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Find Workers in Michigan's Hidden Talent Pool

This article appeared in the August 2018 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Manufacturers understand what it means to be overlooked. People drive by facilities every day without caring about the exciting, high-tech innovations occurring inside. Talented workers say “no thanks” to manufacturing careers because they are told a four-year education is the only path to success. The entire industry can appear forgotten due to the assumption it’s dark, dirty and dangerous. Being invisible is no fun, yet an entire subset of Michigan’s vast talent pool feels invisible every day.

Despite representing a highly dedicated and committed talent option, the pervasive myths surrounding people with disabilities continues to hinder progress, leading to a staggering unemployment rate and thousands of out-of-work individuals struggling to find a career.

“Most manufacturers may not realize that 30 percent of the disabled workforce is actively seeking employment — the talent employers want is out there; it’s just hidden behind a shroud of bad assumptions and negativity,” explained Brent Mikulski, president & CEO of Services to Enhance Potential, a Dearborn-based organization dedicated to connecting people with disabilities with fulfilling career options.

While the general population’s 4.1 percent unemployment is something to tout, the unemployment percentage of the disabled workforce has been estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be more than double that at nine percent; a shocking total considering that many of the disabilities these men and women face do not restrict them from holding down a job or providing valuable benefits to employers in all sectors of the economy.

“The disabled workforce is often viewed as a population typically requiring more supervision and working at a slower pace than non-disabled employees, while in fact many individuals with disabilities continue to out-perform and require less direction than others in the workplace,” said Mikulski. “Those that are employed aren’t working in the shadows. They work for companies with global reputations of excellence — Ford, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Aetna, Amazon, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Walgreens.”

Businesses at the forefront of hiring people with disabilities aren’t falling behind; they are leading the way on innovation, corporate stewardship and reputation. They are discovering the value in hiring a diverse workforce and more look to join their ranks every year.

Overcoming the Stigma of “Disabled”

Too many employers immediately stop listening when the word “disabled” is mentioned; as if a disability — any disability — strikes all potential workplace benefits.

Often fears and misperceptions can cloud an employer’s thinking regarding a person with disabilities, including:

  • Increased risk/liability
  • Health and safety
  • Complaints filing or being sued
  • An assumption that candidates would not be able to perform the job or are unqualified for the work without ever interviewing them
  • The thought that “it didn’t work for me before so I won’t consider workers with disabilities again”
  • Increased costs (accommodation(s), time off, lost productivity, increased insurance costs)

Unfortunately, this can result in valuable talent being lost.

“Workers with disabilities, just as with other candidates, have unique abilities, transferrable skillsets, qualifications and value,” said Jonathan Bischoff, business relations consultant with Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “Businesses succeed when they engage in interviewing and recruiting practices that focus on ability, skillset and qualification that match the needs of the business — the result of the work being done as opposed to the process by which work is performed.”

Rather than immediately undercutting the potential of a talented worker who wants to work for you, manufacturers should encourage their HR department to ask “how” focused questions:

  • “How or in what ways would you perform the essential functions of the job?”
  • “In what ways have you engaged in this kind of work?”

Seek input from the candidate and/or employee about what works well for them and what might make it even better. 

“This is important because, through their unique life experiences, people with disabilities have developed strategies to navigate their world and can provide valuable input on strategies that enhance efficiencies and effectiveness that can apply not only to themselves, but also to the team,” offered Bischoff. “Businesses who, by intention and process, are inclusive can bring a fresh perspective that may help everyone on their team, in their area, or the business as a whole to be more productive, more efficient, and more collaborative.”

According to The Chicago Lighthouse, evidence has shown that an organization who hires an individual with a disability can typically see:

  • People with disabilities are reliable employees and have an overall higher job retention rate
  • Employees with disabilities are less likely to get into work related accidents
  • Businesses that hire people with disabilities may receive tax credits or other incentives
  • Workers with disabilities will increase diversity in the workplace

Perception of the capabilities of an individual with a disability remain one of the most pervasive barriers to employment. As, in many cases, the disabilities of individuals seeking employment do not preclude those individuals from succeeding the jobs they perform, employers should make every effort to look deeper at the potential benefits these hires can provide the business.

MFG’s Many Resources for Locating Hidden Talent

Did you know manufacturers have access to a variety of organizations and resources to help address their talent needs and connect with Michigan’s disabled workforce? Consider these amazing talent-focused efforts:

MI Hidden Talent
Designed to show employers opportunities to strengthen their businesses by hiring people with disabilities, the MI Hidden Talent initiative echoes the beliefs of Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein that businesses can be more effective and efficient when intentionally including candidates with disabilities into their workforce.

Michigan Rehabilitation Services within DHHS
MRS has business relations consultants in each of Michigan’s prosperity regions to respond to geographical business needs while maintaining consistency of service delivery across the state.

Services to Enhance Potential (STEP)
STEP has been providing services to individuals with disabilities who reside in Southeastern Michigan since 1972. As a non-profit missioned to improve the lives of the individuals they serve, STEP works closely with local business and employers to help identify employment opportunities and in 2017 helped aid 1,440 individuals with employment, skills training and support.

Looking for local, state and national resources to connect with skilled workers? Check out these top-rated organizations:

The Skills They Have Outweigh Those They Don’t

“People with disabilities have all different types of strengths and skills just like everyone else in the workforce — it is such a broad group of people,” said Janis Petrini, owner and operator of Express Employment Professionals of Grand Rapids. “What employers have to do is look at each person as an individual with a unique story and unique strengths and weaknesses rather than defining who they could be as a worker simply by their disability. This is the barrier we have to overcome.”

So, what then are the skills an employer can find in the hidden talent pool of Michigan’s disabled workforce?

“People with disabilities know what it takes to overcome obstacles. They’re some of the most hardworking, dedicated people you’ll ever meet,” explained Lt. Governor Brian Calley, a leading advocate for bringing people with disabilities into the workforce. “Giving someone with a disability a chance isn’t about charity. It often makes good business sense. These employees usually have lower absenteeism, greater longevity and fewer workplace injuries.”

Many times, something viewed as a disability can actually provide an individual with a unique advantage or expertise when their skills are directed toward the proper career path.

Lt. Governor Calley went on to offer, “people with disabilities are too often defined by their challenge, or what they cannot do. They may have incredible skills in other areas but are overlooked simply because they have a disability.”

Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) is one of many organizations dedicated to giving these talented individuals a chance at rewarding careers. According to MRS, businesses with effective systems hire people with disabilities not because they have a disability; rather, they hire people with disabilities because they fit the needs of the job and bring expertise, skills, abilities, motivation, education, experience, credentials and interest to the problems the company is trying to solve. Companies like Haworth, Herman Miller, Magna, Perrigo, and Shape Corp. are regularly touted for their role in hiring first for skills which will move their business forward. It may not be a coincidence when these brands also rank among Michigan’s most prestigious manufacturers.

Talent in manufacturing can come through many channels. Employers can focus on high school or college graduates, they can place a premium on internships or apprenticeships, and they can look to connect with subsets of Michigan’s larger talent pool. Women and veterans are often mentioned most, however, people with disabilities should also be among those considered.

“Manufacturers can foster communication and training to address ambivalence and commonly held misperceptions. They can provide consultation, models and support to address accommodation needs where warranted and providing communication strategies to address production and/or performance issues just as they would with any other employee,” said Bischoff. “It doesn’t take much to look beyond a disability and see the potential a person possesses. When you focus on ability, it’s often surprising what people are capable of doing.”

About the Author

Brett GerrishBrett Gerrish is MMA’s communications coordinator. He may be reached at or 517-487-8533.