Addressing a growing skills gap by employing people with disabilities

Girl working at laptop computer

Is employing people with disabilities a means to resolving the growing skills gap in today’s workforce? I believe so. Doubters may lack a true understanding of “disability” thus failing to tap fully into this valuable resource. This lack of knowledge may prevent innovative ideas from arising. I sometimes also wonder if misplaced sympathy influences behavior. Individuals with disabilities don’t need sympathy: they need opportunity. Without first-hand experience, people tend to stick with people and situations that are familiar and comfortable. Being a person with a disability or having a family member or close friend with a disability changes your perspective. Nothing is more common to us all than the desire to find dignity and self-esteem through work and contribution.

My name is Dr. Lonny Wright, and I am the Director of Technical Training for PRIDE Industries, a nonprofit organization with a mission to create jobs for people with disabilities. Under the federal AbilityOne® program, PRIDE Industries performs base wide operating support services to military installations nationwide, and competes competitively with award-winning manufacturing and logistics offerings. We do this with a workforce that is largely composed of individuals with severe disabilities.

Workforce shortages in trade skills across diverse industries are an increasing reality in our service-focused economy. These shortages affect PRIDE Industries as well. To address the issue, PRIDE Industries devises and implements innovative approaches to training and preparing individuals with disabilities for the workforce.

One out of five Americans has a disability, yet people with disabilities are unemployed at a rate four times greater than the general population. While there is movement on the state and federal levels to move individuals with disabilities into the workforce, there are few concrete programs that truly provide the opportunity for equal access to the jobs in most demand. People with disabilities are an untapped resource that can help close the growing deficit gap of skilled craft workers. These are the people that truly want and deserve an opportunity to work and have a career. We have also found that once employed, people with disabilities have higher retention and job satisfaction rates. However, a continuing obstacle is the lack of specialized programs and collaborative efforts in the business community to develop the necessary skills and create opportunity.

The Americans with Disabilities Act provisions ensure the acceptance of individuals with disabilities to training institutions, community colleges, and universities. However, those with significant disabilities may be challenged to meet the entry criteria or lack the accommodations needed to be successful. As a result, they are often not afforded the same opportunities. Institutions may lack the knowledge to accommodate those with developmental or intellectual disabilities. They may lack expertise in alternative teaching methods for those with learning disabilities. Others weigh the accommodations for a select few against the investment of time and resources.

At PRIDE, we set out to develop a program that provides low-cost skills development in facilities maintenance in combination with hands-on training. As an accredited trainer of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), individuals who complete the course earn an industry-recognized certificate that can truly propel wage and career advancement. The curriculum is designed to offer hands-on technical training to build a safe, productive, and sustainable workforce of craft professionals. Our enrollees have diverse disabilities. However, the approach addresses individual needs without having to change course standards to achieve results.

This innovative approach does require creativity, patience, and understanding — all things we value and that contribute to any employee’s success. We have modeled the training program internally with 657 courses completed to date. Our hope is to partner with external institutions to expand the program within our industry, initiatives I will address in future posts. With this training approach, we have been able to help individuals develop their skills, increase productivity, and gain employment and career opportunities for their future — while meeting our business challenges. So I end with a question: What initiatives can your organization undertake to leverage this untapped resource while addressing the growing shortage of skilled workers within your industry?


Also, feel free to contact me directly with your thoughts and questions. I would love to hear from you.

Lonny Wright