Braille Monitor                                     October 2017

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Building the Twenty-First Century American Workforce: Disability Does Not Define Your Employment

by R. Alexander Acosta

R. Alexander AcostaPresident Riccobono: This next presentation is one that is very special; it's not every day that you get a cabinet secretary, and we appreciate the leadership coming to this convention to talk with us about topics important to us.… We know that employment is one of the key factors in our full participation in society. We know that even when we get the skills, we work hard, and we show up for a job, sometimes discrimination prevents us from actively participating. We shared a number of stories of employment discrimination yesterday during the Presidential Report. I'm particularly enthusiastic about our next speaker because I think it presents an opportunity for us in this organization to offer our expertise and authentic experience as blind people to the United States Department of Labor. Our next speaker has served in three presidentially appointed senate-confirmed positions. In 2002, he was appointed to serve as a member of the National Labor Relations Board where he participated in or authored more than 125 opinions. In 2003, he was appointed assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice, and from 2005 to 2009 he served as the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Please give a warm Federation welcome to the United States secretary of labor, the Honorable Alexander Acosta.
           
President Riccobono, thank you for the introduction and your leadership. Dr. Schroeder, I didn't have the opportunity to listen to all of your remarks, but your message at the end about the freedom from low expectations I think is a wonderful, wonderful message, and I thank you for delivering it. That is such an important message.

I have to say that it is a pleasure to be back in my home state of Florida. I grew up in Miami, and it's wonderful to be back here.

It's wonderful to be back here with the Federation. I had the privilege of speaking to the Federation when I served in the Department of Justice, and I really appreciated that. So when President Riccobono sent me a request to join you today, I said that I absolutely need to be here, so thank you for the invitation.

The leadership and the members of this Federation understand the importance of hard work. Work provides more than merely income. Work is a source of pride. It gives men and women the ability to provide for their families and to make our local communities better places. This administration understands this and is making work a priority. Every American, regardless of disability, should have access to a good job. Here in this room are individuals who bring amazing talent to the workplace.

As I said, I had the great honor of serving as assistant attorney general for civil rights working with the disability community and employers to create a work environment that was open to all. Smart employers know that workplace accessibility is not something that is done simply to comply with the law; workplace accessibility provides a business advantage. It provides access to talent that makes businesses stronger and more competitive.

So today I want to share some good news. The American economy is growing, creating new job opportunities at an incredible pace. Just this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that job openings have reached nearly 5.7 million, a record level. American job creators are eager to hire. More than ever, American job creators can utilize resources and technology to bring workers of all abilities into the workplace. These job openings occur in all professions: more than one million job openings in healthcare; more than one million job openings in professional and business services; more than 750,000 job openings in accommodations and food services; nearly 350,000 job openings in manufacturing. Every region of the country has more than a million job openings, and here in the South there are nearly two million job openings.

Leaving these unfilled jobs open is costly to the American economy. The 2014 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that the economic cost of unfilled jobs was nearly $160 billion. That was when there were only four million job openings. Today there are nearly six million. That means that American companies may be missing out on nearly $250 billion because they have unfilled jobs. So the message to those companies is that this is the time for businesses to realize the untapped potential of the more than 700,000 Americans with disabilities who are seeking jobs right now: today, here, and across the nation [applause].

The people in this room know that Americans with disabilities bring a valuable perspective and an incredible work ethic to their jobs. When I was at the Department of Justice, I hired a talented attorney by the name of Ollie. It just so happens that he was blind. Ollie performed at the highest level. He worked to enforce both the Americans with Disabilities Act and to help businesses comply with the law through the ADA business connection. By enforcing the Help America Vote Act, he also worked to ensure that Americans with disabilities had full access to the ballot. For Ollie his job at the Department of Justice was more than just a job. It enabled him to adopt triplet boys for whom he is both a father and a role model. One job—many lives impacted. That's the American story of success, and that is what can happen when jobs are open to all [applause].

I am happy to report that a few weeks ago Ollie's sons graduated from high school. They are Eagle Scouts; all three have promising careers ahead of them [applause]. We are committed to helping Americans like Ollie's boys pursue their career of choice, and I should say Ollie's boys are blind as well, and so we are committed to helping them pursue their career of choice by making workplaces more accessible and workforce education more inclusive to those with disabilities.

I want to say a little bit about what we're doing at the Department of Labor. Across the Department of Labor and especially at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, we work to integrate people with disabilities fully into the labor force. We work to empower these great Americans with the resources necessary to succeed. If there's one thing that you remember from my remarks today, I hope it is this: we are committed to giving all Americans—all Americans the opportunity to gain the skills needed to fill the jobs of the twenty-first century [applause].

I would like to provide you with an update on some of our latest initiatives that help employers make their workplaces accessible and welcoming. The first step to getting a job is the application process. For most Americans that means using the internet to find job openings and apply. A 2015 survey from the Partnership on Employment and Accessibility Technology showed that 46 percent of jobseekers with disabilities found it difficult or impossible to apply for a job online. Forty-six percent! That's not acceptable. That's why the Department of Labor funds a free tool "TalentWorks" to help employers optimize their online application process for all jobseekers. It is available, it is free to employers, and it should be used. Now more than ever, companies can't afford to miss out on great applicants and great talent merely because their websites are not accessible [applause].

