Filling the gap . . . Workbridge employee consultants Dawn Ewing (left) and Sandra Familton help people find and maintain employment. PHOTO: RUBY HEYWARD

Despite one of the worst labour shortages in more than 40 years, people with disabilities remain under-represented in the New Zealand workforce.

Workbridge employee consultant Sandra Familton said there were plenty of jobs in Waitaki, but not enough people to fill them.

“Employment is a real issue here,” Ms Familton said.

“Most people would be shocked.

“Businesses are wondering where the hell they are going to get workers.”

With borders closed, migrant workers were not filling in the employment gap they usually did, she said.

But employers only had to look in their own backyard.

Workbridge chief executive Jonathan Mosen said across New Zealand there were approximately 180,000 unemployed people with disabilities, many of whom were able to contribute and help fill the gaps in the labour market.

According to StatsNZ’s latest household labour force survey, six of 10 working-age disabled Kiwis were out of work from March to June this year.

Ms Familton’s role at Workbridge was to help Waitaki people with disabilities find and maintain work.

These disabilities included Autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, heart conditions, bipolar disorder, and injuries – the criteria was wide.

She did not like using the word “disabled or disability” because of the stigma attached, and some clients felt uncomfortable identifying with it, she said.

This stigma was also present in the workplace.

Workbridge southern regional service manager Stu Guthrie said one of the biggest barriers for prospective employees, was the misunderstandings surrounding mental health and disabilities at large.

Many employers had the idea that it would be challenging to employ someone with a disability, health condition, or injury, Mr Guthrie said.

What they did not know was that about 40% of any workforce was comprised of people with some sort of disability, he said.

“The big misconception is that these people have quite severe disabilities or physical disabilities, or will be hard to work with,” he said.

“Eighty-five percent of the people we work with have a mild form of mental illness or managed mental illness, or a learning disability.

“The truth is they are already working with these people day in and day out, and quite successfully often.”

For many employers, they just wanted someone who would show up on time with a good attitude and a willingness to learn, Ms Familton said.

For youth pursuing employment, social anxiety was a growing issue, she said.

Workbridge employee consultant Dawn Ewing said many younger people struggled to communicate face to face, feeling more confident on their phones, particular when it came to conflict resolution.

There were also many people struggling with mental-health issues surrounding drug use, and many employers were having difficulty finding workers who could pass a drug test, Ms Ewing said.

The biggest thing Workbridge did to assist prospective employees, was instilling confidence, particularly after Covid-19, Mr Guthrie said.

After last year’s lockdown there was a “massive influx” of people struggling with mental health after having hours reduced or positions made redundant, he said.

“When you have anxiety or a mental health condition, confidence is the first thing to go –  confidence in being able to join society productively.”

Only time would tell if the same issue would arise from this year’s lockdown, he said.