Employment News

She cleaned for $3.49 an hour. A gas station just offered her $11.25.

By DANIELLE PAQUETTE, THE WASHINGTON POST

Colton Channon needed just 90 minutes each day.

Every morning for about a month, in training designed for him, the high school senior with an intellectual disability practiced making steel brackets for trucks at a Des Moines factory. The skill took more than a few tries to master. But his co-workers, he said, cheered him on.

A supervisor stayed close, showing him how to pack the parts neatly into boxes that would ship to Ford, Honda and General Motors. And the effort produced something the 20-year-old once deemed distant: A job offer he could see turning into a career.

As the nation’s unemployment rate nears the lowest point in 50 years, sinking in May to 3.8 percent, companies are searching more widely to fill vacancies. Advocates say the labor shortage, coupled with growing openness to workers with mental and physical limitations, has brought record numbers of people with disabilities into the workforce — and it has also pushed employers to adopt more inclusive practices to support the new hires, such as longer and more hands-on training.

Over the past year, the jobless rate for workers with disabilities has fallen at a faster rate than among the general population, dropping 2.7 percentage points, from 9.5 percent to 7 percent.

At the same time, the share of working-age people with disabilities in the United States who are employed — a historically low figure — hit 29.7 percent last month, up 1.7 percentage points from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From left, Tracy Miller, Joel Van Weelden and Channon work in an assembly line at Dee Zee. Advocates say the nation’s labor shortage has brought record numbers of people with disabilities into the workforce (Calla Kessler/For The Washington Post)

“Firms are more likely now to reach out in places they’ve never reached out before,” said Andrew Houtenville, research director of the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. “They’re also customizing jobs for people who might have previously been left out of the labor market.”

In Channon’s case, Dee Zee Manufacturing, a truck and SUV accessory-maker, offered personally tailored training during school hours and held a job for him after graduation in May, paying $10 an hour. (Channon said he requested a part-time role until he gets used to the work.)

Channon, who reads at a seventh-grade level and took five years to complete high school, had worried he would have to settle for a job like his first one, which he dreaded: washing dishes at a grocery store.

“I’ve worn a Dee Zee shirt every single day since I started,” Channon said. “I love being part of it.”

Jackie Harvey, a production manager at Dee Zee, said the average hire starts on the assembly line with written instructions for the part they’re expected to make. A co-worker “buddy” is assigned to answer their questions for a week.

Channon required a little more investment.

“You’ve got to go a little slower,” said Harvey, who oversaw his training. “You’ve got to explain things a bit more thoroughly to make sure he understands why it is the way it is: You put this clip on this brace because it mounts onto the truck, and then the screw goes up through there.”

Dee Zee officials said the arrangement was partly motivated by Iowa’s worker drought, and partly by its desire to attract workers who will stay with the company.

At 2.3 percent, the unemployment rate in greater Des Moines is far below the national average of 3.8 percent. Dee Zee faces tough competition for workers from other plants.

More than 500 manufacturing positions are open in the area, according to Indeed, a jobs website, including at John Deere and wind turbine-blade plants.

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