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Disabled can fill gap in IT labor pool

Even though people with disabilities can handle IT jobs, and the government provides financial incentives to hire them, few firms are taking advantage of the talents available. But the situation is changing, and certain companies are leading the way.

IBM Hungary’s Ability 6 course in session, above and below.

As Hungarian firms scramble to fill the demand for programmers and other IT workers, one potential source for talent is among workers with disabilities. Thus far, however, this talent pool has been largely underused.

Many people with impaired abilities can still work a computer, especially given the range of advances in special devices that improve access to computer use, and there are government incentives to encourage the hiring of the disabled. Companies with staff of more than 100 whose work force is not at least 5% disabled paid a total of HUF 66.295 billion in “rehabilitation penalties” in 2013. Meanwhile, the carrot to that stick is that firms who hire disabled employees can save on the 27% social tax for those workers, and other schemes allow for grants of up to 100% of a disabled worker’s pay.

Still, the number of companies influenced by these incentives is small, perhaps because companies like to plan long-term, and incentives, perceived as short-term, are often not strong enough to change practices. In the end, the decision to use disabled workers to increase an IT workforce seems to require a proactive decision by the employer.

The portal solutions developer Liferay Hungary is an equal opportunity employer, and being the unit of an American firm, this has roots and is not just a slogan, says Zsolt Balogh (pictured), the company’s chief executive. Programming, customer services and client support are the areas that offer the most job opportunities for disabled people.

“As a software company, we have lots of monitor-based tasks and working remotely is also an easy option. The Budapest office is a support center providing client services for the whole globe. It does not matter where our staff sit; the important thing is that we can give them the support they need if they turn to us,” Balogh says. “One of our quality engineers is in a wheelchair and works for us remotely from his home in a small town in central Hungary. Our support team personally installed the workstation in his home when he started the job in 2012. He is still able to take part in meetings and even company events.”

As for government incentives, Balogh says, “everything must start somewhere”. After a while, Hungarian companies are sure to realize that there are more reasons to employ disabled people than just the tax breaks and grants. “They really help company culture grow,” he says, adding that the most motivated team players are among disabled colleagues. Today’s technology should give lots of options for both employees and employers so that such recruitment is no longer a “dreamland”, he says.

Right person for the job

The Kézenfogva Foundation, an NGO specialized in support for disabled people including jobs services, hopes to see more of the good practices very soon. Work rehabilitation was not always a given, and the foundation started out years ago in coordinating placements in community work centers in a segregated setting, labor market service manager Miklós Fehér tells the BBJ. Since 2010 they have been working hard on integrating disabled job seekers into the open labor market. Government incentives do help, and there has been a lot more interest in employing people from this target group, he says.  But matching high-skilled candidates to jobs in an integrated environment is still not easy, Fehér noted.

IBM Hungary’s Anikó Kis agrees. She has been working in the diversity and inclusion field for 11 years, currently responsible for Central and Eastern Europe. A large firm will look to have the right person for the right job and will not hire people or create fake jobs just to minimize tax, she tells the BBJ.

An example of the extra attention needed is helping disabled candidates become more employable. IBM’s latest program, Ability 6, offers six workshop sessions through six months, helping potential candidates with disabilities develop their soft skills for the job market, Kis explains. “Halfway through the program I can say that we have had very positive feedback,” she adds.

Service centers are more successful in hiring, while higher-skilled jobs are more difficult to fill. The requirements of specialized IT technical knowledge on top of advanced language skills makes these positions very selective, she says. The 5% quota is applied equally to all companies, whether they are a production firm with lots of manual labor openings or whether they require highly specialized staff. It would be great if Hungary followed the example of other countries and allowed to increase employment of the disabled against the quota by contracting suppliers who are certified employers of people with disabilities, she says. At IBM Slovakia, for example, some of its suppliers work more with disabled people. But filling the quota with specialists is an entirely different matter.

Hiring a disabled person is a complex process. Special support is needed every step of the way and this this requires focus and resources, more so than is covered by the government incentives, she explains. Nevertheless IBM, too, has been working to increase its number of disability hires, building more on partnerships with the civil sector and universities than on state subsidies, she said.