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A Capable, Underserved Workforce

November 18, 2008
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Related Topics: Disabilities, Ethics, Workforce Planning, Featured Article, Recruitment
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Sometimes it takes only one person to make a difference, and that’s exactly what happened at Los Angeles-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2004.

    "An employee of Northrop Grumman had a son whose best friend came back injured from the war in Iraq. He had lost a limb and an eye, I believe," says Northrop Grumman’s Karen Stang, recalling the genesis of a program called Operation Impact.

    Stang, the acting program manager for Operation Impact, adds, "He couldn’t find a job, and so this employee went to his management and said, ‘Northrop Grumman makes a lot of the products that the soldiers use in Iraq, so we should have a program to help them get employment.’ "

    Operation Impact quickly grew from that initial seed. According to Stang, more than 30 disabled vets have accepted offers to work for Northrop Grumman alone, and the program also works with other defense contractors and recruiters to help them get placement elsewhere. More recently, Operation Impact is expanding to not only help disabled vets, but the general disabled population as well.

    One recruiting firm that is a big supporter of Northrop Grumman’s program is HRworks in Atlanta. Kurt Ronn, president of HRworks, has been a proponent of integrating people with physical and mental disabilities into the American workforce. Ronn has been so impressed with the Northrop Grumman program that he’s helped connect other clients looking to become more educated about bulking up or starting their own recruitment programs for people with disabilities—large companies, too, such as General Electric Co. and Raytheon Co.

    Ronn says the disabled population is an underused resource and adds that it should be a no-brainer for recruiters to become more educated and start reaching out to the disabled workforce.

    "In a talent shortage market, you need to be able to access new pools of candidates," Ronn says. "And this is a large pool that shows signs of continued growth."

    The Bobby Dodd Institute, which like HRworks also operates out of Atlanta, contracted a 2008 survey revealing that people with disabilities—who represent America’s largest minority group—have a 65 percent rate of unemployment. And when survey respondents were asked to describe the groups of people that the term equal opportunity pertains to, only 2 percent stated "workers with disabilities."

    Even many of HRworks’ clients don’t understand what the disabled workforce can bring to the table, admits Ronn.

    And it’s too bad, says Wayne McMillan, president and CEO of Bobby Dodd, because there are a lot of misconceptions about the disabled workforce that don’t ring true.

    "People with disabilities make very good employees," says McMillan, who has been in nonprofit leadership for 35 years and at the helm of Bobby Dodd for the past eight years.
"Statistics support findings that employers rate the performance of employees with disabilities as good as or better than non-disabled people working in the same company."

    Yet many recruiters and employers believe the opposite is true, McMillan says.

    Another misconception, says McMillan, is that it’s expensive to make workforce adjustments and accommodations. He maintains that it generally costs less than $500 to make proper adjustments or accommodations for disabled workers, and that often no added accommodations are necessary.

    Stang agrees, noting that since Northrop Grumman’s Operation Impact was founded, only two employees have required special needs, and the costs to fulfill those needs were low.

    Bobby Dodd has been extremely outspoken about the disabled workforce in and around Atlanta and has worked with a national network of similar organizations to increase awareness. The institute works with some recruiters to achieve what is now being recognized by the term "reverse recruiting."

    "Recruiting the disabled forces you to do things a bit differently," Ronn says of the concept. "You start to look at what skill sets people have. Rather than saying, ‘Here’s the job and who will fit this job,’ you look at the abilities that the disabled recruit has and figure out what job they can do."

    Stang is realistic that reverse recruiting causes extra pressure on recruiters and hiring managers, but she also believes that recruiters need to better educate themselves about the disabled workforce and start making a concerted effort to place them. She personally puts the ball in the staffing and recruiting court, knowing that many small and midsize companies don’t have the bandwidth to start their own internal programs devoted to hiring people with disabilities.

    So where should staffing and recruiting firms start?

    "In every major city there is an organization like the Bobby Dodd Institute that is training people with disabilities for employment," McMillan says. "These organizations would work with recruiters on a no-cost basis to provide them with qualified applicants."

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