Walgreens has been educating and employing neurodiverse workers since 2007. “What we know from data and research is that this is the highest unemployed demographic in the country,” said Carlos Cubia, global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, of the workers with disabilities.
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When Cornelia Quinn, co-founder of Go-Be, which makes reusable antimicrobial covers for airplane trays, needed help packing and fulfilling orders, she looked no further than her 19-year-old son Jake, who has autism.
Finding employment as someone with autism is difficult. More than half of young adults with autism are unemployed. Unemployment for neurodivergent adults is 30 to 40%, three times that of people with disabilities – according to a recent report by Deloitte, up to 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of disorders, including autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and dyslexia. With one in 45 adults on the autism spectrum alone, this is a large untapped potential in the labor market.
This is a key data point for employers amid the current labor crisis. 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. This means employers are struggling to fill vacancies and are more willing to delve deeper into previously overlooked populations.
“Employers are trying several methods of hiring and finding resources that may not have existed before,” said John Dooney, recruitment consultant at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Everyone struggles to find talent in the marketplace,” said Carlos Cubia, global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance. “What we know from data and research is that this is the highest unemployed demographic in the country. And these are people with disabilities. So it’s an untapped resource that companies can hopefully rely on.”
Walgreens and Amazon are banking on neurodiverse talent
One stumbling block employers face when hiring neurodiverse individuals is accommodating conditions. Because neurodiversity encompasses such a wide variety of disorders, the adaptations required also vary widely. Someone who is sensitive to loud noises may need headphones to muffle the sound. Others with severe dyslexia or other conditions may benefit from signage that includes images or is colour-coded.
Since its inception in 2007, Walgreens’ Transition Work Group program has helped place 1,000 people in the company’s distribution centers. The 13-week training program includes both classroom and on-the-job training on how to pick and pack orders from the distribution center to the stores.
“These individuals will be paid the same as someone without a disability after completing the 13-week program, have the same job performance expectations and will be treated like any other member of the workforce. We don’t bother saying where you know your productivity may be lower, your expectations or lower, we do none of that,” said Cubia.
The company also has a similar program for its retail stores. The retail employees with disabilities train employees with disabilities to stock shelves, unload trucks, greet customers or work as a cashier. To keep the program going, Walgreen’s human resources and distribution center management work with local community organizations and state and local social services to help recruit and select candidates.
Job coaching can be a key factor in success. Wawa, which operates a chain of convenience stores and gas stations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and three other states, is breaking down tasks for neurodiverse employees. Typical employees have a range of responsibilities, from preparing food to cleaning to customer service. A job coach, employed by a coaching organization rather than by Wawa, will help determine the right job scope for the individual, which may vary based on skills and desires.
Jay Culotta, Wawa Treasurer and President of the Wawa Foundation, said that when his daughter Hannah, who suffers from Down syndrome, started working for the company two years ago, she worked with a job coach to make sure she did chores done efficiently and effectively. “Over time, as Hannah became more independent, that job coach disappeared,” Culotta said.
Wawa has worked with Eden Autism Services in New Jersey for over 40 years. The partnership began when a store manager hired the autistic Ari Shiner via Eden in 1981. Today, Wawa 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 been with the company for at least 20 years.
While some neurodiverse individuals may need more adjustments, many do not.
“The adjustments typically required aren’t huge,” said Dan Roth, a technical recruiter for Amazon who is also considered neurodiverse as someone with ADHD. “If someone’s working at 50% of their capacity, but if you make two or three slight adjustments, and that gets them up to 85 or 95%… see how much more ROI you get,” he said.
At Go-Be, which employs four neurodiverse workers, Quinn divides tasks to best suit each individual. While their son Jake is particularly good at computer tasks, another member really likes to roll and fold their sleeves. “It’s almost therapeutic for him,” she said. “We set up stations for them and we really want to encourage their success and give them social opportunities to work together to fulfill their role or mission,” Quinn said.
Cornelia Quinn, co-founder of Go-Be, and her son Jake, who has autism. She says the goal of employing her son and other neurodiverse staff is to make them “feel like they’re waiting in the morning for something to look forward to and just feel like they’re part of society.” and that they’ contribute again.”
While it might take some preparation and investment to hire neurodiverse individuals, recruiters and companies that have been through the process say it’s paying off — both financially and otherwise.
“These people are very reliable, very good from a productivity standpoint…they are very methodical and do their jobs with care and attention to detail,” Cubia said.
The turnover rate for people going through Walgreen’s TWG program is 25% lower than the norm at Walgreen’s distribution centers. Customer retention is also higher, Cubia said. “You’ve heard the old adage that it costs less to keep an employee than it does to attract a new one. From that point of view, it helps you save money,” he said.
In addition, the IRS offers tax credits and incentives to companies that hire disabled people, which may include some neurodiverse individuals. Some of the incentives aim to offset the cost of accommodation.
For Wawa, payout isn’t necessarily tied to performance metrics or profit margins.
“We have some employees in this program who are just as efficient and productive as our typical employees … And we have some who just don’t fit the cards, and that’s fine. Their remit can be very, very narrow, or they can work fully with their job coach,” said Dave Simonetti, Wawa’s senior director for store operations, “but there are other things that are brought to the table.”
These other qualities are harder to quantify but are just as important. “The employees who work with them feel that the community really embraces this program. This is a huge win for customer service, which represents a huge opportunity in our industry. Often this is a great benefit to the mere customer interaction. It’s a different set of metrics,” he said.
Wawa has approximately 47,000 employees, 500 of whom are neurodiverse.
While companies like SAP, Microsoft, Ford, Deloitte, IBM, and others have shifted their HR practices to hire more neurodiverse people for programming or other technical jobs, efforts to hire neurodiverse people for fulfillment, sales, or retail jobs are more scattered. Part of the bias is the perception that neurodiverse individuals or people with disabilities can’t compete in a company that monitors performance metrics so closely.
Arwyn Swager, a recruiter for Indeed.com and WilsonHCG who focuses on recruiting neurodiverse individuals, said opportunities for neurodiverse individuals can vary by company, business and leader. She quoted several people at Walmart and many at Lowe’s. Some store leaders are very familiar with the process and all the precautions, others are cautious, she said.
Walmart spokesman Jimmy Carter said the company does not have a specific program for hiring neurodiverse individuals. “We don’t ask for specific terms, but we are committed to engaging, hiring and developing diverse talent from underrepresented communities, including neurodiverse individuals,” he said.
Go-Be’s Quinn hopes that with greater awareness, more neurodiverse people will find employment. The current high unemployment rate “is an alarming number. In the future, I want to somehow involve the community,” she said.
“These are all great opportunities to help them have a purpose and feel like they have something to look forward to in the morning and just feel like they’re part of society and contributing, ” She added.