At this juncture in the early stages of the AI-powered Fourth Industrial Revolution, a lot of attention has been paid to the possibility that millions of workers will be displaced by automation and robots, raising fears of rising unemployment in the years ahead. However, in the manufacturing industry today, the problem is not one of too many people chasing too few jobs— it’s the opposite. Manufacturing is being transformed by technology at a dramatic pace at a time of near-record low levels of unemployment, leading to a shortage of workers with the required skills for the new era of intelligent manufacturing.

Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are more than half a million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States. This gap is expected to widen significantly as baby boomers retire in increasing numbers over the next few years and the demand for people with the kind of digital skills that the American manufacturing industry requires continues to grow. According to recent research by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the U.S. manufacturing industry could face a shortfall of 2.4 million workers by 2028—jeopardizing more than $450 billion in additional manufacturing value.

Where are the qualified workers?

This raises a key question for manufacturers, and for the overall health of the US economy—where are the skilled workers needed to fill this gap going to come from?

An important part of the answer to this question is for manufacturing companies to think more inclusively about who they hire. One of the largest untapped pools of talent in this country is Americans with disabilities, a group that has historically been overlooked by employers in many industries, including manufacturing. BLS reports that just one in five people with disabilities age 16 and older is employed in the United States, compared with two out of three people who do not have disabilities. In a country where more than 60 million adults have a disability (and in a world where there are over one billion people with disabilities), the result is that millions of creative, accomplished, and hardworking individuals have yet to connect with employers struggling to find talented, dedicated people to fill available jobs.

AI removes barriers

The good news is that artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology innovations are removing many of the barriers that have made it difficult for people with disabilities to participate in the workforce. Today, assistive technologies and accessibility solutions that incorporate AI capabilities like real-time speech-to-text transcription, visual recognition, and predictive text functionality offer enormous potential to enable people with vision, hearing, cognitive, mobility, and mental health disabilities to pursue well-paying employment opportunities in manufacturing.

In addition, there are positive signs that many companies in this country are thinking more inclusively about hiring people with disabilities. For the past few years, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has fallen faster than it has for the population as a whole. From July 2018 to July 2019, labor force participation by people with disabilities grew 5.2 percent compared with 0.3 percent for people without disabilities.

Hiring inclusivity benefits everyone

This hiring inclusivity benefits everyone. According to a study released by Accenture in 2018, a one percent increase in the number of Americans with disabilities who are employed will translate to a $25 billion jump in GDP. In addition, if American businesses fully embrace inclusion for people with disabilities, doing so will add more than 10 million people to the workforce. As part of that study, Accenture looked at 45 companies that are considered leaders in disability inclusion and found that on average, those companies generated 28 percent more revenue and enjoyed a profit margin that was 30 percent better than their peers.

At Microsoft, we see the benefits every day of a diverse workforce that embraces disability inclusion. We know that the many people with disabilities who work at Microsoft each bring their own unique experiences, talent, and passion to our team. This makes us a better company.

Incubating creative ideas with world-changing potential

A diverse and inclusive workforce also makes it possible for us to incubate creative ideas that have world-changing potential. For example, Swetha Machanavajhala is a deaf engineer at Microsoft who collaborated with her co-workers on an AI prototype called Hearing AI that enables deaf and hard of hearing people to better understand the sounds around them through visualizations and other features. Now a beta-product that Swetha and her team are continuing to research and develop, Hearing AI uses animations that respond to the rhythm and volume of the music and noise in a room to help people with hearing disabilities interpret the sound ambience of their surroundings. It also provides real-time speech-to-text transcriptions of conversations, with text appearing larger or smaller depending on the volume of the speaker, so a deaf user can not only understand the words, but also interpret the tone more accurately.

On August 16, 2019, I had the honor of accepting the James C. Marsters Promotion Award at Gallaudet University—the world’s leading university for deaf and hard of hearing students—on behalf of Microsoft for our continuous efforts to promote and improve accessibility to telecommunications and media such as our ongoing development of Hearing AI.

Other efforts include Microsoft Translator, another app that is empowering people who are deaf or hard of hearing with real-time captioning of conversations, and Seeing AI, which makes it easier for people who are blind or low vision to navigate the world more easily by describing what it sees to users as it reads signs and menus, identifies products and currency, recognizes acquaintances, and interprets peoples’ facial expressions. And now, through the AI for Accessibility program that we launched in May 2018, we’re supporting the work of developers, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and inventors who are exploring ways to use AI to create innovative assistive solutions that will increase accessibility.

A holistic approach to inclusion

But our approach to inclusion is much more than just tools designed specifically to assist people with disabilities. It’s a fundamental principle that informs the design and development process for every product and service that we build. It influences who we hire and shapes the culture we aspire to create at Microsoft every day. Simply put, accessibility is an essential component of Microsoft’s DNA.

So, as I told the audience at Gallaudet University, we’re always looking to hire talented people like Swetha whose disabilities provide unique insights and abilities that will be crucial for Microsoft as we strive to achieve our mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.

The fact is, there are many, many people like Swetha in the United States and around the world. Today, a new generation of AI-powered assistive products and services is enabling companies to tap into this incredible pool of talent, experience, and knowledge. For manufacturers in this country struggling to find qualified workers to fill a growing number of open positions, disability inclusion should be an important part of the solution.