By Krystal Tanner
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s mid-June webinar, “An Inclusive Workforce: What it is and Why it Matters to Kentucky,” offered panelists a platform to discuss challenges and opportunities in creating an inclusive workforce in Kentucky’s economy. The webinar was presented in partnership with federal and state organizations, including RETAIN Kentucky.
As part of the virtual event, attendees had the opportunity to learn the importance of an inclusive workforce, gain information on the disparities in the employment of people with disabilities, and consider opportunities to more intentionally engage the unique skills and contributions of qualified individuals with disabilities.
While Kentucky is maintaining low unemployment rates, there is a large gap in employment between those with disabilities and without disabilities. Speaking on the state’s rankings were Johnny W. Collett, deputy director of the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, and Jennifer Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP).
Collett noted that only 33.7% of Kentuckians with disabilities are employed, compared to 76% of those without disabilities. Collett said this 42% employment rate gap ranks Kentucky 48 in the nation. Damon Williams, associate vice president of the University of Kentucky Office for Institutional Diversity, later stated that approximately 1 in 3 Kentuckians have a disability.
Amy Luttrell, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, explained a component of this disparity — those with disabilities may hesitate to enter the workforce out of fear of losing benefits or being unable to perform tasks. Luttrell said many conclude it is safer to work minimal hours, oftentimes resulting in remaining out of the workforce entirely.
Allowing the development of an inclusive workforce through engagement and learned employable skills can combat hesitancy, as well as increase access to hiring opportunities. An inclusive workforce is one in which the unique skills, contributions and diversity of qualified individuals — including those with disabilities — are actively recruited, valued and integral for success. It is an environment where the engagement, development, retention and advancement of an increasingly skilled and diverse workforce is promoted and supported across all employment sectors and levels. Leaders who promote an inclusive workforce allow for diversification across all industries and employment levels, supporting both the employee and employer.
Williams said, “cities and the state experience growth through increased creativity and innovation.” Ultimately, by taking steps to create a more inclusive workforce, businesses and governments can decrease the existing disability unemployment gap while expanding on economic opportunities.
Sheehy also discussed creating conversations and access around accommodations as a step to building an inclusive workforce. Accommodations, generally, “do not surpass $300,” with most being cost-free.
Beyond accommodations, employers have several options to contribute to an inclusive workforce, ranging from talent interaction to funding. The University of Kentucky has established the Turner-UK Construction Diversity Acceleration Program, which provides diverse businesses with opportunities to gain access to tools, resources and workforce expansion.
If employers are interested in further diversifying their workforce, ODEP’s Inclusion at Work Framework aims to advance workers with disabilities through hiring, recruiting, onboarding and retaining. Employers are encouraged to improve the work environment through changes in areas such as outreach, technology, acquisition and talent.
Ongoing collaboration between the public and private sector can ensure an inclusive workforce is continually built upon. Beth Brinly, deputy secretary of the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, said increased partnership and commitment would lead to successful service and support for every Kentuckian.
Kentucky’s businesses have the resources to build an inclusive workforce and the infrastructure to maintain such a system. The next step is helping employers and workforce leaders guide intentional change for improvement and innovation to occur.
The webinar, “An Inclusive Workforce: What it is and Why it Matters to Kentucky,” discussed what an inclusive workforce is and how it can support Kentucky’s economy. The conversation doesn’t end with the webinar. On September 13, 2023, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, along with RETAIN Kentucky and the Kentucky Career Center, will host an “Inclusive Workforce Summit” at the Lexington Hilton Embassy Suites. The summit allows employers, workers and health care leaders, along with state and local policymakers, to continue this discussion and identify opportunities to better engage the talent of Kentuckians with disabilities.
To register for the Inclusive Workforce Summit, visit https://www.kychamber.com/events/inclusiveworkforce
You can view the webinar, “An Inclusive Workforce: What it is and Why it Matters to Kentucky” here.