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

ADA Sign Depot

September 10, 2019

To expand the pool of workers, companies are recruiting stay-at-home parents, retirees and people with disabilities. Will they keep it up if the economy sours?

By Ben Casselman
Sept. 5, 2019

Kate Cosway will start a full-time job with Dell Technologies after going through a new company program for people on the autism spectrum.CreditCreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
ROUND ROCK, Tex. — When Kate Cosway completed her master’s degree in 2014, her résumé drew plenty of interest, but she rarely advanced far in the hiring process. She was pretty sure she knew why: She is on the autism spectrum and struggles in traditional interviews.

Her luck finally turned this summer when she landed a 12-week internship at Dell Technologies, which this month will turn into a full-time job working on automation in the company’s audit department.

A year ago, Ms. Cosway probably wouldn’t have been hired at Dell, either. But last year, the Texas company started a program aimed at hiring people with autism.

For Dell, the effort is partly a response to a growing challenge: With the unemployment rate under 3 percent in the company’s Austin area — and with talent in technical roles especially scarce — Dell needs to tap into new pools of potential workers. It is also trying to hire more veterans and people looking to re-enter the work force, often after raising children.

“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.

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.

Ms. Cosway, 31, remembers that struggle well. After she earned her master’s degree, in chemistry and chemical engineering, her classmates quickly found jobs. Yet she spent years going through the dutiful routine of filling out job applications, carefully tailoring cover letters and setting up interviews. And then, more often than not, there was silence — followed, weeks or months later, by polite emails from employers who said they had “gone in a different direction.”

“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.

“This isn’t just a ‘Hey, let’s make some nice news because these are feel-good stories,’” Mr. Reaves said. “This is a strategic program.”

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.

Still, there are still some steps companies are reluctant to take. Relatively few, for example, have begun offering child care, even though parents routinely say that benefit would make it easier for them to work. Martha Gimbel, an economist who studied the labor market for the job search site Indeed, said companies’ caution suggested that they didn’t want to be saddled with expensive benefits that they might have to take away in tougher times.

Ms. Gimbel said she feared that many of the policies that companies had adopted in the past few years would be short-lived when the economy cooled.

“There are these things that employers have ‘learned’ over the past year,” she said. “They have learned that people with criminal records can be good employees. They have learned that women coming back from raising children can be good employees. They have learned that letting employers leave 30 minutes early to pick their child up from soccer practice will not destroy workplace productivity.

“The eternal question,” Ms. Gimbel continued, “is just are they going to remember this when the next recession hits, or is all of this progress going to be lost?”

For now, though, some workers are taking the strong job market as an opportunity not just to get back to work, but to find a more stable career.

Selerina Rodriguez used to work three low-paying jobs to cover living expenses, pay college tuition and set aside money for emergencies. Then last year, she stopped working entirely to help care for her brother, who was ill, and his children.

Now Ms. Rodriguez, 23, is looking to get back into the labor force, but this time on her own terms. She enrolled in a program at Austin Community College that teaches students how to install, maintain and repair heating and cooling units. Within three months, she should have her certification as a technician — a job that pays around $45,000 a year in the area, according to government statistics.

“I didn’t want to work three jobs again,” she said.

On a recent evening, Ms. Rodriguez sat attentively as Roland Arrisola, vice president of operations at Stan’s Heating & Cooling, explained the opportunities available at his company.

Ms. Rodriguez had questions: Would the company pay for training so that she could move up in the ranks? Would it work around her class schedule if she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree? Mr. Arrisola said the company was happy to be flexible.

“If I can find someone who’s smiling, who’s a people person, I’ll teach them the rest,” he said.

During an hourlong presentation, students quizzed Mr. Arrisola about benefits, opportunities for promotions and his company’s willingness to hire older workers (the oldest student in the class is 76) and people with a criminal record.

Mr. Arrisola left little doubt who had the advantage.

“We’ve got a less than 3 percent unemployment rate,” he told the students. “Right now, we’re looking at things a little different.”

Ben Casselman writes about economics, with a particular focus on stories involving data. He previously reported for FiveThirtyEight and The Wall Street Journal. @bencasselman

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