Almost every business in Minnesota will tell you that our state's growing workforce shortage is among the biggest challenges they face.

Minnesota recently set a record for the number of job vacancies in our state — over 146,000 in the second quarter of 2019, according to data we released earlier this month.

But like any crisis, Minnesota's workforce shortage also provides an opportunity. We're seeing more businesses search for workers in groups they might not have usually considered. In fact, there's one group that employers are increasingly hiring from at rates that far outpace the rest of the population: people who live with disabilities.

According to data from the state agency that I lead, the Department of Employment and Economic Development, labor-force participation rates among people with disabilities have increased by over 2 percentage points over the last year, compared with just a 0.1% increase for the entire population. That's a big jump.

I recently met with 25 businesses who are pioneers in hiring people with disabilities. Gov. Tim Walz declared October "Employers Hiring People with Disabilities Month," so we held a roundtable to recognize and learn from these companies.

There are lots of reasons employers are hiring people with disabilities, and all of them are helping improve their bottom line.

Employers at Mayo Clinic have found that some employees with autism, for example, have unique abilities to examine process flows and are extremely helpful in increasing efficiencies in their clinics. "It's amazing the unique abilities these workers bring," Dawn Kirchner, a diversity recruitment specialist at Mayo, told us.

People with disabilities also bring a unique tenacity to their jobs. Employers at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) said that people with disabilities are great problem-solvers. Being a person with a disability means you're always finding different ways of getting things done.

"People with disabilities have been solving problems their whole life," said disability programs coordinator Ken Rodgers of MnDOT, who is blind. "Bringing that mind-set to the workforce is incredibly valuable."

In addition to bringing unique abilities to the workplace, people with disabilities bring a strong sense of loyalty. One manufacturing firm, Pitney Bowes, told us that it saw its turnover rate fall from 72% to 7% because of a greater focus on hiring people with disabilities. Another employer stressed that the minimal costs of accessibility accommodations are far less expensive than turnover costs associated with having to constantly rehire.

Additionally, many companies invest in hiring people with disabilities because they want their workforce to reflect the people they serve. Expanding the diversity of your workforce to include people with disabilities is a key component in reflecting the customer base you want to serve.

So if you're a business considering hiring a person with a disability, how do you get started? Here are a few tips to consider.

Reconsider qualifications. Position descriptions often use language that disqualifies or excludes individuals for positions, even though the candidate can perform the essential functions of the job. For example, consider whether everyone really needs a driver's license to do the job or if they could use other modes of transportation to accomplish the tasks. Here's another example: Those who are deaf or hard of hearing are often excluded from employment when position descriptions state, "Must be able to speak, write and understand English." If hearing is not an essential function of the job, the job description should be written as, "Excellent communication skills."

Be flexible. People with disabilities may have different transportation needs or have a limit in the number of hours they can work. Consider if your start times can be flexible to accommodate possible delays in public transportation, or consider part-time positions or more flexible start/end times for shifts.

Take advantage of state programs. DEED's Vocational Rehabilitation Services and our State Services for the Blind can help connect businesses with qualified workers and stay with you during training and transitions. Representatives are across the state ready to help make this possible. And remember that people with disabilities come from all education levels and career points — from entry level to advanced career professionals. Don't overlook a potential pool of skilled and educated candidates.

Do a trial. Several business leaders have implemented onsite training programs, job tryouts or internships to create an on-ramp for potential full-time employment. You don't have to dive in right away — creating a trial provides a nice warm-up for both you and the employee.

Focus on abilities. In recruitment, interviews and onboarding, focus on people's abilities. You'll be amazed at what you can find. "It's important not to set limitations right away," said Kirchner, of Mayo.

Hiring people with disabilities is a great business decision, but it should also be our moral calling. While we've seen more people with disabilities heading into the workforce, more than 110,000 people with disabilities live below the poverty line in Minnesota. And Minnesotans of working age with a disability are four times more likely not to be participating in the labor force.

Opportunities to improve your business while also improving access to opportunities for people who live with disabilities is a win-win. We encourage more and more businesses to take advantage of this unique workforce. With acute workforce shortages across our economy, now is the time.

Steve Grove is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Editor's note

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