Struggling to Find Hires? Take a Look at the Hidden Talent Pool

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Each month, the U.S. unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 8 percent as companies decry the fact that they have jobs to fill but no one to fill them.

While it is true that some of these positions do require specialized skills that not many people have, a good many other job positions could be closed if the hiring manager did one or more of the following:

  • Established more reasonable requirements, rather than a 20-point job description, while designing and developing on-the-job training to get the new hire up to speed fast.
  • Pushed for more company-sponsored H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers.
  • Expanded searches to include people with disabilities.

People with disabilities make up roughly 15 percent of the U.S. working-age population, yet their participation rate in the workforce is roughly one-third of their non-disabled colleagues.

Critical challenges for disabled workers

Since many disabilities or chronic medical conditions are not visible, employers often don’t know who has them. Even if they did, and wanted to support their disabled employees, bureaucratic red tape, and a fear of lawsuits prevent companies from doing anything about it. So 22 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the employment picture is little changed.

Other challenges:

  • Well meaning but generally ineffective governmental programs and social factors do little to prepare bright, capable students with disabilities for the world of work. For example, I know an engineering graduate with high-functioning autism who is absolutely miserable about the profession that was chosen for him by his parents, as well as the career opportunities thrust on him by his school. Unable to focus on his true passion for film making and science fiction, this individual goes from one engineering job interview to another, and with each passing rejection sinks into greater and greater despair.
  • Employers pass over many people with disabilities for challenging assignments. Even individuals with a demonstrated record of success who happen to have a disability are regularly passed by for promotions due to lessened expectations and stereotypes by employers.
  • People with disabilities have less well formed professional and social networks. This is caused by a number of factors: Less time at work due to greater incidence of dismissal, more time in school to avoid to the challenge of work, a tremendous lack of formal and informal mentors with disabilities who offer their expertise to the younger generation.
  • Depending on the disability, sometimes networking itself makes people uncomfortable. This could be based on the disability itself, or simply ignorance or lack of sophistication on their part about how to effectively navigate the corporate ladder.

Three critical suggestions

What can and should be done?

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Employers would do well to take a look at their talent management practices and honestly ask themselves: “What am I doing that may be holding back our employees or potential employees who may have disabilities, whether we are intentionally doing so or not?”

Some suggestions:

  1. Conduct a disability audit of the company recruiting process. Are there points where candidates with disabilities can and likely do fall through the cracks? Does your online application meet Internet standards for accessibility? Do recruiters and hiring managers know how to effectively and openly interview disabled candidates?
  2. Identify high performers with disabilities and challenge them further. Actively promote their success to the rank and file, not through tokenism but as an honest example of exemplary achievement.
  3. Get educated. For example, learn more about the different disabilities out there and the various accommodations available.

As the hidden talent pool, people with disabilities not only provide a much needed boost to the recruiting department. Once hired, they will also likely offer a unique perspective on the company’s business that could shed new light on current opportunities, or even suggest new markets to be explored.

Companies which fail to embrace people with disabilities risk being left behind — not only by missing out on some great talent but also through alienating some of the younger workers who went to school with people with disabilities and expect to be working with them side by side.

Adam Kaplan is the Founder and CEO of Big Tent Jobs, LLC, a Michigan-based recruiting agency which places gifted and college-educated professionals, including those with hidden and visible disabilities, in positions at leading companies. Prior to Big Tent Jobs, Adam’s business experience included 15 years of corporate and consulting work with companies large and small, including 5+ years as a process improvement consultant with PwC. Contact him at