Adults with disabilities make up about a quarter of my company’s workforce. I know that sounds a bit like a PR stunt – something a company does so they can issue a press release about it and pat themselves on the back – but it’s much more than that.
First, a bit about people with disabilities and employment. People with disabilities make up about 12.8% of the U.S. population; that’s more than 41 million Americans. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, just 18.7% of adults with a disability were employed in 2017. By way of comparison, 65.7% of adults without a disability were employed. Disability or not, employment is a critical part of life; jobs enable us to pay bills and establish a life for ourselves, but they also give us a sense of purpose, value and self-worth – something every person deserves.
It’s easy to get on board with the idea of an assisted workforce. But what about actually making it happen? It sounds like a complicated endeavor that could introduce many logistical headaches, but it isn’t. In fact, I’m still shocked by how easy it was.
FSC Lighting is an energy-efficient lighting manufacturer based in Southern California. It was founded in 1969, long before phrases like “energy efficient” were part of anyone’s vernacular. In the early years, FSC was a boutique assembler of residential fluorescent lighting fixtures. As lighting technology evolved, so did the company. Today, we’re at the forefront of commercial and industrial LED lighting, and we serve clients all around the country – from small, local companies to household name giants. Our assisted workforce is a huge part of our success.
Our business went through a transformational change starting in 2013. LED technology was still nascent, but it was growing quickly. As a company that had specialized in fluorescent lighting for decades, we had two choices: adapt or give up. It wasn’t really a choice; we were going to give it our all. So, we went about reinventing ourselves. We prepared to learn a whole new kind of technology, to familiarize ourselves with a huge array of new products.
And at the same time, I met with Terri Perkins, who worked at an organization called Anthesis, which serves over 300 disabled adults in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. The organization’s mission is to provide adults with disabilities with stable, rewarding employment at local businesses. Although many of these people are more than capable of skilled work, as a group, they experience unemployment at a disproportionately high rate.
As I heard more about Anthesis, I realized that lighting manufacturing involved many tasks and processes that could be performed by an assisted workforce. I told Terri that we could bring some materials to Anthesis for their in-house team for assembly and take it from there. This would free up our on-site employees to work on other tasks while providing the folks at Anthesis with a source of income and, I hoped, satisfaction.
Terri had other ideas. She quickly talked me into integrating an Anthesis team on site at FSC’s warehouse. I wasn’t sure how it would work, given the monumental fluorescent to LED change that we were undertaking. But Terri convinced me – and I am so glad she did. The results have been far better than I could have ever imagined.
We started with a four-person Anthesis enclave as part of our assembly process; they hooked up connectors and socket assemblies for our fluorescent lighting fixtures. The team was so productive and enthusiastic that we quickly added another.
At the same time, we started training our employees for the shift to LED technology. LED lighting has fewer connectors than fluorescent lights, so I wasn’t sure what the Anthesis team was going to do when we switched…but I didn’t have to worry.
It quickly became apparent that the Anthesis folks were capable of much more than assembly. They weren’t just good at their jobs and eager to learn new skills – they also worked hard, had incredible attention to detail, and were always cheerful and enthusiastic. We began training them for a wide variety of tasks, including testing, packaging and quality control, and they were soon completely integrated with the rest of our workforce. It was not an “us vs. them” thing; it was just a “we” thing.
Now, five years after we first partnered with Anthesis, adults with disabilities make up about 25% of our direct labor force. We call it our Made with Care program.
And while I think that embracing diversity of all kinds does give us a competitive edge – because diversity, by its very nature, lends itself to more thorough and nuanced problem-solving and collaboration – that’s not why we’re doing it or why I’m writing about it.
When it comes down to it, it’s a great program filled with great people who do great work. And perhaps most importantly, they need the work. It’s a clear win for both our business and the community. It could be for yours too.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can provide work to those who need it by incorporating Anthesis workers into your business, visit anthesis.us or reach out to me directly through firstname.lastname@example.org.