Making the case (again) to hire neurodivergent employees

In a time when everyone is looking for workers, this underserved population may bring benefits that overdeliver on expectations

After two decades of schooling and too many special education programs, schools and educators to count (and gratefully thank), my son earned his college degree last week: a bachelor’s in accounting and finance from Southern Utah University.

Now comes the hard part: Getting 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 from Corporate America during Autism Awareness Month in April — combined with a nationwide problem of finding employees — the reality for the neurodivergent community is that getting a job offer (any job offer) still is difficult.

My son loves living in Cedar City, Utah. He finds the residents to be kind and considerate at all turns. He feels welcome and a part of a community like never before. He has worked four part-time jobs.

Landing a full-time job is proving to be more difficult. He was passed over by dozens of accounting firms during the school year. And, in the past month, he has been turned down by three banks that listed openings for a teller — jobs that only required a high school diploma.

This happened despite showing up for interviews with a suit and tie, resume and cover letter and having a long work history of customer-facing jobs that involved handling money.

We’re not picking on the good people of Utah. After all, it appears businesses everywhere are too quick to dismiss the neurodivergent community as a source of talent. Some studies indicate the nationwide 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 those 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, gave a shout out to the idea in this well-received Op-Ed last fall. Sullens should be applauded for the work he does at CentralReach.

Perhaps it’s time to raise the issue again. We’ll start with a look at two organizations that are making an impact on the issue in New Jersey.

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EY

In 2016, EY launched a Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence in Philadelphia (and, thus, southern New Jersey). It has since expanded to hundreds of employees across six U.S. cities.

The NCoEs help neurodivergent individuals feel more comfortable in the workforce — all the way from the hiring process to how they prefer to work, including sound and lighting accommodations — to unlock their unique talents. Since 2020, EY says it has tripled its global neurodivergent workforce.

Hiren Shukla, the EY global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence leader, said the company works with a variety of government agencies, nonprofits and institutions of higher education (including Rowan University) to identify, train and hire neurodiverse employees.

One of the keys, Shukla said, is to ensure that everyone at EY takes part 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 are driving inclusion by creating an environment that is psychologically safe for all.”

Rowan University

Rowan University’s program for neurodivergent students, run out of 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 the transition of neurodiverse students 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 needed to encourage the development and retention of neurodivergent employees and to build pipelines for the recruitment of neurodivergent talent,” she said.

Latimer reiterated the program needs to be an all-in initiative.

“Organizations should have the primary goal of providing a sustainable, diverse and inclusive work environment,” she said. “Secondly, there needs to be a priority of embracing neurodiversity and retaining neurodivergent employees by giving them space to share their experiences and needs in the workplace.”

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So, where do we go from here?

Latimer is quick to point out that there are many staffing agencies eager to help employers create a hiring program for neurodiverse candidates. She rattles off Integrate Advisors and Specialisterne USA as good starting points.

Last spring, ROI-NJ featured a Q&A with Nish Parikh, the co-founder and CEO of Rangam Consultants and the 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 is more than a feel-good social-equity play. Like all programs that promote inclusion, there’s a business benefit, too.

“EY’s interest stems from a true business need for top talent and the absolute business imperative to build a workforce that is able to creatively solve complex problems while leveraging the power of data and emerging technology,” he said.

“We see this as an opportunity to amplify the various dimensions of diversity (across age, gender, race, sexual orientation and cognitive diversity, to name a few) while distinguishing ourselves to our clients and our communities.”

Put another way, Shukla said: “We are committed to continuously proving that innovation comes from unexpected places.”

Does your company think that way? Perhaps it’s time to do so.