Employers turn to workers with autism for talent needs

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Kevin Roach, 28, of Ferndale is a junior technical renewal analyst who maintains and manages software at Ford Motor Credit Co. LLC in Dearborn. He has autism and worked with the Autism Alliance of Michigan to connect him with his information technology position at Ford Motor Co., which was one of the first companies to work with the autism nonprofit to find talent to hire in engineering, product development, finance and other positions.

Dearborn — With the national unemployment rate at a 50-year low, some companies in Michigan are taking an atypical strategy to find the best talent in accounting, communications, engineering, finances and more — hiring workers with autism.

Ford Motor Co. was the first employer to team with the Autism Alliance of Michigan nonprofit in 2016 to give job-ready candidates a chance to try out a job and be recruited. Three years later, 17 people are working there in full-time, part-time and contractor positions in Dearborn. Similar programs have been offered at dozens of employers across the state, including DTE Energy Co., General Motors Co. and MotorCity Casino Hotel. They have hired more than 150 workers with autism.

"There's this untapped talent pool that we should be looking at to fill these jobs," said Colleen Allen, CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, which connects individuals touched by autism with the resources to help them be successful. "Knowledge goes a long way."

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Challenges such as lack of eye contact or delayed speech can become a barrier to people with autism in obtaining a job, even if they have one or more college degrees, Allen said. Although the government does not track the unemployment or underemployment rate among workers with autism, studies have suggested it is as high as 90%.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan has 150 job-ready candidates; another 350-plus are in training to become ready for the workplace.

Kevin Roach, who is autistic, graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in electronic arts, a course of study that uses software such as Adobe Photoshop and video editors. But two years after graduating, he was doing manual labor in a warehouse's shipping department.

In May 2017, the Autism Alliance connected him with an opportunity to put his computer skills to work at Ford Motor Credit Co. LLC, the company's financial services arm.

"I don't feel frustrated about where I am as much," said Roach, now a 28-year-old junior technical renewal analyst who ensures Ford Credit's applications teams are receiving the applications and their software is up to date and functioning properly. "I feel like I’m getting something out of it personally. I feel like my work here is actually worth my time."

More companies are finding partnerships with autism and cognitive disability organizations worth their time, too. Recruits often are model workers who stay with the company and bring a different perspective to the workplace, business leaders said. The Autism Alliance of Michigan has a 97% retention rate.

"Those differences and uniqueness make us stronger and more innovative," said Julie Lodge Jarrett, Ford's chief talent officer. "These are high-performing individuals who come to work every day and deliver company success. They are a great reinforcement to our culture."

'Successful employees'

In 2016, Ford began a greater effort to increase its diversity around the same time the Autism Alliance of Michigan wanted to create a pipeline to match businesses to workers with autism. FordInclusiveWorks launched that year with four participants in product development who had the chance to try out the job and then go through the company's formal recruitment process. All were hired.

A majority of what the alliance does happens before the employee enters a company, though. It leads candidates through a series of steps to prepare them for the workplace. Its experts go over their resumes and social media and work on communication skills. Business recruiters meet with candidates every month for mock interviews. Candidates take a skills and clinical assessment.

"A lot of programs focused on disability employment say 'We'll fix it when they get in the job,'" said Tammy Morris, chief program officer at the Autism Alliance of Michigan. "I think that's why we're successful. We do that offsite and give them a great candidate."

Positions often feature tasks that are predictable and consistent in nature and allow an employee to work mostly alone so that they feel more comfortable, Allen said. For example, workers might log and prep tires for test vehicles used by engineers for product assessment at Ford.

Of course, the positions cover a broad spectrum. Steven Brownlee, a 34-year-old customer service representative for DTE for two years, makes billing phone calls and answers customer calls in the evening. He guessed most of his co-workers aren't aware he has autism.

"It's a note on my file; it hasn't hindered the job," said Brownlee, who also is studying robotics engineering at Lawrence Technology University and has an associate's degree in computer networking.

When employees face a stressful event or a change, they can call an Autism Alliance staff member to help. The liaisons can help employees transition into the new job and may meet with the worker weekly or monthly as needed.

"Autism likes stability," Morris said. "They might not need that facilitation until six months, nine months later when there is a change in supervisor or a change in role."

Companies such as DTE offer additional accommodations during the hiring process. That may include additional time for qualification exams or moving an interview location to make it more comfortable.

"Work brings meaning to all of us," said Dave Meader, DTE's vice chairman who also is a founder and chairman of the Autism Alliance of Michigan and has a daughter on the autism spectrum. "We need businesses to understand that if they put in the right support services, they can be successful employees."

Next generation

In addition to supporting current job seekers, efforts are underway to give high school students with developmental disabilities on-the-job experience. Project Search, an initiative that began at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, has programs at several Metro Detroit employers, including DTE, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and area health systems.

DTE for the past five years has brought a dozen Detroit public schools students with developmental disabilities to work September to June across a broad spectrum of jobs as interns. At the end of the day, the students go over the day and discuss successful strategies with a teacher.

More than 40 participants have graduated from the program. Seventeen went on to work at companies in the area, and DTE hired one of the students.

"The eagerness, the enthusiasm, the positivity, it’s truly contagious," said Diane Antishin, DTE's vice president of human resources operations. "It's the resilience of these individuals that have struggle every day and make it to to work and show up with a positive attitude. It's contagious and impacts our broader workplace."