Monday, February 1, 2010

Every Willing Heart

In his inaugural address just over a year ago, President Obama said something that resonated deeply: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

As the nation starts to crawl out of its deep economic hole, it might seem counter intuitive to talk about disability employment. But a large body of evidence and a growing public policy consensus suggest that the president is right: it’s in the nation’s best interest for everyone to work.

That notion is articulated in the value proposition adopted by Minnesota’s SLII team: We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper. This is the organizing principle of the Minnesota team’s work.

Our work assumes that employers will recognize that it is in their own best interest to seek out "every willing heart" from populations that have long been under-represented in the workplace. This belief represents a vision of workplace flexibility (or customization) that provides accommodations, maximizes productivity, changes workplace experiences and attitudes, and reconfigures the composition of the workforce, perhaps dramatically, and perhaps forever.

New hiring policies might, for example, distinguish between “qualified” workers (who meet specific and rigid job requirements) and “quality” workers (who maybe wouldn't meet rigid qualification tests, but who would demonstrate flexibility, trainability and eagerness to work). Policies like that very likely would bring new workers into the workplace rather than erecting barriers that keep them out. That would indeed be a historic change.

A couple of years ago Minnesota employment planners identified a number of workforce issues that state government will be forced to address soon. Minnesota, like the rest of the nation, has an aging workforce, accelerating retirements, and a looming shortage of people who have the education, skills and training to fill key government positions. The planners also identified several underutilized populations in the workforce and outlined strategies to include those populations—including people with disabilities—in the state's workforce planning.

One of several responses to these findings was an executive branch initiative to make Minnesota a model employer of people with disabilities. The idea was to create an expectation—not a hope or a wish or a request, but an expectation—that all state hiring managers would be both intentional and proactive in recruiting and hiring people with disabilities. The results, while admittedly modest in numerical terms, have nonetheless raised dramatically the profile of disability employment in state government. In the first couple of years, the model employer initiative generated about 100 new government internships, apprenticeships and part-time or full-time jobs for people with disabilities. In a state workforce that comprises some 40,000 employees, that's a small but very real shift. The early results of this initiative show great promise, and it appears likely that the trend will continue as more and more employees retire from public service.

The reality of workforce shortages for everyone is becoming increasingly dire. Employers will have to compete, as never before, for skilled workers. Attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities are changing, and public policy is shifting in the direction ensuring employment for every willing heart. Not, as President Obama said, out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

John Fisher
Public Affairs Director, Vocational Rehabilitation Services
Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

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