The current unemployment rate of about 10% is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But how about this: the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 44%, according to Randy Lewis, senior vice president, distribution and logistics, Walgreen. Three years ago, Lewis and Walgreen decided to do something about that and opened a highly automated distribution center in Anderson, S.C., where more than 40% of the employees have disabilities of various kinds, from Down's Syndrome and mental retardation to autism and cerebral palsy. Since then Walgreen has opened a second DC with a similar representation of disabled employees.
Lewis described all this in a presentation this morning at the Supply Chain Conference that was one of the most moving presentations I have ever witnessed at an industry conference. Lewis decided to spearhead this effort at Walgreen because of his own experience with his 21-year-old son Austin, who is autistic. Walgreen's goal is to hire 1,000 people with disabilities at its DCs by the end of the year; the recession may hold them back to 750, but the company's new goal is to have 3,000 such employees by 2015.
Lewis was followed by Ronald Parker, senior vice president, chief global diversity officer for PepsiCo, which has a program called PepsiCo Enabled that has helped many disabled individuals to work for the company.
The message of these gentleman was clear: Don't be afraid to hire disabled people. In both cases, these employees have been able to perform and contribute to their companies as well, if not better, than employees without disabilities. 'This is not easy," said Lewis, "but it's the best thing we have ever done."