Meet the Expert: Michelle Yin

Illustration of AIR expert Michelle YinMichelle Yin, Ph.D., works at the nexus of education and labor economics, with a focus on special populations that include people with disabilities, youth at risk of not graduating from high school, and adult literacy learners. Her work provides empirical evidence that helps inform policy, practice, and advocacy.

POSITION: Principal Economist

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Disability, Postsecondary Education, Workforce, Human Capital


Q: Is there a particular study on people with disabilities that you admire? How did it influence your career?

Michelle: The disability employment literature is really sparse—almost all the empirical studies with rigorous design focus on how to get people with disabilities off of cash benefit programs, like social security disability insurance. Very few focus on what works for this population to improve their access to and quality of employment.

That said, my work on vocational rehabilitation services was greatly influenced by a series of papers—by David Dean of the University of Richmond—that explores the impact of vocational rehabilitation services on people with disabilities in Virginia. These papers inspired me to focus my research on how vocational rehabilitation services help this population. For the past few years, we’ve been trying to replicate that series using data from Maine, and our preliminary results indicate that vocational rehabilitation services in Maine have comparable impacts on labor market outcomes.

Image of pullquote from Michelle YinQ: How do you think the U.S. and individual states can close the pay gap for people with disabilities?

Michelle: The pay gap is one of the topics we research. We found that people with disabilities earn 37 percent less on average than people without disabilities with similar educational attainment and that it increases as people climb up the educational attainment ladder. For those with a master’s or other professional degree, people with disabilities make $20,000 less than their peers without disabilities. However, the disability employment issue is much bigger than that—it’s really about raising awareness.

Society labels people with disabilities as unable to perform, unable to work, unable to be educated. That’s completely false—85% of people with disabilities have an invisible disability, meaning if they didn’t disclose it, you wouldn’t even notice. This includes cancer survivors and people with mental health issues. A lot of employers I talk to think that disability is the measure of ability, but that’s not true.

When we talk about the pay gap, it’s really about how we bust this myth and raise awareness, that on top of the gender pay gap, on top of the race and ethnicity pay gap, there is also a disability gradient. Employers should be aware of this. And people with disabilities should know about this, too.

Q: Based on your research, what are some benefits companies can realize when workplaces are more inclusive of people with disabilities?

Michelle: Being inclusive benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. For example, we all walk up the ramps in front of buildings. We all use the automatic doors. Text messaging was originally designed for people with hearing and speech impairment. We all benefit from technologies created for and used by people with disabilities. Same for employers. When you build your company or organization with accessibility and inclusion in mind, it benefits everyone.

It’s also about finding the right match for both the company and the employee. An organization I interviewed with produces paper and the machine they use is extremely loud and can be harmful to people’s health. So, they hire people with hearing impairment. Not only does it benefit the people they hire, it works out great for the organization.

Q: What trends or topics in your field should people pay attention to over the next five to 10 years?

Michelle: We’re experiencing a technology revolution right now—machine learning and artificial intelligence are replacing a lot of jobs. In the meantime, labor demand exceeds labor supply for the first time in decades, especially for blue collar jobs. People with disabilities are a great source of labor supply and some also have the advantage because many have been using machines in some way for much of their lives. We see a lot of coders among people with disabilities.

The trend is, in terms of research, better quantifying the labor supply and demand, how to use data we already have to identify talent, and how to connect that talent with the right employers. A lot of businesses have trouble finding people with disabilities or even understanding who they need to hire. Research organizations like AIR can help employers first analyze what types of jobs they need to fill and then match the skill sets they need with people with different types of disabilities. That is really the future—more engagement from people with disabilities and more employers hiring them. At least that’s my hope.

Q: If you had no restrictions on time or budget, what research-based activity would you pursue?

Michelle: I‘d like to write a book that tells the stories of the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities: busting myths about who this population is, what their families go through, and why we always think that they just get on cash benefits and never get off. I know a judge who is blind. I have a friend with cerebral palsy and other severe health situations who has worked in government agencies and strived to do as much as she could to contribute. These are the stories I think we should know. And it has real value because we all know someone with a disability. It matters.

Q: What book do you think everyone should read?

Michelle: How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen from Harvard University, who recently passed away. He has great insights on management, how to balance life and work, and how we measure success throughout our careers.

Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday afternoon?

Michelle: I try to spend my entire weekend with my kids because I work a lot during the week. I’m typically like an “Uber driver” on Saturdays and Sundays, shuttling the kids around to things like my son’s music theory class. We also love the zoo and go almost every other week, regardless of the weather, just to take a walk.