Written by Kelly Kapitz
According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the unemployment rate (October 2021) in Marathon County is at 2.6%, below the national average of 4.6%. While this may be good news for the county, employers are struggling to recruit and retain workers for their businesses.
Individuals with disabilities are an often-overlooked labor force. Recent data suggests that 7.6% of individuals living in Marathon County under the age of 65 have some type of disability. Regionally, more and more companies are looking to broaden the candidate pool with individuals with disabilities. Several studies have noted the positive impact hiring individuals can have on the person and the business.
Improved Culture and Climate
Hiring individuals with disabilities helps to build a culture and climate of inclusion. This not only enhances the individual employee experience, but also demonstrates the employer’s experience and success in hiring a variety of employees. Additionally, it expands the talent pool which capitalizes on the employee’s abilities rather than focusing on disabilities. These experiences result in improved attitudes and empathy toward working with individuals with disabilities. In turn, the overall climate of the organization is improved for all employees. And, hiring people with disabilities communicates social responsibility, demonstrating that a business is interested in a broader community impact and all the people in it, not just the bottom line.
Attract and Retain Employees
By expanding and diversifying their labor force, employers benefit from fostering an environment where diversity is welcome thereby attracting more qualified employees. This allows employers to cast a wider net in their hiring practices and discover untapped or undertapped potential.
A study conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that employees with developmental disabilities contributed to higher productivity and lower absenteeism. Moreover, individuals with disabilities are more likely to seek stable and reliable work which means higher retention rates. In an era of staffing shortages, employers who look to expand their candidate pool are more likely to benefit by filling vacancies.
Innovation and Flexibility
The push towards innovation and flexibility in the workplace is a benefit to both individuals with disabilities and their employers. During the pandemic, employers have been forced to look for creative ways to keep their doors open. This has included work from home, the enhanced use of technology and rethinking how job tasks are completed. These innovations are uniquely poised to support some individuals with disabilities as it can reduce barriers to performing job tasks.
Working from home allows individuals with transportation challenges to still be “at work.” Providing assistive technology allows individuals with visual or hearing issues to be productive in their role. Ensuring that every employee has the tools they need to thrive in the workplace maximizes the productivity of your workforce.
It is important for employers to understand how their employees can be set up to perform at their best. This often comes down to flexibility and collaborating directly with employees. Contrary to many stereotypes, inclusive practices don’t need to be expensive or burdensome. Supporting employees with disabilities may be as easy as providing them with a mentor or giving them flexible work hours to attend appointments.
It makes Economic Sense
Hiring individuals with disabilities just makes sense, or cents as some might say. Employees with disabilities benefit by earning wages which translates into improving their livelihood and increasing their self-esteem, making it possible for them to participate in their local economy. At the same time, employers benefit by filling vacancies and enabling their business to continue to provide goods and services.
Employers who work toward more inclusive and diverse employee groups may also be eligible for tax incentives which include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit or the Disabled Access Credit. Businesses should consult with their tax consultants to determine if these credits apply.
In Marathon County, there are many partners willing to support the move toward more inclusive work environments. The Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce will be partnering with Church Mutual and Northcentral Technical College in their Branch Program. Beginning In February 2022, the Branch Program will be tasked with addressing the challenge of hiring and supporting differently abled employees.
“Business and Industry are looking for ways to expand their talent pool,” states David Eckman, President/CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. “They are reexamining their processes for hiring. This includes creating a more inclusive and diversified workforce. This Program will bring together industry and post-secondary education to help find ways to do this more effectively.” Partnering with various stakeholders allows regional solutions to be generated while directly supporting and impacting the local community.
Another regional agency that supports individuals with disabilities is the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Central Wisconsin (ADRC-CW). Through collaborations and partnerships, the Aging and Disability Resource Center promotes choice and independence through personalized education, advocacy, and access to services that prevent, delay, and lessen the impacts of aging and disabilities in the lives of adults.
“I think that through partnerships and education, we can help individuals who are differently abled connect to employment,” says Jonette Arms, Executive Director of the ADRC-CW. “Our [clients] have skills and talents that they can contribute to any business, and they want to be part of society in a meaningful way.” One of the barriers that Arms identifies for employment is that businesses may be reluctant to hire individuals with disabilities because they don’t have the internal support to help them be successful. One way to navigate that is to reach out to the various agencies in the area to help them set up those structures so that both the business and the employee can be successful. “Individuals with disabilities find work gratifying and they want to be part of the community. [Employers] benefit by having a diverse workforce who sees and experiences the community in a unique way,” states Arms. “It is a great all-around opportunity for everyone.”
K12 Schools also support individuals and businesses in a variety of ways. Public schools are required to support students with disabilities as they plan for their post-high school life. This includes support in preparing students to move into technical or university settings or directly into the world of work. One way this happens is through providing job experiences and coaching. Often partnering with outside agencies such as the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, schools, agencies and families work together to plan and support students as they transition from high school to the adult world. Schools may also partner directly with businesses in providing job shadowing or on-the-job training. This helps businesses attract potential employees while allowing students to explore occupational paths.
There are many factors that contribute to the positive practice of attracting and hiring individuals with disabilities. Regionally, there are entities willing to support this effort. Given the shortage of employees in the region, it only makes sense and cents to expand hiring practices to include individuals with disabilities. It is great for the employee, the business, and the economy.
Dr. Kelly Kapitz has been involved in rural education for over 30 years. She began her career as a school psychologist and later entered administration as a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for the Marathon County Special Education Department. She received her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation and particular area of interest is transition services to students with disabilities. She has served on several state and local taskforces related to providing high-quality educational services to rural students. Dr. Kapitz serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services. She and her husband have three children and enjoy tending their apple orchard and traveling. Email Dr. Kelly Kapitz.
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