So You Want To Be a Welder?

By , December 12, 2012

What can a sheet metal company in Minnesota teach us about hiring? Lots, it seems.

Following a financial crisis and a great recession, with a fiscal deficit now looming, companies still say the major reason many people can’t find jobs is that U.S. education is failing to keep up with rising skills demands.

That’s partly why there are three million open jobs around the country but the country has eight percent unemployment. Companies complain they can’t find skilled candidates, and that colleges aren’t churning out enough science and math graduates.

O.K., fair enough, but The New York Times wrote about Wyoming Machine, a Minnesota-based sheet metal manufacturer that’s eschewing the negativity to think outside the box and solve its own hiring problems.

When Tracy Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine, needed to hire 10 welding specialists who knew math—but couldn’t find them—she decided to train them in-house instead.

Not only that, Tapani gave someone from an under-represented group—a woman, who is also a single mother— the opportunity to become a certified welding inspector. The woman passed the exam and Tapani made her the company’s own in-house instructor.

Let’s look at how this situation is relevant to job seekers with disabilities.

Wyoming Machine decided to hire and train women, a very under-represented group in the industrial sheet metal space. Thus, they doubled their potential pool of candidates and were able to get the exact skills they needed from their workers.

Hiring people with disabilities is similar. When you cast a wider net you open yourself up to a larger pool of talented candidates who are traditionally underemployed. (See the Think Beyond the Label Business Case.)

Wyoming Machine will need to retain its trained employees if they want to recoup their investment. It’s hard to keep employees on the payroll if there’s another job around the corner that pays slightly more.

It is proven that people with disabilities are loyal to their employers, with lower turnover than their nondisabled peers. For companies that hire and train people with disabilities, they’ll gain returns through retention and lower turnover costs.

There are many tangible benefits of hiring a person with a disability. It’s not just the tax incentives (though those are good, too.) Higher retention is critically important to the health of companies, especially those that spend money to train its workers.

Wyoming Machine offered $20 an hour for the welding job plus health benefits and paid vacation. (That comes out to around $40,000 a year). While that might not seem like a high salary, it’s higher than most federal government benefits—and most people with disabilities want to work.

There are two areas where I believe companies should be investing in if they want to find and retain more qualified workers. One is to follow the example of German businesses that offer extensive, paid and highly structured internships and apprenticeships to their employees. People with disabilities, who would like the chance to prove themselves on the job before committing, would welcome this type of opportunity.

The other way companies can find more qualified workers is to embrace technology and its effect on how people work. With technology such as cloud computing and high-speed networks, it costs a company next to nothing to offer flexible work schedules and telecommuting. These are sure-fire ways to attract and retain top talent.

More companies are starting to offer flexible working schedules, late start, early start, and compressed workweeks. These benefits are hugely appealing to qualified workers with disabilities, who sometimes cannot physically get to an office every day, but who are very tech-savvy and can be just as productive at home. (See a list of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For that offer telecommuting and other flexible work perks.)

At the same time, people with disabilities should be building up their science and math skills, and looking at industries where there is a labor shortage—like healthcare, and new fields like alternative energy. They should be considering programs at universities that are tied to real-life work programs, often called “co-ops,” to bridge the gap between academia and the workplace.

Job seekers with disabilities should also be as social as possible in their job search, building out their profiles on LinkedIn, Think Beyond the Label and joining online career fairs targeted to people with disabilities (Think Beyond the Label is having four fairs this year). This is the modern-day version of pounding the pavement to find a job.

It works if you work it.  

Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."