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Untapped talent: Workers with disabilities

Last year, the U.S. commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act – important legislation that has made life better in both small and profound ways for our friends and neighbors with disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 53 million Americans – or one in five people – live with one or more disabilities.

Peter McDermott

This law has helped many people to become aware – and hopefully more accepting – of the basic needs and rights of people with unique abilities. We can point with pride to Target, Lunds & Byerlys, Holiday Stationstores, and other employers in Minnesota who proactively seek to hire workers with disabilities.

Society is learning that many people with disabilities are extremely able workers – given training and opportunity. But even in businesses committed to inclusive hiring practices, the disability hiring rate is a fraction of their total workforce and far from representative of the percentage of people with disabilities in the population. Hiring disparities are even greater in the nonservice sectors – including manufacturing.

Many of Minnesota’s thriving manufacturers have struggled this year to fill factory jobs. The shortage of workers is particularly keen in rural areas and outstate Minnesota. And it’s sure to continue as baby boomers retire: Nearly 25 percent of Minnesota’s manufacturing jobs are held by people over age 55.

Manufacturers – or any employer – may be reluctant to hire someone with a disability if they’ve never done so. Manufacturers’ priorities are to run safe, productive and profitable operations. The prospect of potential challenges – from performance issues to the need for special accommodations – may prevent employers from taking the first step toward hiring people with disabilities.

More similar than not

Employees with and without disabilities are more similar than unalike. Both enjoy contributing at work. Both take pride in a job well done. And both enjoy learning.

At MDI, we manufacture plastic packaging solutions. We are also a nonprofit social enterprise committed to serving people with disabilities by offering inclusive employment opportunities and services. You might be familiar with the white, opaque USPS totes and trays in offices and mail trucks – we’ve made over 90 million of them.

Our employees with disabilities do not expect special treatment. They want the chance to make a contribution, earn a fair paycheck, and apply their skills. At MDI, people with and without disabilities work side-by-side, producing the best possible products for our business-to-business customers. We compete with private for-profit companies and are certified to meet ISO 9001, the quality-management-systems standard.

As of July 2016, 257 of our 508 employees were effective workers with disabilities fulfilling production jobs. Few required workplace accommodations. For example, Nga Reh, a refugee from Burma, joined MDI in 2012 as a welder. He wears a leg prosthesis and deals with chronic pain as a result of stepping on a landmine at the age of 21. His job with MDI was his first in the U.S. Today, he enjoys moving from assembly work to manufacturing jobs on the production floor.

Gaining independence while contributing

Nga and others like him are gaining financial independence, easing the burden on our state agencies, and giving back to their communities. They are also contributing to their employer’s bottom line.

Our employees and those we place with other employers know what’s expected of them: to be on time, to work well with others, and to meet their employer’s quality and production goals.

An example of this is also one of our youngest employees: Jarin Madrid. He is a student at Lyon’s Gate Academy, a charter school providing transition-focused learning for students with autism-spectrum disorders. Through his school’s employment program, Jarin began working at MDI earlier this year as a welder. He’s a quick study and has already moved from labeling to palletizing and quality inspecting.

To recruit and retain manufacturing workers, Minnesota businesses are digging deep. They’re offering incentives, higher wages and special perks, such as onsite day care and transportation. Some are even reaching out to applicants they once turned away: people with prison records or a history of drug abuse.

If a new hire with disabilities does not need specialized training, skills development or added support, he or she is ready to work at no cost to employers. If training or support is required, state-supported organizations and nonprofits, in addition to MDI, offer a variety of effective and often no-cost services, such as Rise, Opportunity Partners, AccessAbility, ProAct and Occupational Development Center Inc.

In the last century, many businesses hired their first woman or first person of color. People with disabilities deserve the same opportunity: to be considered for a job they can do well. At MDI, employees with disabilities earn equal pay and benefits, meet the same standards, and work side-by-side with employees without disabilities.

We’re a better organization for it.

Peter McDermott is the president and CEO of MDI, which he joined in 2008. Prior to this role, he served as president of Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) in northern Minnesota. McDermott is a trained CPA and spent six years in public accounting in St. Paul. He has over 20 years of experience in senior management positions, the majority of which were spent at manufacturing companies in Minnesota.

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