If there is a singular benefit to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the disruption to the workplace status quo. No one event has catalyzed a re-imagination of work in the last 100 years. As a country, we are engaging and re-engaging with the question of what the workplace should look like, who it has been designed to benefit, and what we can do collectively to make it more inclusive of our entire workforce. At the Fall Meeting, the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships and the University of Connecticut hosted sessions that considered workplace inclusivity for the neurodivergent and Gen Z.
In the “Accessibility, Disability, Neurodivergence, and Meaningful Work” session, panelists identified troublesome workforce statistics for people with disabilities. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice the national average and they make 87 cents for every dollar compared to people without disabilities. Meanwhile, autism affects 1 in 44 children in the United States. Most federal agencies don’t have inclusive policies for the neurodiverse. The private sector and nonprofit organizations have made better progress.
It’s not all bad news; panelists offered case studies on model programs such as the Coral Gables Principal Disability Inclusion Engagement Program and Missouri’s Work-Able Program. The Autism At Work program and Ask Jan are vital resources for achieving some of the many recommendations for federal agencies, including:
- Increase funding for direct support professionals to navigate disability resources.
- Provide training beyond department heads. All employees benefit from ongoing training.
- Develop universal policy language to ensure federal, state, and local governments can communicate effectively.
- Create sub-regulations in the ADA and Rehabilitation Act to guide state and local governments on neurodiversity.
- Create a Chief Accessibility Officer to craft policies within the White House.
In “Identifying Challenges Facing Local and State Public Workforce Development,” panelists from the State of Connecticut discussed recruitment and retention challenges. Recruiting Gen Z (born after 1996) into public service has become harder, now that the promise of a pension becomes increasingly unlikely. Generation X and Millennial public servants can redesign the workplace in several ways. Meeting Gen Z where they are requires departments and systems to align cultural traits, ideals, and challenges. Gen Z workers know their worth and are more uncompromising than previous generations. They are likelier to turn down job offers based on unaligned organizational beliefs, work-life balance, and benefits.
Consider concepts of remote work versus working in person. Statistics show that working from home positions tends to benefit older, wealthier privileged professionals. Childcare benefits in place of a pension could reconcile the difference in public service schedules that run from 9 am – 4 pm and the average school day from 8 am – 2:30 pm. Or perhaps we re-imagine the flexibility of the public sector workday. What processes can be completed remotely or after hours?
We must also reconcile with social media and public-facing positions’ role in public service. Where harnessing social media has the potential to revolutionize outreach and education or the public government interface, not all public sector employees want to be the face of their city or state. Educational attainment also remains a challenge in public sector recruitment. The cost of higher education tuition far outweighs the typical public sector earnings.
These are not new problems; we’ve known for years that retiring Boomers from the workforce would create recruitment challenges. We’ve known for years that barriers exist for young, poor, and less privileged people to enter higher education programs. We’ve also known in our hearts that the workplace generally doesn’t offer work-life balance.
There is a path forward. The pandemic created a window of opportunity to address ongoing DEIA issues and create new pipelines from schools to attract applicants from all backgrounds. Now is also an opportunity to engage in cross-generational conversations about the type of world Gen Z wants to live in and what we can do as leaders to align workplace values with generational values.