When Cornelia Quinn, co-founder of Go-Be, which makes reusable antimicrobial airplane tray covers, needed help to pack and fulfill orders, she looked no further than her 19-year-old son, Jake, who has autism.
As someone with autism, finding employment is challenging. More than half of young adults with autism are unemployed. Unemployment for neurodivergent adults is as high as 30% to 40%, three times the rate for people with a disability — up to 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, according to a recent Deloitte report. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of conditions including autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and dyslexia. With one in 45 adults on the autism spectrum alone, that’s a lot of untapped labor market potential.
This is a significant data point for employers amid the current labor crunch. About half of U.S. states now have unemployment rates below pre-pandemic levels — a 50-year low — while 13 states have unemployment rates below 3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means employers are struggling to fill open positions and are more willing to look more closely at previously overlooked segments of the population.
“Employers are trying multiple methods of hiring and looking at resources that may not have before, said John Dooney, HR advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Everyone is struggling to find talent out there in the marketplace,” said Carlos Cubia, global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance. “What we do know, from data and research, is that this is the highest unemployed demographic in the country. And that’s people with disabilities. So it’s an untapped resource that businesses can hopefully turn to.”
Walgreens, Amazon lean into neurodiverse talent
One stumbling block that employers face when hiring neurodiverse individuals is accommodating conditions. Since neurodiversity encompasses such a broad variety of conditions, the accommodations needed also vary broadly. Someone with sensitivity to loud noises may need headphones to muffle the sound. Others with severe dyslexia or other conditions may benefit from signage that includes pictures or is color-coded.
Since its start in 2007, Walgreens’ Transition Work Group program has helped place 1,000 individuals at the company’s distribution centers. The 13-week training program includes both classroom and on-the-job training that teaches how to pull and pack orders from the distribution center to stores.
“These individuals, once they come through the 13-week program, they are paid at the same rate as someone without a disability, they have the same expectations in terms of job performance, and are treated just like a normal employee within the workforce. We don’t cut corners to say where you know, your productivity can be less, your expectations or less, we don’t do any of that,” Cubia said.
The company also has a similar program for its retail stores. The Retail Employees with Disabilities trains employees with disabilities to stock shelves, unload trucks, greet customers, or work as a cashier. To keep the program running, Walgreen’s HR department and distribution center leadership work with local community organizations as well as state and local social service agencies to help find and screen candidates.
Job coaching can be a crucial part of ensuring success. Wawa, which operates a chain of convenience stores and gas stations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and three other states, breaks up tasks for neurodiverse employees. Typical employees have a range of responsibilities from food preparation to cleaning to customer service. A job coach, employed by a coaching organization, not Wawa, will help determine the right scope of tasks for the individual, which can vary depending on their abilities and desires.
Jay Culotta, treasurer for Wawa and president of The Wawa Foundation, said that when his daughter Hannah, who has Down syndrome, started working for the company two years ago, she worked with a job coach to ensure she was performing tasks efficiently and effectively. “Over time, as Hannah became more independent, that job coach would start fading away,” Culotta said.
Wawa has worked with Eden Autism Services in New Jersey for over 40 years. The partnership started when a store manager hired Ari Shiner, who has autism, through Eden in 1981. Wawa now works with more than 200 different job coaching organizations. Shiner is still with the company and Wawa has about 30 other neurodiverse employees who have stayed on for at least 20 years.
While some neurodiverse individuals may need more accommodations, many do not.
“The accommodations that are typically needed are not enormous,” said Dan Roth, a technical recruiter for Amazon who, as someone with ADHD, is also considered neurodiverse. “If somebody is working at 50% of their capacity, but if you make two or three light accommodations, and that brings them to 85 or 95% … there, look how much more ROI you’re getting,” he said.
At Go-Be, which employs four neurodiverse individuals, Quinn breaks down tasks to best suit the individual. While her son, Jake, is especially adept with computer-related tasks, another member really enjoys rolling and folding the sleeves. “It’s almost therapeutic for him,” she said. “We set up stations for them and we really want to promote their success and give them social opportunities to collaborate with each other to accomplish their role or task,” Quinn said.
While there could be some accommodation and investment needed to hire neurodiverse individuals, recruiters and companies that have gone through the process say that there is a payoff — both financial and otherwise.
“These individuals are very reliable, very good from a productivity standpoint … they’re very methodical and deliberate about how they do their job attention to detail,” Cubia said.
The attrition rate for individuals who go through Walgreen’s TWG program is 25% lower than the norm in Walgreen’s distribution centers. Retention is also higher, Cubia said. “You’ve heard the old adage that it costs less to retain an employee than it does to acquire a new one. It helps you save money from that standpoint,” he said.
In addition, the IRS offers tax credits and incentives to companies that hire disabled individuals, which could include some neurodiverse individuals. Some of the incentives go toward offsetting the cost of accommodations.
For Wawa, the payoff is not necessarily tied to performance metrics or profit margins.
“We have some associates in this program who are just as efficient and productive as our typical associates. . . And we have some that’s just not in the cards and that’s okay. Their job scope may be very, very narrow or they may work entirely with their job coach,” said Dave Simonetti, senior director for store operations at Wawa, “but there’s other things that are brought to the table.”
Those other qualities are harder to measure by numbers, but equally important. “The associates working with them feel that the community really embraces this program. That’s a huge win with customer service, which is a huge opportunity in our industry. A lot of times this is a big positive for just customer interaction. It’s a different set of metrics,” he said.
Wawa has about 47,000 employees, 500 of whom are neurodiverse.
While companies such as SAP, Microsoft, Ford, Deloitte, IBM and others have shifted their corporate HR practices to bring on more neurodiverse individuals for coding or other technical jobs, efforts to hire neurodiverse individuals for fulfillment, distribution or retail jobs are more scattered. Part of the bias is the perception that neurodiverse individuals or people with disabilities can’t keep up in a business that watches performance metrics so closely.
Arwyn Swanger, a recruiter for Indeed.com and WilsonHCG who focuses on placing neurodiverse individuals, said opportunities for neurodiverse individuals can vary depending on the company, the store and store manager. She cited placing several individuals at Walmart and many at Lowe’s. Some store managers are very familiar with the process and any accommodations, others are wary, she said.
Walmart spokesperson Jimmy Carter said the company doesn’t have a specific program dedicated to hiring neurodiverse individuals. “We don’t inquire about specific conditions but we’re committed to engaging, hiring, and growing diverse talent from underrepresented communities, including neurodiverse individuals,” he said.
Go-Be’s Quinn hopes that, with greater awareness, more neurodiverse individuals will find employment. The current high rate of unemployment, “is an alarming number. Moving forward I want to somehow get the community involved,” she said.
“Those are all great opportunities to help them have a purpose, and that they feel that when they wake up in the morning, they have something to look forward to, and just feel that they’re part of society and that they’re contributing,” she added.