Paul Avis
   

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It is universally acknowledged that the UK is facing a chronic skills gap. According the Government’s recent Employer Skills Survey, almost a quarter of all UK vacancies are considered skills-shortage vacancies, meaning they are proving difficult to fill because the organisation cannot find applicants with the appropriate skills, qualifications or experience.

Employers should look towards building a truly diverse workforce to plug this skills gap. Employee diversity not only guarantees that employers fulfil their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, but also ensures a wealth of skills and experience enters, or remains in, the workplace.

All too often, disabled employees are lost from the workplace or discounted as potential staff – but many have vital skills and experience that employers should tap into. A report studying the costs and benefits of workers with disabilities found them to have low absence rates, long tenures and be ‘loyal, reliable and hardworking’.

The recent Department of Health and Department of Work and Pensions green paper – which reiterates the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap – heralds a new era where employers can expect to have additional obligations for retaining disabled staff. This will only become more important as the Government aims to reduce the amount of people living on State disability benefits.

So why aren’t employers hiring or retaining people with disabilities? Misconceptions are still prevalent among many employers. One of the biggest myths is that it’s too expensive to employ a disabled person because of the adjustments that need to be made to the workplace.

We need to debunk such myths: reasonable adjustments can generally be made at little or no cost to the employer. Many adjustments will cost absolutely nothing to implement, such as allowing for flexible working, changes to the dress code or allowing someone to sit instead of stand (or vice versa). According to The Disability Rights Commission, the average cost of adjustments is just £75.

When a current member of staff is newly disabled, policies like Group Income Protection (GIP) can offer real benefits, providing employers and their employees with support above and beyond what the government provides. Crucially, additional support services provided alongside the core financial benefit, such as early intervention and vocational rehabilitation, help employees integrate back into the workplace as soon as is medically appropriate. The longer an absence continues, the more difficult it becomes to return an employee to the workplace, so these services help ensure a valuable employee is not needlessly lost from the workplace, and can save up to £30,000 in additional costs to replace them.

Older workers are also a crucial part of a diverse workforce, and naturally come with a whole host of skills and experience that employers can benefit from. Yet a recent survey of 55 to 64 year olds suggests almost two thirds (63%) of this age group have felt discriminated against by a prospective employer because of their age.

Our own research shows that two thirds of employees intend to work beyond the age of 65 as the concept of a traditional retirement age becomes outdated. Meanwhile, nearly two in five employees say they enjoy their job and want to work as long as possible: employers should capitalise on this willingness and consider hiring or upskilling older workers.

However, older employees sometimes need support to be able to continue working. Flexible working becomes more important as staff age, as well as a comprehensive benefits package which covers the increased likelihood of suffering a serious illness or injury.

Ultimately, attitudes towards disabled and older employees must change. Greater employment opportunities for these groups will not only improve workplace diversity, but is also needed to help plug the growing skills gap.

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