s great. But I would say this, I never could have planned to be commissioner and written out “I’m going to do step one and job one, and then I’m going to do this job and then that job, and then this job, and then I’m going to be, I’m going to be ready to be commissioner. And then I will be…” it’s not a recipe, it’s a career. Isn’t that way. Right. Um, I know that first and foremost, I just, I want to have a career that is always challenging me. I love kind of being on the edge of my seat, waiting, uh, waiting for it all to come together, but, um, celebrating even the setbacks and the tough lessons. Right. Um, but I look back on it and say this, I never could have planned to be commissioner and made it. So, but every single opportunity that I had in my career, even when it was to make copies and over and over again, or to answer the phone or, you know, to do some things that I thought, you know, seemed so fundamental and basic, every single one of those experiences I built on I’ve learned from, and no job has been unimportant or not a part of the story. And so for me, I would say this, no matter what job you’re doing, even if you think that it’s boring or you think, well, how does this connect to something where I want to be making decisions? And I want to be out there speaking, and I want to be making policy decisions or program decisions and setting priorities at the national level.

How does doing this driving my hometown 500 miles away matter? It matters. Um, you’re learning the skills that built on themselves, even when you’re frustrated, even when you don’t see the connections. And for me, that’s been both in developing my skills and talents, learning what I’m good at when I’m not good at there’s plenty of things that I don’t do well. Um, and I have to know when to get extra help for those even today as commissioner, but also every single one of those jobs. I met people who I learned from who I’ve grown, because I got to work alongside them, their life experiences and my life experiences together, set us up to be great coworkers at the time, but also people that challenged me in the moment and there are times today that I look back on advice that I got when I was 15 and 16, and it’s relevant today in my life as commissioner.

And so I would say this, it’s not about planning where you want to be in 20 years. Um, it’s great to have goals, but it’s more important to say, no matter what job I’m doing, I’m going to do it well, I’m going to do it better today than I did yesterday, but tomorrow I’m going to come to work and I’m going to look for an even better way to do it again. It’s about seeing opportunities and not being hesitant to pursue them. For me, it’s always been about listening to advice, being open to people telling me how I could have done it, better being open to people who say, “Julie, that was, it just was a mistake. You’ve got to learn from it and not do it again”… hearing that really tough feedback and then constantly, you know, doing great work, being recognized for it, taking on new challenges and it sets you up for what happened to me last summer when H had just said, Hey, Julie, we would love to talk to you about possibly joining us as commissioner was a conversation I never expected to have. I was candidly a little caught off guard that evening, but at the same time I was ready for it. And I was open to the unexpected. And like I said, uh, it’s been some of the greatest 14 months of my career, uh, since I joined as commissioner. And, uh, I’m looking forward to, to what’s ahead.

Dale Verstegen: Yeah. Well, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you today was I think not only are you, uh, uh, an important leader in this field, but you, you represent, for a lot of people with disabilities, what’s really possible. And, uh, all this great information that you’ve given us, uh, I am hoping will, uh, will allow other people to really see you as this important role model that you are. And, uh, and so thank you so much for your time today. And, uh, and for all the work that you do with the Administration on Disabilities.

Julie Hocker: Well, I want to thank you guys, you know, sometimes, uh, as, uh, as cool of a job as being commissioner is, I will say this when I’m out here, like we’re here in Arizona today, I will say this, you guys have tougher jobs and far more important jobs because, um, the work that folks do every single day to support and encourage and coach, and just do the difficult work that it takes to support all of us in our careers, um, that’s where the magic is happening. That’s where the change is occurring. And I would just say my job is to make sure that we continue to stay out of the way of all of the great things that are happening around our country. And so it’s a joy and a pleasure to see everything that’s happening from coast to coast in all pockets and corners of our country. And, uh, it’s just a joy to come alongside everybody.

Dale Verstegen: It’s an exciting time.

Julie Hocker: Absolutely! Great. Well, thank you again, Julie, thank you so much.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to YES to Employment, a podcast that seeks to improve competitive integrated employment outcomes for transition aged youth and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Today, we spoke with Julie Hocker, the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities at the Administration for Community Living. For more about the Administration on Community Living, visit acl.gov. For more about YES to Employment, including show notes, links to the resources, discussed a complete transcript and a schedule of episodes, visit www.yestoemployment.org/podcast. You can subscribe through iTunes or your favorite Android podcast app to have the series delivered automatically to your device so you never miss an episode. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please give us a rating on iTunes. Ratings will help us get this series in front of more listeners.

YES to Employment is a production of the Youth Employment Solutions Center, the national training and technical assistance center that serves as a hub of information and expertise for the Partnerships in Employment (PIE) state projects.

The YES! Center is a collaboration of TASH and TransCen. You can learn more about TASH at tash.org and more about TransCen transcen.org. You can receive updates from the YES! Center on this podcast and our other activities by following us on Facebook or on Twitter at @yestoemployment.

Partnerships in Employment is a series of seed grants funded by the Administration for Community Living’s Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, made to states for the purpose of transforming state disability support systems to competitive integrated employment. AIDD is dedicated to ensuring that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families are able to fully participate in, and contribute to all aspects of community life in the United States and its territories.

Music for YES to Employment is an original composition and performance by Sunny Cefaratti, the co-director and autistic self-advocacy mentor at the Musical Autist. You can learn more about the Musical Autist at www.themusicalautist.org.

Be sure to keep YES to employment on your list. We’ll have another episode on competitive integrated employment for you in the near future.

Musical postlude

This interview was originally recorded 5 December 2019.

The audio of this interview and the transcript have been lightly edited for clarity.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to copy, redistribute or adapt it for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, provided you adhere to the terms, including that you attribute the original source.

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