Let’s Increase Disability Employment by Filling the Gap Between Need and Availability of Skills

By Jim Hasse

As we prepare for Disability Employment Awareness Month 2012, we know that data released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in August 2012 show that, while employment for most of the U.S workforce is slowly recovering, the employment situation for people with disabilities has lagged.

The number of working-age Americans without disabilities participating in the labor force grew by almost three million during the past year. During the same period, the number of workers with disabilities declined by 94,000.

But let's step back a bit from the usual, and warranted, consternation about current disability employment levels. Instead, let's take this time to assess the current needs of the job market and turn those updated needs into new opportunities for both talented jobseekers who happen to have disabilities and employers.


Time-tested Attributes

Informed recruiters within many of our nation's leading companies know the following statement to be true.

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Employees with disabilities who are effectively recruited, trained and promoted bring to workplace teams these qualities:

  • Reduced missed days of work.
  • Lower turnover.
  • Increased awareness of and appreciation for unique customer needs.
  • Proven problem-solving, creative and innovative energy.

Together, these attributes add up to increased productivity, the real bottom-line benefit of workforce inclusion. It means that employers with the savvy to find talented jobseekers with disabilities who can show work results based on these high-in-demand but often low-in-supply personal qualities will likely be the most successful in the years to come.

But, let's not stop there.


The New Reality

Jobseekers with disabilities need to recognize that today's employers are facing at least three new recruiting problems, according to John Liptak, Ed.D., Associate Director Career Services, Radford University, Radford, VA. Here's how Liptak describes these recruiting challenges:

  1. Employers are unable to fill vacant jobs.
  2. Employers are not able to hire workers with the required skills.
  3. Jobs are changing so quickly that workers need basic skills for a variety of tasks.

Why are jobs going unfilled when our nation's unemployment is so high? Liptak has been studying the survival and success rate of people entering the workforce since 2006.

He says the U.S. workplace is still in a transition from what he calls the "traditional" model to a "high performance" model. The "employability" skills required for this new work environment have changed as a result, but our educational system is not fully preparing future jobseekers for those changes.

In May of 1990, a U.S. Department of Labor committee launched a comprehensive study about how well schools prepare young people for the workforce. Titled the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), this extensive work gave American business, for the first time, a platform to clearly communicate to educators what students need to know in order to be successful in the workplace.

The SCANS Report concluded that "... more than 50 percent of our young people leave school without the knowledge or foundation required to find and hold a good job."

Obviously, that caused quite a stir in education because school boards, administrators, and teachers realized our nation's students were not learning what they needed to know in order to be prepared for the workforce of the 21st century.

This problem, the report said, stems from the fact that today's working environment, focused on information, service, and communication, is vastly different than the industrial workplace of the early 1900s - due, in part, to advances in technology and competition from countries abroad. The report called for a whole new approach to education, involving a switch from basic-skill learning to development of thinking skills.

Yesterday's traditional workplaces were centrally controlled and marked by mass production and fragmented tasks performed by employees who had minimal qualifications and training and who were encouraged to "specialize" in their careers. Advancement was by seniority.

Today's high-performance work environment is characterized by flexible production, decentralized control, work teams, and multi-skilled workers. Training is available to anyone, and advancement is based on certification of skill sets.

In short, today's employers are seeking employees with thinking skills and individuals who work well with others (and learn with others) so they can solve problems on a series of projects. And, increasingly, individuals find themselves "hiring out" their skills on a contractual basis to a variety of "employers."

Liptak observes that there are still "deficits" in thinking skills, resource management, information skills, interpersonal skills and systems management - all what the SANS Report calls "employability skills" (skills which are not technical but which cut horizontally across all industries and vertically across all jobs).

One example of an employability skill is the ability to work cooperatively with others to solve real issues.


Filling the Void

Anytime I see a gap between need and capability in the general labor force, I see opportunities for talented jobseekers with disabilities who are fully prepared to fill that void. For employers, I also see an opportunity to fill that void by recruiting talented, prepared individuals with disabilities, a largely untapped resource with only 37 percent of working-age adults with disabilities participating in the labor force, according to BLS statistics.

And, for some occupations, this gap is being filled by savvy, talented individuals with disabilities. For example, the employment rate for scientists and engineers with disabilities is 83 percent, much better than the estimated 37 percent for the overall U.S. population with disabilities, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In fact, pursuing a STEM career (such as process engineer, which uses knowledge of science, technology, electronics and math in integrated ways) is well worth the effort. It fits the new paradigm of multi-skilled employees who work under decentralized authority and who can transfer skills among a variety of occupations and industries.

Process engineering jobs, by the way, often go unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants.

If there are jobs open because there are not enough people qualified with the new "employability skills" to fill them, those are the jobs for which I would prepare and seek - particularly because, as a person with cerebral palsy, I have learned how to effectively manage my disability by working with others. And I know how to transfer those attributes to on-the-job situations.

Look at a few of the key skill deficits Liptak says he still finds in individuals entering the workforce. I'll give you examples of how a jobseeker with a disability can cite work/volunteer/care management experience for turning those nation-wide deficits into personal competitive advantages he or she can use to get hired.

Thinking Skills - "I creatively came up with technology-based solutions to address my walking and talking disabilities by visualizing preferred outcomes, learning about the options I had and carrying out the steps needed to realize those outcomes."

Personal Qualities - "I have effectively managed a series of paid personal assistants during the last five years with integrity and authenticity through honest, open communication."

Resource Management - "I managed time, money and materials in a six-month advocacy effort for people with disabilities who were in need of local transportation services."

Technology Use - "I chaired a committee which studied and recommended note-taking options to add as a disabled student service at a local, private college."

Notice these so-called new employability skills are competencies that stem from the four productivity attributes I first listed above. These competencies have already been proven, though decades of study, to be competencies an employer gains by hiring individuals with disabilities.

So, what was true in the last century is even more so in the 21st. A strong workforce includes individuals who have disabilities.

It's a personal marketing approach you can use, if you're a person with a disability who is seeking a job. In using that approach, you're recognizing the current 50 percent gap between the need and availability of key employability skills and taking steps to add these competencies to your portfolio so you can position yourself as a valued job candidate.

If you're an employer, Disability Employment Awareness Month can serve as a reminder of why individuals with disabilities need be included in your employee recruitment efforts. In beefing up your disability employment efforts, you'll not just do the right thing. You'll also strengthen your company's competitiveness and bottom line results by addressing the current 50 percent gap between the need and availability of key employability skills.

One of the best ways to close that gap between the need and availability of key employability skills in your own workforce is to include talented people with disabilities.


Copyright © 2012. Hasse Communication Counseling. All rights reserved.

Author Bio:

Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF, (www.jimhasse.com) has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both job seekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. Lighthouse International (www.lighthouse.org), New York City, is the author of the 272-page hard-cover book, which continues to evolve online on Hasse's forum, Timely Tips for Retaining Employee Talent (forum.perfectlyable.com). Jim is founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, the comprehensive career coaching guide for parenting youngsters seven to 27 years old who have cerebral palsy.