Program helps autistic workers find their niche

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Michael Sanchirico is a whiz with a camera and works effortlessly with software like Photoshop. Yet for years, the talented artist and writer toiled at a retail job, sweeping floors, unloading trucks and feeling frustrated that employers couldn’t see his potential.

With the help of a program known as Power to the Grid, Sanchirico now collaborates with the staff at Detroit’s American Jewelry & Loan to create product photography and online sales projects. It’s a position ideally suited for Sanchirico, who is on the autism spectrum and struggled with the hiring process.

“I sent out so many resumes, but I never got a ‘yes’ after an interview,” said Sanchirico, who lives in Brighton and has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. “(Power to the Grid) has been invaluable.”

Created in 2014, Power to the Grid is a business focused on the hiring, training and placement of gifted individuals with autism, such as Sanchirico, said co-founder Stefan Kogler. Kogler said his goal is to show that if Power to the Grid can work in Detroit’s biggest pawn shop, it can work for employers of all sizes and industries.

American Jewelry & Loan was the right partner to launch Power to the Grid in a real-life workplace, said Kogler. Owners Les and Seth Gold wanted to expand their online stores, they appreciated smart risks and they understood the group’s approach. The shop’s on-site training center provides entry-level jobs with an opportunity to advance both at American and with other employers.

“This center demonstrates that if you’re a business that wants to be community-minded, you can combine those efforts with your desire to do well,” said Kogler, who has an extensive background in social media, website and content marketing. “The genius is there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. It’s not a placeholder; it’s a path toward growth.”

Seth Gold said the pawn shop sells merchandise on its website, has an eBay presence and a growing Etsy shop. Having high-end photography and well-written product descriptions highlights its jewelry, Detroit memorabilia and electronics in a way that boosts business and brings in greater profit for the business, which operates on slim margins and relies on volume across its sales channels.

“Some people have said we were brave to do this. We weren’t brave. We knew it would work,” Seth Gold said. “Every new employee here goes through training. Everyone is new at some time. These guys are part of our business now. They’re teammates. And we value their work.”

Les Gold, who founded the shop known best for its reality television show “Hard Core Pawn,” agreed with his son and business partner. “They’re helping us more than we help them,” he said.

The Golds nod toward Power to the Grid employee Sean Rosen, who is a self-described perfectionist. His eye for detail is one of his best assets in the work he’s doing for American Jewelry & Loan, the staff notes.

On this particular Monday, Rosen used a computer program to enhance one of Sanchirico’s photographs of a topaz ring. In just a few mouse clicks, the photo went from a muddy background to a bright white image that showed off the ornate gold band and highlighted three small diamonds on each side of the blazing blue gemstone.

“Now you can see what you’re buying,” Rosen said. “And that’s much more useful.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.