In some industries, labor shortages have eased, but other sectors still grapple to find and keep good employees, especially frontline workers. Meanwhile, savvy employers are turning to an underutilized workforce: people with disabilities.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. According to data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, several factors are creating the ongoing shortage of frontline workers, including a lack of affordable childcare, early retirements, and an aging workforce.

The Chamber’s report further notes that the sectors experiencing the highest numbers of job openings are education and health services, hospitality, and professional business services—most notably relating to work done in-person such as landscaping, cashiering, cleaning, and waste disposal.

Hiring and retaining frontline workers is a costly challenge. In a Harvard Business School study of 181,891 hourly workers, half the employers surveyed said that turnover among frontline workers was more than 24 percent a year, and almost a quarter said it was greater than 50 percent, with the cost of turnover estimated at $3,000 per employee. If you replace 24-50 percent of your employees yearly, that’s expensive. 

Add to all of this the coming “silver tsunami”—when baby boomers will age out of the workforce—and the long-term effects become clear: the shortage of frontline workers isn’t going away.

So, what’s the solution?

“Employees with disabilities are some of our most dedicated employees. They come to work, and they’re smiling. They’re ready for work. They’re excited for work.” ”

Expanding the Pool of Frontline Workers: Employees with Disabilities

“For years, organizations have talked about the strategic value of expanding and diversifying their talent pipelines,” said Emily Rose McRae, Future of Work and Talent Analytics researcher in Gartner’s HR Practice. “Organizations can no longer meet their talent needs through traditional sourcing methods and candidate pools.”

Smart companies are turning to people with disabilities—a demographic that includes more than 10 percent of working-age Americans—as a steady pipeline of frontline workers. Due to advances in workplace technology, greater adoption of inclusive business practices, and widespread acceptance of remote work, companies have more access to this skilled, reliable, and loyal talent pool.

And it so happens that hiring people with disabilities as frontline workers is good for business.

Many Benefits of Employees with Disabilities

Hiring people with disabilities isn’t about altruism. Their presence in an organization boasts several benefits, including high retention, low absenteeism, improved employee satisfaction, tax incentives, and greater appeal to socially conscious investors.

It’s important to note that, while this workforce remains underutilized, huge progress has been made in companies employing people with disabilities.

Approximately 22 million working-age Americans have a disability. Historically, the employment to population ratio for working-age adults with disabilities was around 30 percent while the ratio for persons without a disability was 75 percent.

This has changed a lot in the years since the pandemic, with the disability employment-to-population ratio for people with disabilities rising as high as 38 percent, according to the National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) report published by the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire.

However, it’s still the case that much more could be done. More employers need to understand the benefits that employing people with a disability brings. PRIDE Industries has partnered with hundreds of companies to recruit, hire, and support employees’ different abilities to solve employers’ labor challenges and improve workforce productivity.

Fronline Workers with Disabilities: ‘Our most dedicated employees’

“Employees with disabilities are some of our most dedicated employees,” said Julie Smith, HR Director for Soapy Joe’s, a 16-location car wash franchise in San Diego County, California. “They come to work, and they’re smiling. They’re ready for work. They’re excited for work.”

In the carwash industry, turnover is a constant challenge. Over 45 percent of carwash employees leave within a year, according to career researchers at Zippia.  Faced with this problem, Smith, who had prior experience with employees with disabilities, saw an opportunity. “I was familiar with the assets that adults with different abilities can bring to an organization,” she said. “Coming to Soapy Joe’s, I was a big advocate for hiring from this workforce because I knew it would solve many of the issues we were having with retention and turnover.”

Now Soapy Joe’s employs people with disabilities at 15 of its car washes, with a 94 percent retention rate. These employees have proven to be valuable assets. At the company’s National City location, for example, the top seller of memberships is Jesus, an employee with a developmental disability. Jesus’s performance has been so stellar that he has now entered a management training program to move up in the company.

‘You'll be amazed by what they can do.’

A study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that the manufacturing labor shortage could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs, costing businesses a trillion dollars by 2030.

InterMotive Vehicle Controls, maker of electronics components for the automotive industry, is another company tackling the labor shortage by hiring people with disabilities. “We have hired people with disabilities for going on two decades now,” CEO Linda Schafer said. “When you take someone with an intellectual or physical disability, assess their skills and interests, and give them the training and support they need, you’ll be amazed at what they can do and how much they can contribute.”

Hiring people with disabilities helps InterMotive address workforce shortages and increase retention. “I have employees with disabilities who started after high school and are now married and buying homes,” President Greg Schafer said. “They love their jobs, show up on time every day, and are proud of their work. They really enhance our workforce.”

The quality of the work

It wasn’t so much turnover but quality control that led Thunder Valley Casino Resort to tap employees with disabilities to reduce the cost and improve the hotel’s laundry service quality, which they were trucking three counties away. The 270,000-square-foot AAA Four Diamond resort generates 10,000 pounds of laundry each day.

“The employees bring so much joy to the workplace,” said Joel Moore, VP of Hotel Operations. “They are so happy to be out in the community, to have a job. It is infectious.”

The resort also benefits from their laundry team’s high retention and attendance. “The level of absenteeism is lower than in other teams,” Moore said. “These employees stay longer because they love working here –they are not looking for their next job.” Advancement opportunities are also available. Some employees have moved into other areas, like food and custodial services, where they work more independently.

Overcoming misconceptions

Misconceptions keep employers from turning to people with disabilities to address labor shortages. The Society for Human Resources Managers (SHRM) cites three “myths” that must be busted:

  • People with disabilities aren’t qualified applicants.
  • Reasonable accommodation is expensive.
  • Managers can’t expect the same level of performance from employees with disabilities.

Regarding qualifications, “organizations will need to become more comfortable assessing candidates solely on their ability to perform in the role, not their credentials and prior experience,” Gartner’s McRae said.

Raley’s Bergmann agrees. “Hiring someone with a disability is not much different than hiring anybody,” she said. “You find out what they are good at, what they like, and train them when you see gaps in their abilities.”

Accommodation is surprisingly easy in most cases. In a survey of 3,528 employers by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 49.4 percent reported that the accommodations for employees with disabilities “cost absolutely nothing.”

For employers that incurred a one-time cost to accommodate employees with disabilities, the median expenditure was just $300. Additionally, job performance has proven equal, if not better, than workers without disabilities, which makes hiring people with disabilities a low-risk, high-reward opportunity.

Let Us Help Solve Your Labor Shortages

The US Chamber of Commerce recommends that businesses turn to experienced partners to tap the genius of employees with disabilities. PRIDE Industries has helped hundreds of companies do just that, helping recruit, hire, train, and support this growing and reliable talent pool—free of charge to employers.
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