Over the next 10 years, there will be 500,000 adults on the autism spectrum. Yet, of all college graduates on the spectrum, over 85 percent are unemployed, and nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a job.
After those on the spectrum graduate from high school, many of the services that guided them suddenly vanish. Until recently, few companies had resources that allow people with autism to thrive in the workforce. In fact, according to a report published by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, two-thirds of people with autism do not have a career or educational plan in place within their first two years of high school graduation.
Microsoft noticed this trend and decided they wanted to create a solution. In 2015, the tech giant launched the Autism Hiring Program, which helps recruiters directly witness candidates’ unique talents and skills.
“As you know, the unemployment rate is around 80 percent. What we’ve done is we changed that front door that a candidate traditionally walks through,” said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft. “Today, when most people interview, it’s one day, and it’s back-to-back-to-back interviews. What we realized is that wasn’t the best experience for someone on the spectrum to showcase their skills. So, what we did is we created what we call a five-day cohort, where we bring folks in through a different door. We changed the shape of the door — we bring folks here and they get to showcase their skills over multiple days in front of multiple hiring managers, and they get comfortable with the culture, they get comfortable with the teams, and they’re really able to shine.”
Once an applicant is hired, the inclusive support persists throughout the onboarding process. Each new hire is paired with a third-party job coach who assists them with any career questions they might have; in addition, they work with the hiring managers at Microsoft to ensure a seamless transition.
The program also includes a “community mentor,” which helps new-hires navigate areas of the workplace that don’t directly pertain to their specific job, such as which events they should attend and what resources they should utilize. Finally, they have implemented training for the entire company that informs employees about the culture and strengths of autism; this helps create a more cohesive and productive workforce environment.
Microsoft is a founding member of the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable, which contains 16 organizations that have all implemented similarly comprehensive hiring and onboarding programs. Other member companies in the Roundtable include Dell, Ford, IBM, and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“I would say that there’s been more of a movement in the space for corporations to think more inclusively on finding talent in the space,” Barnett said. “There are more and more companies across industries – it’s not just tech – it’s financial services, it’s banking, it’s manufacturing, and it’s clearly tech. I think more and more companies are making this part of the way they track talent and find talent. So, I think it’s great to see, and I think there’s a lot more that needs to get done because of the unemployment rate, but I think over the past few years, the momentum has definitely picked up.”
“Before I came to Microsoft, I was struggling to get employment, and I had these skills in math, but nobody was getting me interviews and it didn’t seem to be going well,” Microsoft data scientist Joey Chemis said in an interview. “I worked a couple of minimum wage jobs; it was work, it paid the bills, but I definitely could feel I was destined for something more.”
Companies like Microsoft, Dell, IBM, and more are helping to give talented people like Chemis the opportunity to follow their passions and contribute to something significant. But even then, this is just the tip of the iceberg for inclusive hiring programs, according to Barnett.
“We need to make it easier to find each other, and we need more employers that have all different types of jobs — not just technical jobs, but whether it’s retail or customer service or manufacturing, get involved,” he said. “So, no matter what skills you have, you can find meaningful employment. There’s more work needed to be done, but I’m excited about what employers and candidates are doing at the moment.”