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Engaging Nontraditional Manufacturing Talent: Disabled Workers

Article written by Chris Cunningham, PhD, UC Foundation Professor of Psychology, Stephanie Granger, Lead Working Group Facilitator & Graduate Assistant, Industrial and Organizational Psychology Department ,and Spencer Paulson, Graduate Assistant, Industrial and Organizational Psychology Department, both from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

A disabled worker is anyone with a physical or psychological impairment or challenge that limits one or more major life activities associated with their ability to complete work-related tasks. The perception or belief that disabled workers are automatically or universally unfit for manufacturing work is false and if changed could open another promising talent population for this industry to consider. Manufacturing workforce subject matter experts (SMEs) participated in a working group discussion regarding this talent population during the Smart Factory Institute’s Smart Workforce Conference. For details on this event and the methods used to gather the information summarized in this post, please check out the first post in this series.

What is the manufacturing industry doing well to reach this talent group?

Many working group members identified that, due in large part to government incentives to hire disabled workers (e.g., tax breaks or credits), many manufacturing organizations are open to the idea of hiring members of this talent group. These government incentives also have stimulated changes in the physical work environments of some organizations to better accommodate those with physical impairments or challenges. Manufacturing organizations are also increasingly receptive to the needs of disabled persons for helpful resources and other accommodations that are reasonable and necessary. For some additional relevant, helpful, and realistic perspective working with members of this population, check out the post by Dr. Paul Spector on how Reasonable Accommodation is Not Enough. In some manufacturing settings, one person’s disability is being seen as a special ability that makes them uniquely qualified for working in specific situations (e.g., hearing impaired workers may be less negatively affected by loud noises and able to communicate effectively with sign language versus workers without hearing impairments).

What is the manufacturing industry not doing well to accommodate this talent group?

One obstacle to recruiting and accommodating members of this talent group is a persistent culture of discomfort pertaining to disabled workers in manufacturing environments. The working group indicated that discussions about disabilities are very uncommon in manufacturing and that this topic is rarely brought up, creating a stigma around it. Although it was previously mentioned that manufacturing organizations are open to the idea of hiring workers from this talent group, disabled workers are typically not directly recruited by manufacturing organizations, perhaps due to the stigma surrounding this type of talent. This reality supports a self-perpetuating cycle: Because manufacturing organizations do not typically employ disabled workers, the challenges and opportunities associated with this workforce are not discussed, creating and supporting stigmas about disabilities, which results in disabled workers not being directly recruited by manufacturing organizations. A more fundamental contributing factor to the limited engagement of disabled persons in manufacturing is the lack of a standardized definition of what constitutes a disability in this industry. Because of this, any disabled worker may be classified as disabled in one organization but not disabled in another, creating confusion and ultimately not supporting industry-wide aims toward more complete inclusivity.

What can the manufacturing industry do better to attract and retain this type of talent?

Unlike the previous talent groups identified in this blog series, the majority of strategies pertinent to this potential talent group revolve around improving the perception of disabled workers by manufacturing workers and leaders, and improving the awareness of disability friendly working opportunities within manufacturing organizations. In addition, when an organization makes the decision to recruit, hire, and retain disabled persons, a number of organizational changes may be needed. First, the organization’s incumbent workers need to be prepared to welcome and work with new and different people. Without such awareness training and education, newly hired disabled persons are at high risk of social exclusion, even driven by subconscious forces.

Educating non-disabled workers about different types of disabilities can improve the chances of acceptance within the organization when disabled persons are hired.

Another area of improvement is redesigning work policies and practices to accommodate disabled individuals more fully. As Industry 4.0 technology forces production process and even physical layout changes within manufacturing environments, opportunities are created to concurrently redesign various aspects of the working situation or context to better accommodate individuals with physical and/or psychological disabilities. Once the work is redesigned and the current employees are educated, manufacturing organizations then have the responsibility of signaling that they want this talent group to work for them. Members of this working group noted that this can be done through creating inclusive job descriptions that indicate and describe how the work can be done by those who have disabilities. Manufacturing organizations who want to employ disabled workers also need to rely on creating local talent pipelines with non-profit organizations that help the disabled. This will help to make members of this talent group feel accepted and needed in the manufacturing industry. Once hired into an organization, a necessary strategy for retention is to provide them with career counselors who can help them understand where their career can develop and how they can create long lasting careers within manufacturing.

The stigmas that continue to exist around disabled workers are preventing many manufacturing organizations from recruiting and ultimately employing otherwise qualified and capable talent. While Industry 4.0 technologies may remove or at least reduce many of the barriers that disabled workers face in manufacturing settings, organizations still need to prepare their incumbent workers, policies, and work environments to fully realize the benefits of hiring from within this nontraditional talent population.

The Smart Factory understands how important that the disabled workers are to the manufacturing workforce. Learn more about this, and other, underrepresented talent groups, and how manufacturers can retain them by downloading our report, The New Collar Worker Requirements.

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