The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a monumental legislation, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to close the disability employment gap and ensure equitable employment opportunities for people with disabilities. One way is through the time-tested model of registered apprenticeship.
People with disabilities are subjected to the worst pay gap in the labor market, making 66 cents for every dollar earned by people without a disability, according to recent US Census data. Across all age groups and education levels, people with disabilities are much less likely to be employed than those with no disability. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the employment gap between people with and without disabilities was a staggering 47% – only 19.3% of people with disabilities were in the workforce, compared to 66.3% of people without a disability.
Can we accept a 47% employment gap with over three decades of the (ADA) in place? Can we be more innovative and persistent, as well as offer private-public solutions that put the intent of the ADA into action with measurable results?
IWSI America, a leading nonprofit dedicated to creating and expanding high quality apprenticeship programs, teamed up with California’s Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) to launch a mentored apprenticeship program which will help Californians with disabilities to access career pathways and secure exciting full-time employment opportunities. Apprenticeship is a time-tested model that spans the globe.
The program, called Ready, Willing and ABLE Orange County, represents a new approach to creating long-term employment opportunities for Californians with disabilities, leveraging the unique features of the registered apprenticeship model to enable individuals to prepare for, start and successfully maintain meaningful employment. The program, which launched in summer 2022, is a two-year pilot in Orange County, supporting 100 Californians to start employment as apprentices in the allied healthcare sector, through partnerships with local healthcare, disability support service providers, government, industry and civic groups.
First to narrow the disability employment gap
One of the first entities to sign on with Ready, Willing and ABLE Orange County was the California State Society of Opticians (CSSO). CSSO works to recruit, train, and refer candidates for dispensing optician vacancies at employers throughout California. A dispensing optician works to design and fit spectacles and contact lenses in accordance with prescriptions issued by ophthalmologists and optometrists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020), there are nearly 70,000 dispensing optician jobs in the United States, with job growth projected at 6%, or 5,900 openings each year between 2020-2030. It’s a market-driven option for individuals seeking an apprenticeship in an allied health related occupation.
In the case of Ready, Willing, and ABLE Orange County, apprentice candidates are referred by California DOR to a five-week inclusive onboarding program led by the Executive Director of the CSSO. Upon completion of the onboarding, successful candidates are referred by the CSSO to interview with opticians located throughout Orange County.
Once hired, they become registered apprentices and commence paid on the job training, with a training wage of $18 an hour. Simultaneously, using online modules and other current technologies, CSSO trains dispensing optician apprentices in subjects such as the anatomy of the eye, astigmatisms, refractions, frame measurements and adjustments, and a host of other core topics essential to daily work in an optician’s office.
The required training instruction for dispensing optician apprentices is conveniently self-paced with an average duration of approximately one year. The use of technologies ensures flexible training arrangements for the apprentices, thereby negating the need to juggle class and work schedules, as well as the hassle of commuting. Wraparound services provided by DOR and other community entities help ensure the apprentices’ ability to successfully engage and focus on the work at hand.
Upon completion of the apprentices on-the job-training and required instruction components, the candidates sit for the Optometry National Board Exam. Upon receipt of a passing grade, each apprentice receives nine hours of college credit from Chabot College, accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The apprentice’s employer typically pays for state licensure.
Although Ready, Willing, and ABLE Orange County is new, individuals referred by DOR will soon be able to take advantage of apprenticeships in the occupations of dental assistant, medical assistant, patient care technician, medical biller and coder, behavioral health aide, bio-medical manufacturing technician and many other occupations recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor.
How HR can be a partner
At a time of economy-wide skills shortages, employers will want to explore new skill development models to expand career options and improve employment outcomes for groups which are underrepresented in the workforce.
Businesses can take steps today to increase the quality and quantity of employment outcomes for candidates with disabilities, aligning with their talents and skills. Recruitment is a company’s first outreach to the millions of individuals with disabilities who are ready to work. Below are a few steps that will enhance employer talent pools and ensure inclusivity:
- Adopt company-wide Universal Design (UD) practices that start with recruitment. Remember that access goes beyond making sure people can use physical accommodations; it also applies to websites, digital tools and job postings.
- As in the CSSO example provided herein, use accessible technology platforms to enhance participation and provide flexibility.
- Partner with disability-related organizations to foster alignment and create relationships with local talent and skilled labor.
- Include people with disabilities in DEI recruitment strategies, goals and measurements.
- Like RWA, establish apprenticeship programs to give individuals with disabilities quality job training and experience
- Offer a competitive wage from day one of their job
- Provide vocational rehabilitation services
- Ensure ongoing personal case-management support
- Develop carefully constructed workplace mentoring, and
- Promote ongoing employment advancement opportunities after completing registered apprenticeship.
Let’s work together
It’s crucial for companies, educational organizations, government officials and workforce experts to band together to turn the tide and close the unemployment gap for millions of individuals with disabilities. Work to open doors to expand the registered apprenticeship model to bridge the disability employment gap while also expanding the diversity and skills profile of their labor force.