The Candidate Pool You Haven't Considered

By Felicia Fleitman posted 10-17-2017 08:22

Did you know that globally, 90 percent of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed or underemployed? In the United States, the unemployment rate alone (not considering part-time or underemployment) for adults on the autism spectrum is 42 percent—10 times the national average.   

Why This Matters for Companies
There is a huge, untapped candidate pool of qualified, hard-working individuals that are known for being detail-oriented and loyal. That’s right—loyal! And in today’s job market where many companies are concerned about attrition rates, having an inclusive hiring process for candidates on the autism spectrum is a great way to increase retention and find strong employees. 

The Under-Representation Problem 
For many on the autism spectrum, it’s not the inability to perform work that creates barriers to employment, but the job-search process itself. This leads to the massive unemployment and underemployment of extremely qualified and well-prepared candidate pools.

The National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom recently released a survey that found the following of adults on the spectrum:

  • Fewer than 16 percent have full-time paid work
  • 16 percent are in part-time paid employment
  • In all, less than a third of autistic adults have any kind of paid work
  • Just over half (51 percent ) of people with autism who are working said that their skills were higher than those their job required (underemployed)

These numbers can similarly reflect the employment landscape in the United States. In my experience with Savvy Hires, I’ve seen underemployment first-hand. For example, a student that we work with has an associates degree in computer science (3.2 GPA) and graduated with an Advanced Regents Diploma with an award for proficiency in computer science. He works behind the Deli Counter at Stop & Shop on weekends—not because he is incapable of performing computer science work, but because the traditional job-search process is stacked against someone on the autism  spectrum. 

Dave Kearon, the director of adult services at Autism Speaks, (a nonprofit that serves individuals with autism and their families through advocacy and support) is responsible for speaking with companies and promoting inclusion for professionals on the autism spectrum. Kearon said that employers have also realized “the shortcomings in their traditional screening and interview processes—they’ve realized that they are missing very talented people by assessing candidates with traditional interviews, rather than by giving them a more applicable opportunity to show what they are capable of.”

Savvy Hires teamed up with the Bridges to Adelphi [University] Program and put the above claims to the test.

The  Case Study
Mitch Nagler is the drector of the Bridges to Adelphi Program at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, which offers academic, social, and vocational support services to more than 125 Adelphi students who self-disclose with diagnoses of ASD or other non-verbal learning disorders. He realized that the goal for students in the Bridges Program should not merely be to succeed academically and graduate, but to have the opportunity to gain meaningful employment at competitive wages, in their areas of interest and study, so that they can lead independent and successful lives. He began developing a job placement program several years ago, focusing on campus employment opportunities for current students, but struggled to create a pipeline for jobs in the community for students as they graduated. 

Our quest to find local employers to partner with led us to many willing people and companies. One of the first to greenlight our program was Cheryl Davidson, senior corporate director of Workforce Readiness at Northwell Health (New York State’s largest employer). Davidson stated “diversity plays a key role in Northwell—we realize that an organization that embraces diversity wins top talent.”  In fact when we reached out to Davidson to ask Northwell about becoming a Bridges Employer Partner, our timing was perfect: “There was already interest here [at Northwell] about formalizing an internship program with people on the autism spectrum.” She had been receiving a lot of queries from leadership in the hospital, key players in the health system, and parents, and was beginning to have discussions about how an inclusive hiring process and outreach strategy could add to Northwell’s commitment to diversity. Making the business case to Northwell senior leadership was easy, said Davidson: “neuro-diversity at any organization is extremely important, and college students on the autism spectrum, generally speaking, bring focus, loyalty, and dedication—they see problems in a different way and can come up with solutions.”

Once Northwell agreed to consider our students, we worked with Northwell to develop an internship program, and started identifying the challenges for both the students and staff. This included addressing the fear of the unknown, as well as the social challenges of traditional interview processes

What We Did: Phase 1
One of the very first things we did was designed to remove the fear of the unknown by creating an information session at Northwell Health offices. The session consisted of an overview of Northwell Health, a fireside chat with a key executive (VP, HR – Joe Moscola), and engaging skits with their recruiting team on job-search/ interview dos and don’ts.”  Initially, only two students signed up for the information session because their fear of the unknown was too great, so Northwell created an introductory video inviting the students to attend the information session. This helped put a face to the employer and break down some “fear of the unknown barriers. The video worked, and close to 30 students signed up for the session. 

