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Want to Fill Your Job Openings? Hire Those With “Unique Abilities”

Quality inspection worker looking at a product under a microscope
Credit: iStock/7postman

This blog is part of a monthly series brought to you by the America Works initiative. As a part of the MEP National Network’s goal of supporting the growth of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, this series focuses on innovative approaches and uncovering the latest trends in manufacturing workforce development.

What if I told you that there is an untapped pipeline of hundreds of thousands of workers available to fill your positions? What if I told you that this population of people has the specific aptitudes that your business needs for your work?

Would you be interested?

Of course, you would. Any manufacturing executive would be excited to tap into a new pool of talent – particularly one with a dedicated, committed workforce of individuals excited to come to work every day.

One of those individuals is Nick, a man with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who has worked for Jergens, Inc. – a Cleveland-based manufacturer of workholding products and tooling components – for the past four years. “When we’re launching a new project, our team leaders literally fight to have Nick on their team,” says Jergens CEO Jack Schron. As you’ll see in this video, Nick is thoughtful, excited and inspires others with his commitment to manufacturing. “He’s grown so much over the past four years,” says Schron. “He’s gone from not being able to make eye contact to taking on important public speaking roles and responsibilities for our company.”

So, how can you find your own Nick?

First, you have to change your perspective. You see, Nick is not “disabled” or “special needs;” rather, he is “uniquely abled,” whose extraordinary skills include focus, attention to detail and patience with long and intricate processes. Nick is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans with unique abilities who are either unemployed or underemployed. At a time when American manufacturing needs over two million workers, it’s time for manufacturing companies to expand their perspective.

“Like any manufacturer, we had our hesitations when we first started this eight years ago,” says Schron. “Would these workers be a distraction? Would they slow our overall production? But exactly the opposite has happened. Our uniquely abled workers have added so much to our culture. I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to have them as colleagues and friends.”

Frankly, American manufacturing has to redefine inclusion outside of the traditional categories of marginalized people. “We’re doing a better job of including people of color, women and people who have been involved with the justice system,” says Schron. “But inclusion means everyone. We need to make manufacturing a bigger tent, and that means including people of different ability statuses as well.”

Second, understand that you’re not alone. There is a whole ecosystem of employment-focused organizations that want to place and support people with unique abilities at your company. Respectability and the What Can YOU Do? campaign both have comprehensive lists of resources that can help you make the case internally, prepare your culture and offer ideas for a successful inclusion effort.

Third, reach out and have a conversation. It might take a little bit of searching, but I can almost guarantee that you have a nonprofit ready to support your hiring efforts right in your backyard. Organizations such as Mind Shift spend an average of 40 hours per person in the pre-hire phase learning how each person thinks, learns and communicates. These organizations work to remove the typical obstacles that people with ASD often face, such as interviewing with a person whom they don’t know and communicating information about themselves. They will also work with your team to help them understand how other people think, learn and communicate so that the business can build internal supports for a diverse workforce.

Another partner worth spotlighting is the Uniquely Abled Project. Through its curriculum, in 13 to 17 weeks a person with ASD will learn CNC machining enough to be an entry level operator. And that’s not all; the program – currently working at seven community colleges nationally – includes soft skills training, such as training instructors how to teach the selected population, job search and placement, training employers how to select, on-board, manage, and provide post-hire support for the employee.

During the past eight years, Jergens has benefited tremendously from its inclusive approach to hiring, where it partnered with a local educational program called CEVEC. Every day, two groups of high school students arrive – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – with teachers ready to help support the students in their jobs. And word is spreading: Stakes Manufacturing, also in the Cleveland area, also partners with CEVEC and now has 12 full-time employees with unique abilities like Nick.

“These employees can do so much more than what we think they can do,” Schron says.

So, in addition to building our lifesaving and world-changing products, let’s manufacture something else: inclusivity.

About the author

Matt Fieldman

Matthew Fieldman is currently Executive Director of America Works, a nationwide initiative to coordinate the American manufacturing industry's training efforts, generating a more capable, skilled, and diverse workforce. Based at MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, Matt works across the nation's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) system to increase collaboration, efficiency, and impact of local and regional workforce development efforts.

Previously, he was Vice President of External Affairs for MAGNET, a nonprofit that helps Northeast Ohio’s small- and medium-sized manufacturers grow locally while competing globally. In this role, he launched the Ohio Manufacturing Survey; mspire, a regional startup pitch competition; helped launch manufacturing apprenticeships for inner-city youth; and is responsible for fundraising, legislative relations, media relations, and more. Concurrently, Matthew is the founding Board Chair of EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute, Cleveland's first nonprofit restaurant and one of the first of its kind nationally to train formerly incarcerated individuals to work in fine dining. He raised over $600,000 to start EDWINS and was named “2014 Fundraiser of the Year” by Fundraising Success magazine for his efforts. He is also the founder of Cleveland Codes, one of the nation's first nonprofit software bootcamps devoted specifically to training low-income adults for careers in technology. Originally from Orlando, Florida, Matt earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, cum laude, from the University of Florida, a Master of Business Administration from The George Washington University, and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Case Western Reserve University. He is a former Ariane de Rothschild and American Council on Germany Transatlantic Fellow, and is currently a Civil Society Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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