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The Worker in N.E.'s Future (Boston Globe op-ed)

By James T. Brett and William E. Kiernan | November 15, 2004

Originally published: 11/2004

NEW ENGLAND businesses need to start thinking about tapping an underutilized work force. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted 14 years ago, but work-force participation by people with disabilities remains low.

Demographic trends indicate that New England companies will soon be experiencing shortages and looking for qualified workers. Consider some of the trends:

In seven years, the baby boomer generation will start retiring. Currently, there are 35 million people at retirement age in this country. By 2030, there will be twice that number.

In the main, no substantial growth in the labor force is expected in the next two decades; there will be significant growth of older workers only. As a result, the country is facing the prospect of having more jobs than there are workers to fill them. The National Association of Manufacturers forecasts a deficit of some 5.3 million workers by 2010 and 14 million by 2020.

The New England work force will be particularly affected. The region has the highest median age in the country, with the number of 45- to 64-year-olds on the rise and the total of 20- to 35-year-olds declining.

In the early years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled people found work in separate environments under special supervision.

Today, there is a stronger awareness that people with disabilities can, in fact, work in typical jobs, but most people with disabilities still continue to enter segregated employment that earns low wages.

People with disabilities typically have trouble finding work even when interest in working is high. Nearly three-quarters of working-age people with disabilities are unemployed, and only a tiny fraction of those who receive Social Security Disability benefits end up with jobs.

A survey four years ago noted that two-thirds of those who were unemployed with disabilities in fact want to work. Further, the 2000 US Census found that nearly one if every five persons between the ages of 20 and 64 had some type of disability.

Clearly, this represents an untapped resource of potential workers.

The growing number of older workers has still another effect. As the population ages, disabilities increase. People near the retirement years account for nearly a third of all people with disabilities. As the boomer generation ages, with less support from Social Security, more of this population will be in the work force. These employees -- with age-related conditions -- can be successfully retained if companies know how.

The New England Council points to the recent passage of the federal Assistive Technology Act Reauthorization as a significant advance in this direction. The measure provides funds, improves access and establishes better systems for people with disabilities both at home and in the workplace. Assistive technology, designed to help a person with disabilities be more independent, includes modifications such as ergonomic attachments for computers, voice recognition software to reduce the need for typing, and devices that print in Braille.

Introduced by US Senators Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire and Tom Harkin, Democrat of of Iowa, the bill was cosponsored by nine senators, among them several from New England, including Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, James Jeffords of Vermont, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

This bipartisan effort is an excellent example of the type of leadership needed on this issue and illustrates the recognition of the importance of this issue by Congress.

In addition, we must change expectations and think of employment for people with disabilities as the rule, not the exception. To improve worker preparation, we need to link training resources with industry needs. For example, community college and One-Stop Career Center training programs can play a strong role in preparing people with disabilities for high-growth industries.

Employment for all is tied to our economic growth. Every indicator shows that companies will have to expand their reach to identify and retain skilled employees. For the work force of the future, the time to focus is now.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council. William E. Kiernan is director of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

(c) 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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