The information session was a success—the fireside chat and interviewing-focused skits were particularly impactful in engaging the students. A recent graduate of Adelphi University and the Bridges program who participated in the Northwell Internship Program said this session made him feel that “Northwell didn’t want me to fail. Even if I didn’t get the opportunity, it gave me a better perspective of what goes into hiring somebody. Seeing the different kinds of jobs and opportunities and understanding why a candidate may be chosen over another candidate really helped me understand the job-search process, and that it isn’t a success/ failure type system… it’s more about finding the right spot for you.” 

The graduate (referred to as "the intern" throughout the rest of this blog) also said he “recognized the importance of Joe Moscola speaking immediately, and that this wasn’t something that happens every day. [It] showed how much Northwell believed in us to invest in this new way of thinking.”

Phase 2
Back at school, students signed up to be considered for an interview with Northwell, and began attending a weekly internship-readiness course created by the Bridges Program in collaboration with the Adelphi School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. This included their learning interview skills, resume creation, and readiness on working within a professional office environment. The intern (the graduate of Adelphi University and the Bridges program) said that this training placed a large emphasis on how to be a strong employee, not just for the job search itself, and that was key. “The emphasis was really on understanding my personal strengths and weaknesses, and how I can succeed in a traditional office environment,” he said. “One of the best things you can give someone on the spectrum is preparation,” he said, and that is what the internship-readiness course provided. 

Further, Northwell Health provided general topics on questions they planned to ask in their interviews, so we could perform mock interviews with each student. When interview day arrived, interviews were conducted on Adelphi’s campus, within the Bridges offices, a place that is familiar to Bridges students. With Mitch Nagler in the interview room with the Northwell team, students had plenty of familiar faces to combat at least some of the traditional interview barriers.

The Northwell team was very impressed with the students that they interviewed. As with most people with little/no exposure to people on the spectrum, Northwell team members weren’t sure what to expect. What they found was that these students were just as smart/ talented/ engaging as their neuro-typical peers. They evaluated these students against the same criteria they do for all, but because the barriers in the hiring process were removed, team members were exposed to these students, who would likely otherwise not have been a part of the process. They decided to hire five students: two in IT, one in marketing, one in human resources, and one in research, for paid summer intern positions. Positions were selected based on Northwell’s needs and the students’ interests and skill sets.

According to the intern, the “process was something that a lot of us really needed. Every week (in the internship readiness course) there was an emphasis on a new topic that could make us successful, and discussed in a way we could digest it.”  The intern said that the entire process, from the information session through the on-campus interviews made it feel like “Northwell was trying to work with me and… even though the opportunity wasn’t guaranteed, I had people in my corner.” He said that sometimes his diagnosis and fear of failure can hold him back, but this entire approach to the hiring process helped him overcome those challenges.

Phase 3
Prior to the beginning of these internships, small group trainings on ASD in the workplace took place with Northwell staff and supervisors. There were three main goals of the training sessions:

  1. Provide background on ASD (etiology, diagnosis criteria, etc.) all intended to inform and dispel any preconceived notions/stereotypes/myths.
  2. Provide a safe and open space for people to ask questions. In my experience, most neuro-typicals want to have an inclusive workspace, but don’t want to say/do the wrong thing. We were breaking down a barrier of fear of the unknown for these folks, too.
  3. Discuss how to manage someone on the spectrum. The biggest lesson was to treat these students the same as everyone else. The second biggest lesson was to be as direct as possible (a strength of any great manager). 
According to Davidson, “the trainings were very helpful on several levels.” She said the biggest impact was that they gave the supervisors a “comfort level of working with the Bridges students.” Participants realized that these interns are not that different from anyone else.  

Though the intern had several concerns on his first day at work, his training from the internship readiness course kicked in. He said he “didn’t have time to dwell on it… at the end of day there was work to be done and an impression to be made.” He said he wanted to prove himself and not be treated any differently—he relied on his training to remember how to deal with office situations and how he was expected to carry himself. His hard work paid off, at the end of the summer, he was offered a full-time job with Northwell. A second intern was offered a full-time job also.   

