As published in the Star-Ledger, Jan. 13, 2016 - Op-Ed by Rodger DeRose
The economy is rebounding, which means job openings are increasing across a variety of sectors. With the gains in education, policy and legislation over the past quarter century, Americans with disabilities are better prepared than ever for fulfilling jobs and careers.
Advertising openings and searching for jobs has never been easier thanks to advances in technology and social media, in particular.
Yet many people with disabilities are still striving to connect to the workplace, according to recent jobs data, and many employers are failing to connect with qualified candidates for available positions.
According to a 2015 national survey, work is important to Americans with disabilities. More than 42 percent are working, often more than 40 hours a week. Among those who work less than full time, many are seeking more hours.
Some of these experienced workers are seeking new opportunities for contributing their talents. Others are actively searching to enter the workplace, using the internet and networking with family and friends.
Many employers have openings that aren't being filled, and are interested in diversifying their workplaces. So how do they make the connection?
A large-scale problem requires large-scale solutions. Funding is the spark that jump-starts programs based on well thought out strategies for employing large numbers of people with disabilities. Philanthropic organizations need to prioritize employment initiatives that meet the needs of businesses as well as jobseekers.
This type of targeted funding is supporting public-private partnerships that are connecting major employers such as PepsiCo, OfficeMax, and Lowe's with the talent they need in distribution, customer service, retail and other areas. These partnerships maximize existing resources, with corporations joining with local disability nonprofits and vocational services that help identify, place and train workers.
Other approaches focus on grassroots resources. Faith-based initiatives, for example, channel the community-based networking by jobseekers with disabilities. Faith communities work within their membership to identify members who need jobs and employers with jobs to fill. Funded programs are being implemented in various faith communities in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Minnesota.
Social enterprise businesses powered by workers with disabilities, are another means of connecting through the community. Often social enterprises generate revenue that contributes to their financial stability. Document management, food services, and a temporary staffing agency are among the diverse types of successful enterprises staffed by workers with disabilities.
Clearly, the need to connect with jobseekers is there, as well as the desire for jobseekers to meet that need, and programs are underway to help fulfill these needs. What else can be done to ensure the success of these initiatives?
According to the survey, jobseekers with disabilities are overcoming barriers related to education, training and transportation. But 36 percent of jobseekers cite this as a major barrier: employers underestimate their ability to do the job. Moreover, less than a third are able to overcome this barrier. Raising employers' expectations will certainly increase interest in effective employment initiatives and contribute to their success.
We know that inclusive workplaces benefit from greater productivity and better retention. Valuing the talents that people with disabilities bring to the workplace is key to making connections that last.