Mhlnews 640 Secret

The Secret Workforce

Oct. 1, 2007
Millions of qualified, productive, loyal workers are just waiting to be hired for material handling jobs. Will your competition get them before you do?

By 2020, the number of people over age 55 will increase 73%, while the number of younger workers will grow only 5%, according to Ira S. Wolfe, workplace expert and founder of the Lancaster, Pa.-based labor consultancy Success Performance Solutions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers aged 25 to 40 will decline by 1.7 million by next year, while 77 million baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1965—will be eligible for retirement.

Material handling managers, get ready for a labor storm. As soon as next year, there will be far more jobs available than people to fill them. Warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities will have to produce more with fewer people, and automation is not always the answer for every job. Gray clouds are moving fast, and it’s time to start looking for shelter.

To survive and grow in the coming decade and beyond, businesses will have to consider non-traditional labor sources. Luckily, there is a “secret” source of excellent workers that is largely untapped. A vast labor pool made up of qualified, hard-working, loyal and productive employees is out there, just waiting to be found. These valuable workers are people with disabilities.

October is National Disability Awareness Month, so now is a good time to take an unbiased look at how material handling operations can benefit from an overlooked source of workers.

Consider the story of SubCon Industries, a nonprofit organization that employs more than 200 people with mild to severe disabilities. SubCon is a third-party provider of “labor intensive” material handling tasks— order fulfillment, packaging, labeling, rework, light assembly, heat sealing, kitting and returns management, according to Brian Eddy, director of sales and marketing. Small- and medium-size manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, importers and exporters in the eastern U.S. and beyond have been using SubCon’s services for 50 years, Eddy says.

“We offer on-demand, added flexibility and capacity to our customers to help with seasonal peaks and overflow,” says Eddy. “We also serve as a dedicated satellite facility for other companies.”

SubCon also offers employee placement services. Eddy believes hiring disabled workers can be a smarter alternative to hiring temps. “Temporary employees usually don’t have long-term dedication to the organization,” he says. That can translate into worker indifference, low productivity and costly turnover rates. Eddy points out that recruiting, hiring and training a new employee can cost an average-sized company around $8,000.

In contrast, “most of our people don’t want to leave once they get a job with a company,” says Eddy.

Dispelling Myths
Despite their uncommon loyalty and work ethic, many disabled people still have trouble finding work. Currently, the disabled population struggles with a 70% unemployment rate, according to Eddy. “In the U.S., there are 53 million disabled people,” he says. “Of that number, only 30% are employed.”

That’s a gigantic pool of labor that just isn’t being tapped. Warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing plants scrambling to find good workers are missing out, and Eddy thinks deep-seated myths have contributed to the problem.

For example, some managers believe disabled workers are unreliable or don’t provide quality work, but Eddy’s experience tells him something different. “We have no absentee problems at all,” he offers. “These people want to work. And, they enjoy repetitive tasks that other people tend to shun.”

What’s more, SubCon employees tend to become more productive with time, unlike other workers who tend to get bored with the job and less productive as time goes on, Eddy says.

Another common misconception is that safety rates will decline and workers’ compensation insurance rates will rise, but Eddy’s clients haven’t experienced those problems. “Our employees aren’t operating heavy equipment,” he says. “For the most part, they are stocking, packing and performing various customerservice operations.”

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Labor explains that insurance rates are based on the relative hazards of an operation and its accident history, not on whether or not workers have disabilities.

A survey of 279 companies conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers backs this up. Fully 90% of the companies experienced no additional insurance costs as a result of hiring disabled workers.

SubCon employee John Ross is working on an assembly operation, placing die-cut pad material into a plastic case to make a stamp pad. In the background, finished stamp pads are packed in cartons, ready for shipment to government agencies.

Some managers also believe expensive equipment will be required to accommodate disabled workers, but that, too, is a myth. Most people with disabilities don’t require special accommodations, and the cost for those who do is minimal, according to studies by the Job Accommodation Network, a free service of the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. According to those studies, 15% of accommodations cost nothing; 53% cost between one dollar and $500; 12% cost between $501 and $1,000; and 22% cost more than $1,000.

A quick glance at some data from the private sector can also help dispel myths. For example, many companies shy away from hiring disabled people because they fear job performance will be poor. However, a landmark study conducted by DuPont in 1990—the year the Americans with Disabilities Act became law—examined the performance of 811 employees with disabilities and found that 90% rated average or better than average in safety, performance of job duties, attendance and longevity. The same study reported absentee rates that were no higher for workers with disabilities than for those without.

Good for Business
While tapping into a disadvantaged talent pool is often viewed as a charitable decision, hiring workers with disabilities is not about charity. It’s good for business. Forwardthinking companies are boosting their bottom lines by hiring physically or mentally disabled people, Eddy says.

Find Good Workers Fast
If you’re thinking about how your operation can benefit from hiring workers with disabilities, here are some organizations that can help you find them.

“It’s a win-win,” he states. “Companies get their work handled while helping the disabled population earn an honest living.”

Just as “green” and “sustainable” are important buzzwords in today’s business environment, so, too, is “corporate social responsibility.”

“Several studies say consumers relate more to ‘socially responsible’ companies and want to purchase their products,” Eddy explains. “Buyers feel as if they are contributing to a greater good by spending their money with them.”

So, as material handling managers prepare for the gathering storm, they should consider a source of labor that is ready, willing and able to help them get through the tough times.

“These people want to work,” says Eddy. “You can’t underestimate the value of desire.”

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