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Recruitment and Retention of Older Workers: Application to People with Disabilities


Originally published: 2/2008

Suggested audiences:


Recruitment Practices: Same Strategies, Different Targets

Retention Strategies: Rooted in Universal Supports for All Job Seekers, Including Workers with Disabilities



The National Center on Workforce Development/Adult (NCWD/A), funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), undertook a one-year project that examined practices and strategies implemented by U.S. companies seeking to recruit and retain older workers. This brief presents themes that emerged from phone conversations with employees at 18 companies in 13 states.

Five of those companies subsequently participated in more in-depth, in-person visits. NCWD/A staff held phone conversations with human resource or diversity program representatives; during in-person visits, researchers had discussions with a wide range of informants, from company leadership to frontline supervisors/managers and older workers themselves.

This brief identifies strategies that can benefit both older workers and workers with disabilities. It describes each strategy that companies discussed in relation to older workers and makes a case for its effectiveness in employing workers with disabilities, offering action steps employers can take. The brief ends with recommendations for the disability community to better support businesses to employ people with disabilities. Including these practices in business operations will position employers to become more reflective of their diverse communities and the customers they strive to serve.

Recruitment Practices: Same Strategies, Different Targets

Recruitment strategies that research found were effective for older workers can and have been used to successfully attract workers with disabilities. These include:

Employee referral

Employers confirmed that peer-to-peer networking was a strong tool for recruiting older workers. Because networking is an effective means to develop business connections in the community, the disability field has given much attention to helping job seekers with disabilities expand their networks and use them effectively in the job search process. Some individuals with disabilities may have limited networks to access for employment development due to lack of previous employment or few social connections. Assistance to expand their network though informational interviews or networking groups can address this issue.

For employers:

Collaboration with community partners

Just as employers have developed targeted approaches to recruit older workers, specific approaches to maximize community networks can help recruit candidates with disabilities. For example, the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (WRP) connects employers with postsecondary students and recent graduates with disabilities looking for employment [U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/brochures/wrp1.html].

Similarly, some community employment organizations have pooled their knowledge of employers’ needs, networking and sharing job leads. Rhode Island’s Employer Services Network, a joint effort of the partners in Rhode Island’s One-Stop Career Center system, is a formal affiliation of workforce and economic development professionals (including those specifically serving job seekers with disabilities) that offers an array of services to employers. This partnership focuses on making effective job matches between employers and workers with and without disabilities.

For employers:

Recruitment from a volunteer pool

Volunteering can be a good opportunity for individuals with disabilities to become familiar with a specific job, work environment, and potential employer. Employers also get an opportunity to observe the contributions the person could make to the workplace. Volunteering can be a very effective strategy when used as a step in the process towards paid employment.

For employers:

Formal recruitment programs among businesses

With many employees beginning to age out of the workforce, businesses need to identify a variety of sources to meet labor needs. Targeted recruitment strategies can be an effective way to reduce employment barriers and increase opportunities for older workers to participate in the workforce.

To maintain a diverse workforce, companies and have implemented targeted recruitment programs to access the talents of workers with disabilities. Corporations such as CVS have engaged in initiatives to expand opportunities for job seekers with disabilities within their companies by partnering with the Employer Assistance Recruiting Network (EARN). IBM also applies specific strategies for increasing the number of people with disabilities it employs. Adecco USA, a staffing company, partners with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy to develop initiatives around disability.

A variety of efforts have increased employers' access to this underutilized talent pool. For example, organizers are now designing career fairs specifically to provide businesses and job seekers with disabilities with opportunities to connect, and generic job fairs now include disability-related information. Companies formed the U.S. Business Leadership Network to promote best practices in hiring, retaining, and marketing to people with disabilities. In addition, Congress has designated each October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

For employers:

Use of placement agencies

Like senior placement agencies, placement agencies for workers with disabilities (community rehabilitation providers) also help employers fulfill their human resource needs. These organizations often have unique relationships with local employers and can ascertain the skills, required tasks, and preferences of employers and job seekers. They can provide training where skill gaps exist and help new employees learn the job.

Public and private workforce development systems can also assist businesses with obtaining the most qualified pool of employees, whether they be older workers, workers with disabilities, or any other group. These agencies are a valuable free resource to help employers penetrate the local diverse talent pool. Moreover, specific funding streams and/or initiatives within the system support the placement of both older workers and candidates with disabilities. Customized Employment projects through the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, ensure that systems can assess skills, provide training, and support a good match between employers’ needs and qualified candidates with disabilities.

