There’s a groundswell of businesses hiring people with disabilities. Is your firm among them?

Proportionally, more people with disabilities are finding jobs than people without disabilities. That’s according to the analysis of unemployment data from January 2020 to September this year from the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. It suggested that the impetus for finding work is their drive to escape poverty.

The foundation also recently surveyed supervisors to compare their perspectives with those of five years ago. It looked at changes in practices and processes companies used to recruit, hire, train, accommodate and retain people with disabilities.

The study also canvassed supervisors’ and upper management’s attitudes and commitments. The pandemic has been a boon for a positive shift in employment practices. In short, one good thing that’s come out of COVID-19: About eight in 10 supervisors said their organizations set up or altered their accommodations processes due to the pandemic.

Those accommodations included the following:

  • More than twice as many companies offer flexible employment practices.
  • Increased attention on accommodating and approving remote work.
  • Doubling the number of supervisors working for organizations that have a central accommodation fund.
  • More companies partnering with disability organizations for recruitment.
  • Greater use of external help to onboard staff with disabilities.
  • Training on cultural competence and disabilities becoming more commonplace.
  • Firms are seeking government and local resources to accommodate workers with disabilities better.

Finding Opportunities

So, if your business or organization has no or few employees with disabilities, how can you go about this opportunity to deal with staff shortages and even succession planning?

Consider a centuries-old proven way of building loyalty, commitment and skills in-house that are customized to your organizational needs: apprenticeships. The gold standard of these is the registered apprenticeship program, which the U.S. has run for more than eight decades.

Such programs need at least 144 hours of related technical instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. Upon completing their apprenticeship, graduates have a nationally recognized industry credential, and some even an associate degree. The Biden-Harris administration calls registered apprenticeships a “high-quality, debt-free, equitable, earn-and-lean model.” The administration’s Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative, a network of over 200 organizations keen to strengthen and diversify registered apprenticeship programs, is rooted in advocacy, sharing expertise and best practices. The Office of Apprenticeship, part of the Department of Labor, also works with independent State Apprenticeship Agencies to administer such programs.

Yes, there are costs involved in setting up apprenticeship programs, but companies that did so said the benefits outweighed their costs, research shows. As well, businesses that ranked in the top 20% for workplace disability inclusion enjoyed 28% higher revenue and 30% higher profits over four years compared to competitors, Accenture has found.

Case Studies

Ready, Willing and ABLE aims to support 100 Californians with disabilities to find long-term career opportunities through registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship programs. The Californian Department of Rehabilitation with the Institute for Workplace Skills, and Innovation America hopes Ready, Willing and ABLE program will offer a blueprint for Californian employers hire people with a disability as apprentices.

One such program involves the California State Society for Opticians running a pre-apprenticeship program for people with disabilities to get into this rewarding career. Dispensing opticians usually sit for up to 80% of their work day, and there’s much repetition. However, it’s nicely balanced with meeting new people and guiding them in their eyewear choices.

The training involves group discussions on ethics and time management. Participants also get to hear from and quiz doctors from current ophthalmology practices. The first cohort will finish their year-long training early next year and be in a great position to secure optician apprenticeships.

So, consider whether you’re a pre-apprenticeship or summer internship program could be an excellent way to trial your foray into a more diverse workplace.

Next Steps

Still trying to figure out where to start? First, pan back to your company’s mission, purpose and bottom line. How will a registered apprenticeship program for people with disabilities fit into your business development, recruitment/hiring/retention, diversity, equity and inclusion strategies? Does your business see the disability community as a talent pipeline and a market?

Good practices include maintaining an accessible website (think WCAG 2.0 AA), adopting universal design principles company-wide, and using accessible technology platforms.

Each business or organization is unique, but these principles are a solid foundation from which to start:

  • Determine which job roles you think are the best fit for an apprenticeship.
  • Set up an internal team, spanning representatives from direct service, management and leadership to develop and roll out the program.
  • Identify and partner with external organizations, such as community colleges, high schools, non-profit and civic organizations, state apprenticeship organizations and others.
  • Assign mentors and coaches for your program.
  • Determine which qualifications the apprentices will need to gain during training, and where they will access the learning and how.
  • Tick off the curricula by chunking the learning into core competencies, and use these to drive on-the-job training goals or performance measures.
  • Establish the training schedule and wage progression.
  • Ramp up your marketing and recruiting strategies.
  • Embed cycles of monitoring, feedback, and evaluation of the program and participants’ success.

Remember: It’s OK if your business isn’t a pioneer in the apprenticeship space. After all, so many companies have paved the way ahead. Be sure to tap into a brains trust and partner with like organizations to start your journey toward a more inclusive workforce.