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Watlow: Turning up the Heat on Disability Inclusion

Employer Case Study: Learn how an electrical manufacturing company is benefitting from workplace disability-inclusion.

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In 1922, Louis Desloge Sr. founded Watlow in St. Louis, Missouri and began manufacturing electric heating elements. The company name, Watlow, refers to these first “low-watt” heaters. Watlow has been providing breakthrough thermal solutions ever since and has become a global technology and manufacturing leader that provides world-class engineering through innovative thermal products and systems. With 3,500 team members around the world, the company’s solutions make a positive impact and enrich the lives of people everywhere. Corporate values guide the company uncompromisingly to always do the right thing, continually learn and improve, respect everyone and lead with service and humility.  

To ensure compliance with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and meet growing labor demands, Watlow initiated a disability outreach and recruitment effort in 2015 that continues today. Launching a recruitment plan in a fast-paced manufacturing environment started with the simple goal of hiring one person with a disability. The human resources team felt that this effort would aid in securing leadership buy-in at all levels and allow a “hands-on” immersive experience for frontline team leaders. To identify an appropriate candidate, the human resources team began participating in Reverse Career Fairs hosted by the local Industry Liaison Group (ILG). These fairs provided federal contractors opportunities to meet community agencies providing services to job seekers from underrepresented populations, including people with disabilities. Held annually at a local university, with participation from more than 40 agencies, the fairs offer a chance to network, meet program staff and develop new partnership strategies with agencies that can help build a pipeline of qualified candidates.

While Watlow’s business imperative initially focused on compliance, its disability recruitment efforts have become a mission to build an inclusive community and workplace culture. Building a pipeline of talent has led to hiring more than 20 people with disabilities at various levels and positions across the company. As disability inclusion becomes part of Watlow’s culture, team leaders are actively recruiting candidates with disabilities, finding them to be productive and loyal employees. The hiring initiatives have expanded Watlow’s outreach to other diverse communities. Initiating several diversity-focused programs has created a robust and comprehensive recruitment program, including rotational engineering programs, cooperative hiring programs, summer internship experiences for women and a program concentrated on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students in urban areas.

To ensure that Watlow had the knowledge necessary to welcome candidates with disabilities, employees, human resources, executive management and team leaders worked with partner agencies, job coaches and trainers as the program developed. Initially, vocational experts provided onsite training to staff on disability awareness and reasonable accommodations. This training encompassed working with people with various disabilities, including neurodiverse candidates and people with cognitive and physical disabilities. Although not every candidate has succeeded, Watlow leadership understands that a positive result is more about “job fit” than skillsets or experience. To address and overcome barriers and challenges, Watlow trained employees in different areas and tried other positions that were potentially a better job fit for the candidate. This experience created an understanding of people with disabilities that has been adapted to other business lines.

Diversity in all dimensions includes disability, according to Angell Jackson, an HR manager at Watlow. She stated, “It just takes one hire to get started. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and we all learned together. Our workforce is growing and we need capable workers to be trained for careers.” With an inclusive onboarding process, new employees realize that they have an opportunity for a career, not just a job. In fact, Watlow has made a significant investment in training new hires for highly technical jobs, including senior operators who resolve complex problems and issues and serve as a resource to colleagues.  Senior operators work on tasks that reflect substantial variety and complexity.  Employees in this role have a clear path to a career ladder for advancement, growth and retention.

Team leaders have been integral to the recruitment effort, as have the company’s relationships with community rehabilitation providers. Watlow believes that best practices and helpful strategies for building an inclusive pipeline include communication and self-monitoring to see what is working well, management buy-in throughout the company and retention and advancement efforts.  All these efforts help drive inclusion. Since Watlow is a data-driven company full of engineers, measuring success in hiring and retaining employees with disabilities gave the company an instructional roadmap to acclimate new employees through training. Successful approaches to hiring, recruitment, advancement and retention included:

  • A welcoming, inclusive workplace culture
  • Awareness of selection procedures
  • Job description standards and qualifications
  • In-house specialized training
  • Advancement opportunities/promotions
  • A transparent career path
  • Effective tools and accommodations

Although initially there were some doubts about recruitment efforts to attract diverse candidates, Watlow was determined to find a way. Unconscious bias about people with disabilities led to false beliefs about what employees with disabilities cannot do, instead of what they can do. Team members were also concerned that people with disabilities may be unreliable and lack appropriate skills, but the reality is they are some of the company’s best, most loyal employees. Watlow has a strong practice of promoting from within, and believes positions at the company do not represent a job, but a career. For Watlow, success means understanding what employees with disabilities can offer the company and an appreciation for differences that makes their team stronger together.