Labour shortage? Opening doors to young workers with disabilities can help fix the issue

It’s well-documented that many Canadian businesses have been struggling with labour shortages, a challenge exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As boomers approach retirement, the aging-workforce discourse is being pushed to new heights. 

In fact, a recent report from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) found that 55 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada can’t hire the workers they need to fill key job vacancies.

This challenge isn’t going away anytime soon – and a long list of businesses, universities and health-care institutions, among many others, are expected to experience turnover and limited growth in the next decade as a result.

To steady in these waters, businesses must create job pipelines and reliable succession plans. COVID has provided a moment in time to plan how to do just that: revamp hiring processes, lean into diversity and inclusion, and shockproof operations against future turbulence.

As companies struggle to fill vacancies, it is time for them to zero in on one enormous, skilled and very under-tapped pool of talent: youth with disabilities.

This cohort of workers has been left out of employment discussions far too often, even if it hasn’t been intentional. There are persistent myths about young workers – less reliable, flighty, irresponsible. As a result, these assumptions may lead to limited access to educational opportunities, experiential learning and mentoring – meaning that youth miss out on building skills, confidence and social connections.

Stigma is an added barrier for young workers with disabilities and this may translate into a lack of flexibility in the hiring process (i.e., those who require accessible interview formats) and hesitancy by leaders to manage their performance (i.e., fear of making mistakes when communicating opportunities for improvement). Business managers don’t know what they don’t know, and they are often concerned about making missteps when it comes to inclusivity.

These deep misconceptions cause damaging ripple effects, diluting access to the job market for youth on several levels. The employment rate gap illustrates the long-term impact: according to Statistics Canada, only 59 per cent of people with disabilities who are able to work are employed compared to 80 per cent of people without disabilities.

The truth, however, is that hiring youth with disabilities offers a range of benefits, such as higher profitability, better employee retention, a stronger company image, greater innovation, higher customer loyalty and an inclusive workplace culture. This isn’t conjecture; it is backed by numerous research studies and real-world experiences.

As companies struggle to fill vacancies, it is time for them to zero in on one enormous, skilled and very under-tapped pool of talent: youth with disabilities.

An extensive International Labor Organization report found that companies that hire youth with disabilities are more agile and responsive to the markets in which they operate. Research from Deloitte also demonstrates that companies with inclusive cultures are eight times more likely to have better business outcomes. A study by Accenture found that businesses focused on disability inclusion grow sales three times faster and profits four times faster than competitors.

A study by the University of Waterloo also confirmed the financial value of hiring employees with disabilities after an analysis of the experience at Sodexo, a food and facility management company. It revealed that these workers provide a higher net value because of their above-average performance and lower turnover costs.

Businesses must learn that it isn’t hard to access this deep talent pool to shore up operations. It begins with a simple but specific focus on education: train and coach all staff on disability awareness to set expectations for hiring with greater accessibility in mind.

One underused strategy is partnering with high schools and post-secondary institutions that seek real-world experiences for all their students. Community organizations are part of this effort as well, with programs such as Project SEARCH – a 10-month school-to-work transition program for youth with developmental disabilities in their final year of high school. 

Launching strategic partnerships and leveraging a wealth of resources are valuable stepping stones for businesses looking to build true inclusion and diversity into their workforce and processes. Eventually, companies can cultivate internal champions – individuals with disabilities and allies can help train others and build a safe and inclusive environment for all.

Disability-inclusive recruiting is a winning labour solution across the board. Youth with disabilities – agile, persistent and willing to experiment – are a ready and willing cohort who can be important members of a highly engaged team, spark innovation and help companies chart a course to a sustainable future.

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Tracey Millar


Tracey Millar has been with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital for 16 years. Prior to assuming the chief people and culture officer position, she was the director of human resources for the hospital. Holland Blooriew is a co-site host for the Toronto Project SEARCH program.

Jeannette Campbell


Jeannette Campbell is the chief executive officer of the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN) and has 20+ years of demonstrated success providing service, program design, evaluation and partnership development with educational institutions, services agencies, all levels of government and private sector stakeholders.

Jennifer Gilson


Jennifer Gilson is the vice president of business development at Sodexo Canada, partnering with health-care organizations across Canada, and is currently chair of the Project SEARCH Toronto Business Advisory Council.

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