Special Needs Workers Hold Promise For Worker-Hungry Employers in Dallas Region

More than 350,000 working-age people in the Dallas Region qualify as having special needs. Among them, nearly 200,000 are not in the labor force.

In an economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation (roughly 3.4 percent), that’s an immense potential workforce that remains largely untapped. It’s the equivalent of four Amazon HQ2 workforces.

On Nov. 14, more than 60 industry and workforce leaders gathered at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Education to Employment Outlook series, which focused on how to align employers with the region’s special needs population. The event took place at the Dallas Regional Chamber.

“It’s a different era,” said Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas President and CEO Laurie Bouillion Larrea, who served as the discussion’s moderator. “Hiring special needs workers used to be about doing the right thing. Now, it’s about, ‘I can’t find my workforce. Where am I going to get my talent? So, doing the right thing, and doing the right thing for business, have suddenly collided.”

Larrea added that inclusion of diverse workers into the employment is borne from need. “Rosie the Riveter didn’t go to work because there wasn’t a need,” she said.

Larrea moderated a panel that included Deaf Action Center Executive Director Heather HughesHiren C. Shukla, director of the Automation & Innovation Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at EY; Tom Landis, founder/CEO of Howdy Homemade Ice Cream; and My Possibilities Executive Director Michael Thomas.

The panel’s consensus was that many employers still hold major misperceptions about what it takes to employ a special-needs workers, when actually, those individuals don’t require excessive expense or effort to incorporate into the workforce. And, once hired, those workers have stellar retention rates, performance records, and loyalty to their employers.

One of the biggest hurdles employers share in realizing when considering hiring special populations is looking at what they can’t do, rather than the potential workers hold.

Hughes referred to that hurdle as “deficit thinking.”

“We view ourselves as a linguistic subculture, so we don’t have an impairment,” said Hughes, through an interpreter. “For example, when I come into this room, I see my peers in the corner – they’re signing, communicating. And then I see the rest of you, as signing-impaired.”

Hughes added: “I think the deaf are often pushed aside, and hearing people who hear and speak English share the (deaf person’s) story, and the (deaf) perspective isn’t shown.”

Hughes said when Facetime arrived on the scene, the hearing-impaired population ran with it.

Thomas – whose organization works with adults age 18 and older whose IQs are below 80 – said hiring special populations shouldn’t be thought of as an act of charity, as much as it should be considered smart business.

Thomas said that often, highly paid, high-skilled professionals are tasked with repetitive tasks, such as stuffing folders, which can be done by less-skilled individuals, with greater accuracy.

He said for the past 15 years, a major bank is using a special-population workforce of 80 individuals in Dallas to stuff folders for bank customers, with little turnover. The practice is saving the bank millions of dollars annually, and they’re considering expanding the program to other cities, he said.

“It’s a little bit of dipping their toes in the water, and pushing past that fear, to get to the solution,” he said.

Shikula works with individuals who fall on the Asperger’s syndrome spectrum, or have been classified with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, etc. (referred to as “neuro-diverse”). He is part of EY’s initiative to help such employees reach their maximum human potential. Many of them work in artificial intelligence and other areas to help solve operational problems.

He said that one of his neuro-diverse workers noticed an operational problem and suggested a solution that turned out saving EY personnel an estimated 25,000 hours of labor.

“If we are smart enough to slow down, and listen the quietest people, to the softest voices … the power of what we’re hearing – it’s becoming a business imperative for us,” Shikula said. “This is becoming a talent pool that we need.”

A report by EY cites a Drexel University study, which found that more than half of all young adults with autism are unemployed. Roughly three-fourths of those surveyed said they wanted to work.

“This can lead to isolation, financial insecurity and social and economic dependence on family, government and community-based organizations,” the report says.

But the panelists maintained that companies shouldn’t hire special needs populations primarily out of humanitarian interests.

“Never hire someone for goosebumps or fist bumps,” said Howdy Homemade’s Landis. “Do it for sales bumps. Either you believe in the people, or you don’t.”

Landis said repetitive jobs are among the least desired in the workforce – but workers with special needs thrive doing those tasks. At the same time, he said, employers need to make sure that their special needs workers are well-rounded, and have lives outside of their jobs. He said that that’s why the Miami-based Best Buddies nonprofit was started – to help build friendships for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“They’re like robots – humans who will work 10-12 hours a day. They’re loyal. They have no social life. They’ve got nothing else going on. No one is paying attention to them. One of the things that really breaks my heart more than anything, is … I don’t think I’ve ever met a person with special needs, who has a friend,” Landis said.

During the discussion, Landis said if Dallas employers actively hire special needs workers, that decision can act as a tool to draw corporate relocations, such as Amazon’s HQ2.

“Amazon executives (and other employers) are going to go to places where people are going to pay attention to their employees,” Landis said. “We’re talking 50,000 employees with Amazon – 1.8 percent of them will have a child with special needs. That’s 600 (individuals with special needs). They’re going to look at what the City of Dallas and (Mayor) Mike Rawlings is going to do to help their kids.”

Corporate sponsors for the Education to Employment Outlook event were Oncor and Texas Instruments; event sponsors were Southwest Airlines, State Farm and UTA University Crossroads.