After two decades of schooling and too many special education programs, schools, and educators to count (and gratefully thank), my son graduated from college last week: a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance from Southern Utah University.
Now comes the hardest part: finding a job.
For my son, the challenge has an added level of difficulty: he is on the autism spectrum.
Despite all the good words that came out of Corporate America during Autism Awareness Month in April — combined with a nationwide employee search issue — the reality for the neurodivergent community is that it’s still hard to get a job offer (any job offer).
My son loves living in Cedar City, Utah. He finds the residents to be kind and considerate at all times. He feels welcome and part of a community like never before. He held four part-time jobs.
Landing a full-time job is more difficult. It was ignored by dozens of accounting firms during the school year. And, in the past month, he’s been turned down by three banks that listed cashier positions — jobs that only required a high school diploma.
This happened despite showing up to interviews with a suit and tie, resume and cover letter and having a long history of working with clients that involved managing money.
We’re not going after the good people of Utah. After all, it seems companies around the world are too quick to dismiss the neurodivergent community as a source of talent. Some studies indicate that the national unemployment rate in the community is as high as 85%.
Is this a missed opportunity for employers?
I raised the issue of reaching out to people on the spectrum to solve a hiring crisis in 2018, in a column that was well received by the business community.
Chris Sullens, the CEO of CentralReach, cried out at the idea in this well-received op-ed last fall. Sullens should be applauded for the work he does at CentralReach.
It may be time to raise the issue again. We’ll start with a look at two organizations that are impacting the issue in New Jersey.
In 2016, EY launched a Neuro-Diversity Center of Excellence in Philadelphia (and therefore Southern New Jersey). It has since expanded to hundreds of employees in six US cities.
NCoEs help neurodivergent people feel more comfortable in the job market – from the hiring process to how they prefer to work, including sound and lighting setups – to release their unique talents. Since 2020, EY claims to have tripled its global neurodivergent workforce.
Hiren Shukla, head of EY’s Neuro-Diverse Global and U.S. Center of Excellence, said the company works with a variety of government agencies, nonprofits and higher education institutions ( including Rowan University) to identify, train and hire neurodiverse employees.
One key, Shukla said, is to make sure everyone at EY participates in the training.
“EY provides everything from soft skills training to technical training for our neurodivergent employees, while simultaneously providing training and education for the rest of EY,” he said. “This ensures that we promote inclusion by creating a psychologically safe environment for all.”
Rowan University’s program for neurodivergent students, run by its Office of Career Advancement and Accessibility Services, is the best in the state.
Chiara Latimer, who is the coordinator of the Autism PATH career program, said the program is designed to support neurodiverse students’ transition from higher education into meaningful employment.
She said the group is eager to work with employers, which is the best way to ensure success.
“This partnership is necessary to encourage the development and retention of neurodivergent employees and to create pipelines for the recruitment of neurodivergent talent,” she said.
Latimer reiterated that the program must be a comprehensive initiative.
“Organizations should have a primary goal of providing a sustainable, diverse and inclusive work environment,” she said. “Second, there must be a priority of embracing neurodiversity and retaining neurodivergent employees by giving them a space to share their experiences and needs in the workplace.”
So where do we go from here?
Latimer is quick to point out that there are many recruitment agencies willing to help employers create a hiring program for neurodiverse candidates. She points to Integrate Advisors and Specialisterne USA as good starting points.
Last spring, ROI-NJ featured a Q&A with Nish Parikh, co-founder and CEO of Rangam Consultants and Chief Innovation Officer of SourceAbled, which helps place neurodiverse candidates.
Here’s the best part: Shukla is quick to point out that EY has found its program to be more than a welfare social equity game. Like all programs that promote inclusion, there is also a business benefit.
“EY’s interest stems from a genuine business need for top talent and the absolute business imperative to build a workforce that can creatively solve complex problems while harnessing the power of data and emerging technologies,” he said.
“We see this as an opportunity to amplify the different dimensions of diversity (across age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and cognitive diversity, to name a few) while distinguishing ourselves to our customers and our communities.”
In other words, Shukla said, “We are committed to continuously proving that innovation comes from unexpected places.”
Does your company think so? Maybe it’s time to do it.