For employers:

Retention Strategies: Rooted in Universal Supports for All Job Seekers, Including Workers with Disabilities

The retention strategies identified for older workers can make the workplace better for all workers, and specifically those with disabilities. These strategies included:

Emphasizing job flexibility

Older workers seem to be committed to retaining their positions when the option of flexible work schedules exists. Workers find this strategy particularly valuable when they need to reduce their hours out of necessity or simply through a desire to phase into retirement. Part-time work, job-sharing, telecommuting, and individually customized schedules have often proved beneficial to workers with disabilities as well. Flexibility in scheduling has allowed workers with specific conditions to maximize their productivity while “on the clock” for similar reasons as older workers: medical appointments, fatigue or endurance issues, or coping with stress, among others.

Many companies also allow employees to make adaptations to their job roles and responsibilities. This gives workers the opportunity to demonstrate not only their specific skills but their preferred work tasks and environments. Then employers can customize positions and capitalize on the strengths and creativity of their workforce. This well-documented strategy, referred to as Customized Employment, has helped businesses maximize the skills of their workers with disabilities throughout both the retention and hiring phases.

For employers:

Comprehensive benefits packages

Offering a comprehensive range of benefits that provides holistic support to all employees especially benefits not only older employees but people with disabilities. Companies found wellness programs that target behavior and lifestyle issues before they become significant problems particularly useful. Programs that emphasize the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all employees on and off the job not only increase morale but promote health and reduce absenteeism. Healthy employees of all ages, with or without disabilities, are more productive and may incur lower health care costs.

For employers:

Creating professional development, training, and mentoring opportunities

Many of the employers studied in this project offered professional development opportunities, through either company-subsidized formal training programs or informal mentoring. Employers identified a variety of programs to upgrade incumbent worker skills, such as seminars and retraining to support re-engagement. They emphasized lifelong learning as an overall organizational value.

Like anyone else, workers with disabilities have specific learning styles and preferences through which they benefit the most. Applying universal learning concepts in business operations such as initial training and orientation enhances individual competencies. Strategies that incorporate these concepts use multiple training formats, including didactic learning, peer mentoring, and visual aids.

Formal and informal mentoring opportunities also have a longstanding reputation in the disability employment community as being an effective means of recruiting and retaining qualified workers with disabilities. Mentoring opportunities often offer a more hands-on approach to learning and an alternative to typical academic training formats. Mentoring also promotes the retention of employees with disabilities by precluding some of the challenges that may be faced vis-à-vis social inclusion, team communication, or relationship development.

For employers:

Creating physical accommodations

Employers in this project looked for accommodations that would enable their older workers to perform specific functions of their job while reducing the risk of injury and physical stress. They focused on promoting ergonomics and the proper use of equipment and handling of materials. At times, accommodations consisted of shifting physical activities or responsibilities among employees to make a better match of job tasks for each employee. Other job accommodations that promoted ease of use for older workers typically resulted in ease of use for all employees (e.g., electric doors, ergonomic mouse pads, computer programs). Providing such accommodations then become the norm and reduced the stigma associated with needing assistance.

Accommodations can make it possible for people with disabilities to perform essential job functions, be as productive as their co-workers, and accomplish tasks with greater ease or independence. Accommodations may include modifying a job, a job site, or the way in which a job is performed so that the person with a disability can have equal access to all aspects of the workplace. Assistive technology is a kind of accommodation where a tangible item, device, or piece of equipment enables a person with a disability to perform a task. Examples include those devices that allow older workers to perform the more physically demanding components of patient care in health care settings. Other examples of assistive technology include ergonomic chairs, ergonomic attachments for computers, voice recognition software to reduce the need for typing, and devices that print in Braille.

For employers:


As companies struggle to recruit and retain an ample supply of talented and diverse employees, they are creating environments and developing solutions that meet the needs of the many as opposed to the few. In many examples, supports specifically developed for a group of individuals can ultimately benefit the collective employee pool. Furthermore, companies are focusing on greater customization and moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Businesses are making it clear that their top priority is to employ talented workers. In order to do this, they have been making small- and large-scale changes to their environments, operations, and hiring practices. As the fabric of employer culture changes in response to workers' needs, these trends suggest that all groups of employees are finding environments more welcoming and inclusive, with more holistic supports. The impetus created by the aging workforce has challenged employers to start to make these practices a reality. All groups of workers, including those with disabilities, can maximize these opportunities to become productive and contributing members in the labor market, and to meet companies' needs.

The researchers wish to thank the research participants who made this project possible.

For more information, contact:

Sheila Fesko
Institute for Community Inclusion
UMass Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, Massachusetts 02125
617.287.4364 (voice); 617.287.4350 (TTY)

This document was developed by the National Center on Workforce and Disability (NCWD), based at Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Some of the material used was funded through the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (grant number E-9-4-1-0071). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of tradenames, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Labor.

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities