October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and with a growing need for skilled workers in the state and across the country, Tennessee is among those now focusing on making a greater effort to hire individuals with disabilities. Sarah Harvey, program director with TennesseeWorks, says only about 30 percent of Tennesseans with intellectual or developmental disabilities are employed, and closing that gap is vital to the state’s economic future. “One in five people have a disability, so this is a part of our mainstream population,” she says. “It’s not uncommon, and it’s something we definitely need to figure out how to tap into the strengths and utilize those in our community.” TennesseeWorks is one of just eight efforts funded through the federal government’s Projects of National Significance program, with the goal of increasing employment opportunities across the U.S. for those with disabilities. Harvey says one key to the effort is increasing the opportunities for young people to engage in work activities while they’re still in school. “It’s the same for kids with and without disabilities,” says Harvey. “Whether kids hold summer jobs, or kids have after-school jobs, kids who have work experience prior to exiting high school are more likely to be employed after high school.” A number of programs also exist in the state to help with post-secondary education for those individuals with disabilities. Beyond that, Harvey explains, the business community needs to be supported and engaged. “That’s because, lo and behold, they’re the people who can actually provide the jobs we all want these people to have,” she says. “In fact, we just started an employer outreach initiative within TennesseeWorks and our partner agencies, in which we’re trying to get that foot in the door and share with them the many benefits in regards to hiring people with disabilities.” According to the Tennessee Disability Coalition, there are about one million people in the Volunteer State with a disability.