Back in 2000, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce surveyed our business community in order to understand what challenges they were facing. We heard overwhelmingly that organizations and businesses were struggling to find people with the correct skill sets to fill available jobs – skills that did not require a four-year degree, but rather technical, vocational skills. As the president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, I felt it was mine and the Chamber’s job to better understand the issue, find solutions, and facilitate conversations to help create change for our business community. Little did I know that this would lead to a newfound interest for making Grand Rapids a more accessible city for people with different abilities – and for that, I have to give credit to Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI) and its CEO, Peter McDermott.

When MDI merged with Deer River Hired Hands five years ago, it opened us up to an entire new view of our workforce that we hadn’t considered as we attempted to find solutions to our shortage of vocational workers. As a nonprofit manufacturer with nearly half its employees identifying as people with disabilities, MDI’s unique business model showed us that everyone has something to contribute. Historically, people with disabilities have been viewed somewhat differently, and not necessarily provided with the same job opportunities as the mainstream. But accepting people of all abilities, working side by side with them, and utilizing their skill sets is helping us build a more successful and inclusive community here in Northeastern Minnesota.

We are fortunate to have MDI as a partner here in Grand Rapids and Cohasset. Together, we have strengthened our workforce, and in turn, our entire community. We have partnered on initiatives, including a training program that was originally created within the Chamber called GrandTEEN Works. MDI took this training model, which taught kids the skills needed to get their first job (writing a resume, interviewing, etc.) and tailored it to their own employees. The growth that happens in these programs in a very short time and the self-confidence and pride participants develop is amazing. Not only are we providing the workforce with what it needs, but it also gives me a great amount of pride to know that we are playing an integral part in providing people of all abilities the chance to contribute to our economy.

As I reflect on National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the fifth year anniversary of MDI Hired Hands, I encourage employers to mirror MDI’s business model and consider potential job candidates for what they bring to the table, as opposed to what they don’t. I can confidently say that doing so has transformed our business community for the better.

Bud Stone is the president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. He lives in Grand Rapids, Minn. This opinion article was written by Bud and published in the Grand Rapids Herald Review on October 1, 2018.