Program Outcomes
Overall, the program was a success. Davidson said the “students found their niche and did an extraordinary job. They were well-prepared, professional, knew how to interact, and exceeded all expectations.” Elizabeth “Liz” Zgaljardic, a Northwell team member who ran the program, conducted frequent on-site follow-ups with supervisors and students, and received extraordinary feedback on all sides. “Finding the right job and right supervisor are key,” said Davidson. “Just like any new hire, it’s the right fit.

“Internships are a wonderful way to build a pipeline into the work force. Students and supervisors can get sense of both technical and cultural fit,” said Davidson. “To me, this is not all that different from any other internship program we run. It’s about finding the right student, supervisor, and job. A good supervisor understands what the individual needs of an employee are, and everyone has skills and talents—it’s just about finding the right match.” 

The Business Case
  • Competitive Advantage: Inviting people who think differently into your business leads to a more diverse, innovative, and ultimately more productive work force. According to Kearon, “many companies now see neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.” 
  • Higher Productivity: One global Fortune 50 company found during their pilot program that their employees with ASD were 50 percent more productive than their neuro-typical peers.
  • It doesn’t cost more money: The biggest misconception that employers often have about hiring individuals with ASD is that “hiring a person with autism is going to be costly to the business” said Kearon. “This is simply not the case. Some people with autism do need workplace accommodations, but they are often simple rule changes or cost nothing at all. A frequent example is the ability to use headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, or permission to wear a cap or sunglasses under certain types of lighting. Sometimes people with autism do have some eccentric behaviors, but in these cases, simple education of the management and coworkers is all that’s needed. People with autism sometimes need a slightly different path to get the job done, and that’s ok.”
  • It saves money: Employers told Kearon that their employees with autism show a higher/longer retention rate than their neuro-typical employees.
1. One group of Silicon Valley companies Kearon has spoken with show retention rates of between 95 to 98 percent. This is particularly true when businesses target those “pain points” (i.e., positions with high turnover, which raises the cost of training and re-training) for their autism hiring initiative. 
2. Kearon said that “employees with autism show better attendance, they show up to work on time consistently, stay on-task, and have stellar safety records."
3. Inclusive businesses have data that demonstrates that their employees with autism perform better (more efficient, more accurate) at certain detail-oriented tasks than do their colleagues without autism. 
  • Create better workplace culture and managers: Kearon said “On a larger scale, many employers tell us that including people with autism has improved the companies’ overall corporate cultures. Specifically, learning how to effectively manage people with autism has made them better managers overall, for all of their employees. They’ve learned how to communicate more directly and succinctly, and are able to address questions or problems in the workplace more adeptly.” 
The Human Case
In addition to employers reaping the benefits of an inclusive hiring strategy (diverse work force, highly productive employees, great press, etc.), there is also the opportunity to change lives. A recent Swedish study found that the average life expectancy of someone with ASD is 16 years less than a neuro-typical person. Although there are several factors, these statistics can be attributed to higher suicide rates and lack of social opportunities (no job, friends, etc.). A person getting a job and contributing to society greatly increases quality and duration of life.

When thinking of a great “success story” of someone on the spectrum getting a job, an employee at SAP came to mind. Kearon said, “He had been in and out of transitional housing and had been hospitalized for depression before being introduced to the hiring program [at SAP] through a community organization. Two years later, he now oversees SAP’s entire Palo Alto campus and its server room, as well as being added to the company’s global network services team to expand services across the country.”

Nagler believes that the collaboration between the Bridges Program and corporate partners can serve as a best practices model for successful job placement for individuals with ASD. “It will also certainly change the lives of the students, and their families.”

3 Easy Ways to Create an Inclusive Workplace
Review your hiring process – Pay special attention to job descriptions and interview protocol.

Train your team – Teach your team to create a safe and productive workplace for neuro-diversity.

Expand your candidate pool – Reach out to a Bridges program in your area and schedule interviews with students.

1 . This paper includes a case study on the Intern Program Partnership between Northwell Health (largest employer in New York State) and the Bridges Program at Adelphi University, as well as statistics and stories from Autism Speaks on the national employment landscape and making the business case for neuro-diversity.

2. Statistical data: AJ Drexel Autism Institute, 2016; 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Unemployment Rate

3.  I’ve omitted this student’s name from this paper so he is not “outed” as being on the spectrum to all his colleagues – he prefers to not be defined by his diagnosis and share the information as he sees fit. He is referred to as "the intern" throughout this blog.