Employers reach out to people with disabilities

Minnesota’s workforce shortages are encouraging employers to reach out to a previously often-overlooked group—people with disabilities.

A recent MinnPost article highlights the success of Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI), a nonprofit that, for more than 50 years, has helped people with physical, mental or emotional disabilities find opportunities to participate in the labor market.

The article opens with the story of Karen Howson, who works at MDI’s Minneapolis location. The facility manufactures plastic trays, totes, boxes and other products for large employers like Amazon, Caribou Coffee, Best Buy, 3M and the U.S. Postal Service, and for small employers as well.

As MinnPost explains,

For Howson, who has struggled with anxiety and paranoia for most of her adult life, MDI has given her not just an opportunity to thrive in the workforce for two consecutive years, but also a sense of self-worth.

“I love getting up every morning and getting ready to work here,” she said. “It’s given me a lot of purpose in my life and it’s made me really meet goals, stuff that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s really torn down a lot of walls, and I feel very ambitious.”

Peter McDermott, MDI president and CEO, told MinnPost that in the last year and a half, MDI has noticed a new phenomenon: “a substantial increase in companies outsourcing work to us because of the workforce shortage.”

As a result, MDI, which currently has about 320 employees in Minneapolis, Hibbing, Grand Rapids and Cohassset, aims to expand:

The company plans to do that in two ways: First, it’s working to add 150 more workers to help in its existing production lines. Second, MDI is expanding its services to reach other industries—like the medical sector—which the company has yet to serve.

In addition, MDI is working to train and help more people with disabilities transition into more competitive employment opportunities in traditional companies, like Target and Walgreens.

What are the keys to MDI’s success? For one thing, the organization ensures that workers like Howson have the services they need, as well as supervisors and co-workers who offer support:

“We have people that are specifically trained to work with [people with disabilities],” [McDermott] says. Some people with emotional disabilities might need just a little bit of attention during the workday. It might not be a lot, but enough to get them through the day.

MDI also pays its workers the state minimum wage or more, along with competitive benefits, including paid time off, life insurance and tuition reimbursement.

Minnesota has more than 100 organizations and programs that offer career counseling and job placement services, according to MinnPost.

One is Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), a state agency that is part of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The agency funds community organizations throughout the state that assist people with disabilities. Many are young people aged 18 to 21:

“Starting early with people and helping them to identify what they like to do for work and making sure that they have integrated work experiences prior to them leaving school or transition services is a key piece of our work,” said Chris McVey, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at VRS.

In the past, McVey notes, employers often showed little interest in considering people with disabilities for their open positions. But in the last five years,

McVey said that the agency and most community-based service providers have noticed a drastic change in their interaction with business leaders.

Instead of asking employers for job openings, she said, ‘they’re coming to us and begging for employees’ because of the labor market.