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In a Tight Labor Market, a Disability May Not Be a Barrier

Ben Casselman


“This is really one of our business imperatives, because we know that there is a talent crisis,” said Nitcelle B. Emanuels, director of diversity and inclusion at Dell. “We need to get more creative.”

With the national unemployment rate now flirting with a 50-year low, companies are increasingly looking outside the traditional labor force for workers. They are offering flexible hours and work-from-home options to attract stay-at-home parents, full-time students and recent retirees. They are making new accommodations to open up jobs to people with disabilities. They are dropping educational requirements, waiving criminal background checks and offering training to prospective workers who lack necessary skills.

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Those policies are having an effect. In recent months, nearly three-quarters of people who have become newly employed have come from outside the labor force — meaning they hadn’t even been looking for jobs. The share of adults who are working is now the highest in more than a decade, after adjustments are made for the aging population.

Policymakers are taking notice. Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, opened a closely watched speech in Jackson, Wyo., last month with a discussion of how the “historically strong job market” is reaching people who missed out on earlier stages of the recovery.

“We increasingly hear reports that employers are training workers who lack required skills, adapting jobs to the needs of employees with family responsibilities, and offering second chances to people who need one,” Mr. Powell said.


Now that progress could be in jeopardy. Evidence is growing that trade tensions and slowing global growth are taking a toll on the American economy; this week, data showed that the manufacturing sector was contracting. The job market has escaped significant damage so far, but it is unclear how long that can last.

Dell’s executives say that their recruitment efforts are part of a long-term strategy to diversify its work force, and that the company won’t abandon them just because the unemployment rate ticks back up.

Economists, however, said they doubt most companies will keep such programs in place when the next recession hits. Similar policies adopted during the late 1990s and early 2000s largely disappeared after the dot-com bubble burst, and didn’t make a comeback even during the relatively healthy job market later that decade.

That, many economists say, is why it is so important to keep the current expansion — already the longest on record — going for as long as possible.

“I think all these gains are incredibly fragile, and they need to be fostered and protected,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist for the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Even now, there is evidence that the job market has room for further improvement. Companies are raising pay, but only gradually, and the inflow of workers into the labor force has slowed in recent months.

For workers hired during the good times, the benefits can be enduring. Economic research has found that once people are drawn into the labor force, they tend to stay in it. That may be especially true for workers with disabilities or other barriers to employment who thrive once given a job — but who struggle to get that chance in all but the strongest job markets.

“After a while, that is quite frustrating,” Ms. Cosway said. “For these roles, I am qualified, but I need a bit more support.”

Dell’s program offered that aid. The company worked with a local nonprofit, the Arc of the Capital Area, to identify nine job candidates, all on the autism spectrum, for what amounted to a two-week job interview. Candidates spent a week learning how to navigate the corporate world — how to draft emails, follow up with colleagues and ask managers for help or feedback.

In the second week, the candidates worked on a project that gave them a chance to show off their technical skills and their ability to work as a group. Ultimately, six were chosen for 12-week internships with managers who had received their own training in how to work with adults with autism.

Ms. Cosway won an internship, helping to automate Dell’s audit systems, then made the most of the opportunity. When she completed a project that was meant to take all summer within weeks, her managers gave her more ambitious work. She was offered a permanent position before her internship ended.

Ms. Cosway said she appreciated that Dell treated her as an asset — “I didn’t want to be thought of as they were doing me a favor hiring the special-needs girl,” she said.

Brian Reaves, Dell’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the company needed people like Ms. Cosway, and needed to find ways to help them succeed.

Corporate leaders have spoken for years about the need to tap into new pools of talent. But they are increasingly backing up those words with action, recruiting candidates from outside the labor force and adapting corporate policies and job requirements to accommodate their needs.

Programs like Dell’s are still mostly limited to white-collar positions. But educated workers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the strong job market. Data from ZipRecruiter shows that more companies across industries are offering on-the-job training or tuition reimbursement to help open up jobs to candidates who might not have the necessary skills. A rising share of companies are advertising that their jobs are open to people with no experience.

In places like Austin, competition for workers is particularly intense. Jennifer Ogas, who oversees the Austin area for the staffing firm Adecco, said call centers — typically the bottom rung of the career ladder — were offering as much as $17 an hour. 

Some call centers she works with are letting people work from home, and they are increasingly open to other ideas they once resisted, such as flexible schedules.

“I think everything’s on the table at this point,” Ms. Ogas said.


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