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Becoming More Disability-Friendly Is in Manufacturing’s Best Interest

Aug. 3, 2023
A look at best practices in the industry, from Jabil to Northrop Grumman.

Did you know that nearly 1.3 billion people globally live with some sort of disability? The disability community includes people who are affected physically, mentally, intellectually, developmentally or cognitively, or by a combination of factors.

One in four U.S. adults has some form of disability, with the majority of these disabilities not immediately visible, such as dyslexia or autism. But many choose to keep their disabilities secret for fear of how others will view them. 

Opportunity Knocks

While the unprecedented skilled labor shortage this country is experiencing creates challenges for employers across industries, it also creates a unique opportunity to further drive inclusion in the workplace. Now more than ever, people want to work where their contributions are valued—where diversity of thought is celebrated, and where they can be part of an inclusive culture characterized by a sense of belonging.

In order to stay competitive, companies across industries are thinking about hiring, developing and cultivating talent. They are prioritizing investing in their pipeline, minimizing biases, and being open-minded about who is qualified and more attentive to what a potential employee is looking for in their next role.

In fact, according to research conducted by Accenture, companies that champion disability inclusion report higher profitability and shareholder returns. 

Some Companies Are Answering

According to the 2023 Disability Equality Index (DEI), spearheaded by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and global nonprofit Disability:IN, more companies are taking steps to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities. Ninety-nine percent of survey participants say they offer flexible work options, and 93% encourage employees to self-identify as a person with a disability.

Jabil Inc., a global manufacturing company with more than 250,000 employees 30 countries, in 2022 had 24 company-wide programs aimed at fostering inclusion for people with disabilities.

Among Jabil’s best practices:

  • Hosting workshops aimed at raising awareness around specific disabilities, to encourage employees to think about how their own day-to-day existence is different from others’.
  • Teaching employees at certain sites sign language, to foster greater understanding of others’ needs and create greater opportunities for inclusion.
  • Cultivating a pipeline of neurodiverse talent by addressing biases, increasing awareness about inclusive hiring processes, and partnering with organizations that can help them align job descriptions to the skills candidates already have.
  • Partnering with local disability advocacy organizations to identify candidates with disabilities who may have the expertise required to meet specific hiring needs.

Encouraging Self-Identification

Northrop Grumman is a leading global aerospace and defense technology company with 95,000 employees. More than 2,000 employees participate in The VOICE, the company’s ERG that fosters an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities and employees who are caregivers to family members in need. The VOICE demonstrates Northrop Grumman’s commitment to providing a workplace that is inclusive and equitable for persons with disabilities.

  • In 2022, Northrop Grumman welcomed 1,300 new employees identifying as a person with a disability, which is consistently above the government target of 7 percent. More than 8.5% of the overall workforce self-identifies as persons with disabilities.
  • Leaders at every level of Northrop Grumman are held accountable by a set of company principles the company calls “Leadership Behaviors,” which ties their efforts to promote inclusion directly to business results.
  • The company values disability inclusion training, hiring practices that include special interview processes for candidates with autism, internships for neurodivergent candidates, non-degree accommodations and retraining to increase representation in high-paying STEM jobs, mentorships to accelerate careers and benefits including mental health care, diagnostic testing, managed healthcare tools, caregiver support.
  • Northrop Grumman’s award-winning Global Supplier Diversity Program plays a key role in connecting small businesses interested in working with Northrop Grumman with the company’s procurement and technical organizations. Northrop Grumman actively seeks full engagement of disability-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses.
  • The company also launched a neurodiverse internship program in 2022 that’s designed to match neurodiverse candidates with an employee mentor for support. The program is a straightforward approach to setting up neurodiverse candidates for success. At the annual Disability:IN conference, Northrop Grumman participates in a career fair for students and recent graduates with disabilities.

Another great example is Walgreens Boots Alliance, the pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution company. Walgreens works with community organizations, vocational rehabilitation agencies and state and local social services agencies to identify and screen candidates for its Transitional Work Group program, a 13-week training program for people with disabilities, with training and job coaching provided throughout the program by partner agencies. 

Embracing Mental Health

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 12 billion work days are lost globally to depression and anxiety each year, at a cost of U.S. $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, and that 1 in 5 will experience a mental illness in a given year.

So whether you have an employee experiencing a mental illness or experiencing the impact of a loved one’s suffering, mental health is likely a very real issue for your workforce. 

Herman Miller, the furniture manufacturer perhaps best known for creating ergonomic office chairs,  has implemented programs designed to reduce stigma around mental health and help employees recognize mental health concerns—in themselves and others—and access the help they need to recover.

The company hosts a weekly 90-minute mindfulness class, lasting eight weeks, to assess the growth of individuals in connectedness, communication, problem-solving, creativity and innovation. Building upon this program, the company also offers hourlong sessions on mindfulness and anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) available for employees to attend in person or online to learn how mindfulness can help manage everyday stress along with the symptoms of anxiety, depression and SAD.  

Removing the stigma around mental illness goes a long way toward creating an inclusive workplace but is also important to recovery. When employees dealing with mental health issues are able to reengage with their work, it can have a profound impact on improving their confidence and sense of self-worth. And happy workers tend to be more productive workers. 

Leslie Wilson is executive vice president, global workplace initiatives, at Disability:IN, the global nonprofit that operates Inclusion Works, providing customized disability inclusion consulting for more than 100 corporations and connecting them to their peers.

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