Column Submitted to the Sun Sentinel: What Labor Shortage?

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Mavara Mirza-Agrawal, MD
Vice Chair, The ABLE Trust
Florida Endowment Foundation for Vocational Rehabilitation

As our nation moves into the New Year with cautious optimism towards America’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, getting everyone back to work is essential to the economic, physical, and mental wellbeing of our nation. October is Disability Employment Awareness Month and an opportune time for us to think about how we can strategically engage individuals with varied skills in quality jobs that provide financial security and professional growth. It is time to utilize the ready, willing, and able workforce we have within our nation and in our communities: individuals with special needs whose success is wholly supported by their family and who have resources such as specialized job coaches to help identify appropriate employment opportunities and provide training and ongoing support.

Surveys of employers, including a 2020 survey conducted by The Able Trust, indicate that PWD (persons with disabilities) would be welcome in the workplace by both management and co-workers:  87% of respondents identified disability inclusion as important to their hiring practices and 81% felt that PWD perform at the same level or better than non-disabled workers. Furthermore, a 2017 Harvard Business Review study uncovered enormous innovative potential in hiring and empowering employees who have disabilities. The study found that people with disabilities tend to be very innovative because they face (and solve) a variety of problems each day, and in doing so demonstrate agility, persistence, drive, strategic planning and creativity. Employing workers with disabilities helps improve morale across a company’s workforce and fosters goodwill with customers, who appreciate inclusivity and representation of themselves and their loved ones. One study concluded that 92% of consumers felt more favorable toward companies that hire individuals with disabilities.

Unemployment for PWD’s hit 12.6% in 2020. At the same time, employers are struggling to fill 10 million job openings.  So the question must be asked:  why the hesitation to hire a person with varied skills? Some may say it is fear of the unknown: not knowing the organization’s rights and responsibilities, fear of offending, fear of overstepping, fear that the PWD will not be able to perform, or fear of how it will all play out. Many of our fears are based on stereotypes and lack of exposure to a marginalized population that historically has been warehoused in institutions. As the numbers of children diagnosed with autism in the 1990’s reaches the age of majority, we will be seeing more individuals with disabilities aging into the workforce. It is important to think about how our current economic recovery may represent an opportunity to strategize, to reorganize and address our past oversight. As we celebrate Disability Employment Awareness Month, it is time to embrace Florida’s underutilized talent pool.

The Able Trust, a leader in connecting Florida businesses to workers with disabilities, has many resources available at http://www.abletrust.org/ to help take that first step. The US Department of Labor also provides similar guidance (https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/disability/hiring). These resources can help you promote your vacancies to PWD job seekers that are already trained, or identify the training and support needed to strengthen the skills of your new team members.

Individuals with disabilities are as varied as the rest of us, and lead lives inspired with similar hopes and dreams, seeking the same opportunities to serve as contributing members of the fabric of our nation. Storekeepers and restaurant managers who are short staffed or whose factory or supply chain has been disrupted by the labor shortage, should consider employing PWD in sales, service, stocking, or cashier positions. As we begin strategic planning for 2022, now is the time to recognize the benefits and opportunities to be gained by expanding our workforce and include workers with varied skills.