The Forgotten Population
One solution to the dearth of applicants in today’s economy: a group of people too often overlooked
By Lynda Wheatley | May 14, 2022
You don’t have to be in retail, manufacturing, education, service, or any number of industries to know that employers are hurting for workers. You see it in the long lines at the grocery stores, store window signs begging for help, and the faces of stressed employees just about everywhere, likely including your own workplace.
But does it have to be that way? Several local agencies that connect job seekers with employers say no—and suggest an alternative for those struggling to find staff: Consider job seekers who have a disability or are neurodivergent (i.e., they have atypical cognitive functions connected to autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or other unique ways of processing information).
A Surge in Demand
Sherrie Goff-Hoogerhyde is an employment specialist at Disability Network Northern Michigan. Unlike many of the region’s employers, who are struggling to find job seekers, Goff-Hoogerhyde says she’s been flooded with them.
“I’ve been doing this for seven years, and I can tell you that [since the pandemic abated] there’s been a big increase of people inquiring about what they can do, what’s available. They want to go to work,” she says.
At the same time, she says, more employers than usual have been calling Disability Network to see if the agency could recommend any of its clients for their open positions. Seems like many matches could be made easily, right? Not exactly. Though the clients Goff-Hoogerhyde works with are eager to work and capable of excelling at a variety of jobs and tasks, she says one of the biggest obstacles most face is the conventional application/interview process.
“Coming in the employer’s door, asking for an application, filling it out—whether it’s online or on paper—some of our people aren’t able to do that. They need assistance. They need somebody to talk to and help them,” she says. “They’re good workers—excellent workers—but many can’t read or write, or what they can do is very limited. So, that’s the first obstacle. And then, the next one is the interviewing. It’s a big fear for them.”
In some cases, Goff-Hoogerhyde will accompany an individual to apply or interview, prep them about what they’ll likely be asked, or call ahead to see if the employer can make any needed accommodations. But the time for that is rare.
Goff-Hoogerhyde is one of only one of two employment specialists at Disability Network. When she started, Goff-Hoogerhyde says her caseload was usually 12 to 15 clients. These days, she’s carrying 33.
So she and her colleague John Burtrum have gotten creative. They recently started a Job Club, a two-part series that works with small groups of people with disabilities who want help finding and getting work. Over five weeks, each series covers topics like job search and shadowing, accommodations and disclosures, and employment skills, interviews, and applications. Series Two goes deeper into the same topics and adds a career assessment component.
In the most recent session, people in Traverse City, Alpena, and as far away as New York participated. Two are actively seeking employment now, one has already landed a job, and another, who hasn’t worked in six years, is retaking the series to keep improving her interviewing skills.
Ready and Waiting
Upbound at Work, the employment-focused arm of the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM), also helps job seekers with disabilities—primarily neurodiverse people—connect to employers. Upbound is also seeing an uptick in demand from both sides.
“There’s just been a big shift from employers and from candidates wanting to re-enter the workforce,” says Kelly Blakeslee, vocational rehabilitation manager at AAoM. “Specifically, [employers] are very desperate for talent, and they want somebody good, somebody who can fit what they’re looking for. And given the shortage…I’m seeing employers get a little bit more creative.”
Right now, Upbound’s jobs database (upboundatwork.com) boasts more than 1,700 job seekers at different stages of the employment process, from those just beginning to look at employment resources or developing skills to those who already have the skills and a work history but are looking for a better job. Ford Motor Company has been the organization’s largest partner so far, with Upbound-found employees placed in 10 different departments (and an internship program), though many other companies ranging from family-run businesses to international enterprises have found a great fit.
When an employer reaches out to Upbound, the agency does in-person vetting of the job and workplace first. “We want to make sure that the setting is going to be appropriate for an individual with autism or related disability and that the employer isn’t coming into it with any preconceived notions,” Blakeslee explains.
Colleague Chelsea Fink, account manager for Upbound at Work’s Traverse City region, says that some of the common assumptions employers make about a person on the spectrum is that they would only want work that is very structured, repetitious, and predictable, or that they don’t want to be around other people. That isn’t always the case.
“I have a lot of individuals who are very social and want to engage with their team members, or they want to learn something new and think outside of the box and update and change and improve processes within an organization,” she says.
After talking with the employer about any barriers or helpful accommodations, Fink says she always goes one step further: “I tell the employer, ‘I really want to see all of your job descriptions.’ … Maybe an employer comes to us with a general labor or manufacturing position. Well, I have a lot of individuals who have engineering and computer science backgrounds, [as well as] finance and accounting. We have many individuals who are very skillful in other areas of their organization that they haven’t even thought about opening up to us.”
Moving Forward Together
Educating employers and employees who don’t have experience with people with disabilities—who Goff-Hoogerhyde calls “the forgotten population”—is key to breaking down the stigmas, myths, and barriers. It’s also essential to normalize work with people of differing abilities, a means to bridge the gap between any region’s number of open jobs and the hard-working people eager to fill them.
The effort to build a diverse team of individuals is worthwhile, not only for the economy and jobs market but also the company itself. Goff-Hoogerhyde points to a client who was recently promoted to manager at Meijer, several who’ve been working at Kohls, and another who is working in home healthcare as examples of the kind of employee that employers can get when they remember to look to the otherwise “forgotten population” for open jobs.
“Personally knowing and working with this population for seven years … I can say they are willing to try their best,” says Goff-Hoogerhyde. “They’re hungry for a social connection because a lot of them are isolated. They feel like they’re giving back, they’re getting something out of work. It’s like a young person that’s 16, and they get that first job, you know? That’s the kind of excitement they have … and the fulfillment they get. We all should have that with our work.”