Solving healthcare staff shortages with disability inclusion

IWSI America’s COO Andrew Sezonov & CSO Simon Whatmore on why the healthcare staff shortage can be solved with the inclusion of people with disabilities

Everywhere you look across the US healthcare sector, skilled healthcare professionals are in high demand and short supply. 

Few sectors, if any, face as many complex challenges as healthcare to secure the skilled workforce required to meet client needs, say IWSI America’s COO Andrew Sezonov and CSO Simon Whatmore.

While recruiting healthcare talent was never as simple as lodging a vacancy online and waiting for the applications to roll in, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges significantly. 

Healthcare staff burnout and shortages post COVID-19

The upheaval and uncertainty the sector has had to overcome in responding to COVID-19 has led to a marked increase in staff burnout and turnover, as well as critically interrupted the flow of new talent pipelines, as many clinical placements and other practical requirements for formal professional qualification or registration were deferred or cancelled.

Yet these widespread skills shortages have not reduced demand for healthcare services, which are forecast to grow and keep growing. 

A 2021 US healthcare labour market analysis by Mercer revealed that we can expect the current chronic skills shortages to persist in the years to come, because in the majority of states, the projected supply of healthcare workers will be unable to meet market demand. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the need for an additional 1.1m registered nurses by 2030, and New York and California each face a healthcare workforce shortage of half a million positions within the next five years.

The Mercer report also identified that the most acute workforce shortages will be in frontline allied healthcare positions such as medical assistants, home health aides, nursing and dental assistants and medical imaging technicians.

If current workforce attrition, retirement and training trends hold, Mercer predicts America will face an allied healthcare worker shortfall of 3.2m workers in the next five years. 

In this labour market, it is unlikely that overworked healthcare recruiters can address this seven-figure shortfall by doubling down on the same old recruitment strategies. Nor is poaching experienced staff from rivals a viable option – a simple recipe for rapid wage inflation. 

Long term, the most effective way to resolve the current challenge is to expand and diversify the healthcare workforce.

If we can refresh the approach to recruitment and modernise our recruitment and training processes to ensure they are truly accessible and inclusive, we can turn our current challenges into a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve employment outcomes for historically underemployed groups, particularly Americans with a disability.

Supporting people with disabilities access healthcare employment opportunities

Across all age and educational attainment groups, unemployment rates for people with a disability are higher than those for people without a disability.

Despite the fact that one in four adult Americans lives with a disability, and roughly one in five school-aged Americans identify as having a recognised disability, Americans with a disability still experience appalling employment outcomes. 

Illustrating this, in February 2022, the BLS reported that America’s disability employment gap was more than 44% – only 19.1% of Americans with a disability were in ongoing employment, compared to 63.7% for those without a disability.

People with a disability are ideally suited for many common allied health professions in shortage, there is every reason to believe significantly more Americans with a disability can transition into mainstream employment as we address these skills shortages.

One programme which could become the template for change to come is the Ready, Willing and Able pilot programme. Recently launched by the California Government and IWSI America, the programme aims to support Californians with disabilities to access emerging allied health employment opportunities. The programme’s name was chosen to highlight the fact that there are millions of Americans with a disability who are ready, willing and able to work, and are simply awaiting an opportunity.

The pilot programme will focus on connecting suitable candidates with allied healthcare jobs to be delivered as part of registered apprenticeship programmes.

Apprenticeships are uniquely suited to help people with disabilities enter the healthcare workforce. The structure of career and technical education (CTE) training breaks down the teaching of complex skills into modular units and is proven to successfully support people with physical or developmental disabilities to master skills and build confidence. This structure also provides the apprentice with a degree of certainty and long-term security – something that shift work or seasonal jobs cannot.

We talk a big game on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Now is the time to bring more Americans with a disability into mainstream employment. If we cannot improve employment outcomes for Americans with a disability (and other disadvantaged and underrepresented groups) during a red-hot labour market, then when can we expect to?


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