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Diversity in the labour market for a more equitable economic recovery


Here in East Ontario, employers throughout the region have increasingly reported difficulty finding talent to fill their open positions. While this challenge has undoubtedly been amplified by the pandemic; it is not a new problem altogether.  

Local labour market research suggests that employers in rural communities and the communities outside of Ottawa have reported the lack of available workers as a key challenge for some time now. This issue now appears to be of increasing concern for a growing number of employers across the region, including those who had not previously struggled to find suitable candidates.

Led by United Way East Ontario, the Employment Accessibility Resource Network (EARN) was founded in 2011 as a community-wide initiative to help reduce and remove barriers to labour market participation for people with disabilities. As the economy re-opens and employers work to ensure that they can be accessible and inclusive to the broadest talent pool possible, the initiative has seen a significant increase in employer engagement and membership. Leveraging the network not only helps to connect employers with a talent pool they may otherwise miss, but also provides access to employer education and resources to build inclusive practices from recruitment to retirement. 

To inform EARN’s strategy, as well as to understand how the landscape may have changed given the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic, a scan of East Ontario was completed to better understand the current barriers to employment for people with disabilities. The goals were to identify the significant barriers that are preventing the creation of a fully inclusive and accessible labour market for people with disabilities in East Ontario, and guide recommendations on where to focus energy, resources, and policies to achieve this. 

Kelly McGahey, the EARN Director, has answered some of our questions to highlight the key findings and how they will be used as we look toward an equitable economic recovery.  

What are some of the key findings?

Disability is experienced uniquely by each person and can require different accommodations and options for accessibility in the workforce. As an example, disabilities can be recurrent, continuous, fluctuating, or progressive in nature which in turn can impact the type of accommodation required and level of access to employment an individual may have (some have a higher propensity toward employment access, while for others it is lower). 

Intersectionality is also a crucial factor as individuals hold numerous social identities, with disability being only one component. The way that these identity markers intersect and overlap with disability can further shape the experiences, opportunities, and barriers a person faces. The more marginalized identities an individual holds, the greater the likelihood they will face increased barriers to accessing employment, employment supports, and accommodations. 

Inclusionary practices sound simple in theory, but employers’ benefit from support and resources on prioritizing and implementing them holistically. These could include disability disclosure, accommodation, and elimination of discriminatory practices throughout an organization. This is a journey that requires continuous improvement and commitment from all employees at all levels.

With such a diverse geographic area in East Ontario what stood out to you as you looked across the communities?

The experiences of people with disabilities seeking employment in an urban and suburban setting (e.g., City of Ottawa) can differ vastly from those in a rural setting as the level of access to supports in each municipal centre varies widely. For example, rural community members with disabilities face a higher burden accessing transportation, simply because the transportation infrastructure may not be as readily available or widespread as it is in a larger urban centre. 

Some of the major barriers to employment for people with disabilities in the urban or suburban areas of Ottawa include the increased preference for bilingualism in jobs and services and a greater demand for post-secondary degrees to access employment (which may be attributable to the high concentration of post-secondary institutions in Ottawa as compared to the other communities)  

Whereas in our rural communities, we learned some of the major barriers (outside of transportation) include limited access to work opportunities as well as an aging population (compared to Ottawa, which tends to have a younger population). 

How can employers leverage these learnings to attract a broader, more diverse talent pool as we look toward an equitable economic recovery?

  • Engage with local networks like EARN, to learn from other employers and community partners, and to actively recruit from underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities.  
  • Be open about and share your inclusive and accessible policies and practices upfront. People are more likely to seek employment where they know they will feel supported and safe.  
  • Evaluate current recruitment practices to identify barriers to employment for persons with disabilities. Seeking feedback from current employees, other employers, and community experts can help guide systemic change and provide insights and actionable steps that can help in creating a more accessible, accommodating, and inclusive work environment for everyone.   
  • Expand disability, accessibility, and inclusion efforts beyond recruitment to ensure that the organization is equally committed to supporting, retaining, and promoting employees with disabilities throughout their careers. EARN’s Shaping Accessible Employment Practices Workshop series provides a foundation to this work 

What is United Way East Ontario and EARN committed to doing with the learnings? 

At United Way, we are committed to continuing our ongoing work to break down the barriers to employment by continuing to convene the community through the EARN initiative to support employer education, accessibility, and workplace inclusion across East Ontario. 

We will leverage our networks to coordinate feedback from the community to continue advocacy work around employment and barriers to employment – informing all levels of government of these important pieces. 

We will promote and offer the Shaping Accessible Employment Practices Workshop Series that will help employers to become more inclusive and accessible in their recruitment and employment practices. 

We will also support Community Wealth Building (CWB) strategies inclusive of people with disabilities as we look to an equitable economic recovery from the impacts of COVID19. This could include investing in social enterprises that increase employment for people with disabilities, building community capacity to use CWB practices including Social Procurement, and Community Benefit Agreements that support an inclusive and equitable economic recovery and growth. 

You can also download the full environmental scan if you are interested in digging deeper into our research. 




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The partnership between LiveWorkPlay and United Way, through the Employment Accessibility Resource Network (EARN), demonstrates the positive change that can be achieved when organizations join forces to promote inclusivity.

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