Businesses Look To Hire People With Autism To Improve Workforce Capabilities, ‘Autism At Work’

A local bakery and cafe in Schenectady, New York, is hoping to shed light on the issue of employment for people with autism. The bakery is looking to employ individuals with autism or other disabilities in a hope of showing the community that people with autism can be a vital member of the workforce.

WNYT reports that cafe owner Sara Mae Hickey plans to open Puzzles Bakery and Cafe on State Street this summer. Hickey said there are about 20 positions opening, but she has already received over 100 applications, from applicants both with and without disabilities.

“We’re looking to hire people with and without disabilities, but it is certainly our mission to hire people with autism and other special needs.”

Hickey is passionate about bringing awareness to issues related to autism and is the head of the Autism Initiative. Hickey says her own sister has autism making the cause very dear to her heart. Hickey says:

“People with autism make really good employees. They’re very willing and happy to be here. Some people with autism are great with repetitive tasks and great with people. It depends on each individual, but it’s great to take a chance on autism.”

She is hoping that her cafe will bring awarness to other businesses about why hiring individuals with autism could be good for their business. Unfortunately, unemployment is very high in the special needs community, including for those with autism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a study was performed in 2010 to compare unemployment rates for individuals with disabilities compared to those without a disability. The study found that only 29 percent of individuals with disabilities were working compared to 64 percent of those without disability. The study also found that young adults with autism who were employed compared to that of individuals who were deaf, blind or had multiple disabilities. The study confirmed that people with autism were falling through the cracks of employment.

However, more businesses are realizing that they may be making a mistake by overlooking the autism community. Aljazeera America reports that SAP, the world’s third-largest software company, started a pilot program called Autism at Work. SAP has hired 30 employees with autism around the world — in Ireland, Germany, India, Canada and the U.S. — and plans to hire more than 600 others with autism by 2020, totaling 1 percent of its global workforce. Jose Velasco, vice president of product management and head of the Autism at Work program, says:

“People affected by autism bring a tremendous amount of capabilities that are very important for us as an IT company. We are looking for people who have the ability to concentrate on tasks for a long time, people who have the ability to, in some places, do tasks that for other people might be considered repetitive but are absolutely of very high importance for us and the company.”

The benefits can be great for companies willing to make a few changes to accomodate employees with autism. For example, SAP notes that people with autism face real challenges in a traditional work setting. They can be extra-sensitive to noise, bright lighting and the normal stresses that come with a full-time career. Taking these things into account requires more attention and training for autistic employees and their managers. Some are also worried about higher health care costs, worker’s compensation claims and liability issues related to hiring individuals with autism. However, Velasco says he is not worried stating that he believes it will pay off for the company in the long run to have these employees with such a special set of skills.

Many human resources professionals are watching the SAP initiative closely to see how it pays off. Jim Sesil, a human capital management expert and author of “The Definitive Guide to HR Management Tools,” is one of them. Sesil says:

“In the long term, there are many reasons to think it will be a gold mine.It’s a group that hasn’t been tapped into before. But the largest challenge [is that] most firms are under pressure to keep costs down in a short term. If you’re going to reap the gains with these strategic gains related to human capital, those gains aren’t necessarily seen in the second quarter or third quarter but over time.”

What do you think about companies like SAP and Puzzles Bakery and Cafe setting up special hiring initiatives focused on increasing the number of people with autism in the workforce? Is it a gold mine for companies that has remained largely untapped for quite some time, or are there too many startup costs associated with accomodating this new workforce?