The department’s efforts for employees with disabilities continue once they're on the job. TechCheck is an interactive benchmarking tool that helps companies and organizations evaluate their existing technology. Many employers are learning that technology they already own can be used to improve accessibility in the workplace. You know the iPhone is just ten years old, but in those ten years it's revolutionized vast sectors of the economy and helped blind Americans become so much more connected. In the last ten years technology across-the-board has revolutionized the workplace. It's not just iPhones, but it's SIRI, it's screen readers, and all of these help blind Americans be more and be better connected. So, I would say this: imagine what the world will be like ten years from now when future technologies are leveraged so that more individuals can work in their career of choice. Today many employers either contribute to or provide a smart phone that can read emails and webpages. Free or low-cost apps can do even more to help blind workers be part of a team, and it's important that employers leverage this type of technology.

The department’s job accommodation network helps employers open their workplaces to individuals with disabilities. A network survey found that 59 percent of accommodations cost an employer very little money, but considering the loss of productivity caused by leaving a job open, investment in a disability simply makes business sense. This has been confirmed again and again. A DePaul University study found particular benefits to hiring individuals with disabilities. The study concluded that workers stay on the job longer and had fewer unscheduled absences. The bottom line is this: the American economy and the American people both benefit when employers hire individuals with disabilities of all kinds [applause].

Another way the Department of Labor is expanding opportunities for blind workers is through the workforce recruitment program. This is a program that connects federal employers with college students and recent graduates who have disabilities. Over the years thousands of Americans with disabilities have benefited from this program. We have now opened this program to the private sector so individual companies can have access to this pool of talent as well.

Let me say that blindness can strike at any time in one's life. I once heard it referred to as the case in which individuals are temporarily sighted as opposed to individuals may be blind. It's true, right? So blindness can strike at any time in one's life. Although the government can provide a helping hand, the value of keeping Americans in their job or returning them to work is immeasurable. In his budget the president proposed a demonstration program to test a promising stay at work and return to work strategy. This idea builds on a successful program that started in Washington state. I've seen the great results of this program. The model uses early intervention centers, physical training, employment training, and service coordination to enable recently disabled workers to stay in their current employment. Should Congress agree to the funding, grants for these demonstration projects will be available in 2018. This is one example of successful state-level innovation that can be replicated across the nation.

Finally I want to return to my earlier discussion of open jobs in our economy and talk about one of the department’s most successful substantial initiatives: the expansion of the apprenticeship model. In the months since I was sworn in as secretary, business leaders, governors, mayors, and others have told me that there is a gap between the skills workers have and the skills needed to fill these 5.7 million open jobs. By closing the skills gap we can boost the number of Americans in family sustaining positions. Now let me be clear: the American workforce is and has always been the best in the world. Americans are hard-working, Americans are dedicated, Americans deserve an education system that focuses on the skills required by the modern workplace. To overcome this skills gap, we need what I call demand-driven education. Apprenticeships are an example of demand-driven education because they directly connect students with employers. They combine paid work with an education; they represent a promising way to focus the education system on the skills that workers demand; they allow workers to earn while they learn.

Now there are a number of advantages to apprenticeships. The first is high wages. The average starting salary for every graduate of an apprenticeship program is $60,000. That's higher than the average starting salary for a four-year-degree graduate. What I'd like to do is I'd like to tell you a story about an individual who participated in an internship program—an apprenticeship program—because I want to focus a little bit on the value that apprenticeship programs can bring to individuals. Her name is Joanne, and she worked for years as a firefighter. She loved the job, but after losing sight in one eye and having her sight reduced in the other, she was put on desk duty, and eventually she became a caregiver. She missed her physically demanding job. She did not want to be on desk duty. Then she learned about a construction apprenticeship program. Now some would say that she lost the sight in one eye, had reduced sight in the other, so she shouldn’t be in an apprenticeship program in a construction field. But she wanted to be, and she should have access to that program.

So she went on to finish a full three-year apprenticeship. Today she is an instructor in general construction. Her apprenticeship gave her the skills she needed not only to stay in the workforce but, as importantly, to find a job that she loved. That is so important. [applause] We hope to hear stories like Joanne's repeated over and over again. Apprenticeships open up opportunities for workers of all abilities. They empower workers to be great employees as well.

This is a great time for job seekers—job seekers like all of you and so many other individuals who have disabilities—who are blind, who are vision impaired—job creators are ready to hire. Technology is making the workplace more accessible than ever. Demand-driven education, when implemented, will provide a great pathway to the skills needed for great jobs. The administration wants to connect job creators and jobseekers to the benefit of all Americans. This means an opportunity to increase the number of disabled individuals who work; this means an opportunity to increase the number of blind individuals who work; this means that more Americans, whether or not disabled, can enjoy the independence, the pride, and the community that accompanies a job.

So I thank you for your invitation. It's great to be here. Thank you very much. [applause]

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