The Spark to Move Forward

By Scott Standifer

Deb Russell, a manager in Walgreens Diversity and Inclusion Division, says, “I think all major corporations, especially federal contractors, are in the same boat. Compliance is the lowest common denominator.”

James Emmett is an autism employment advocate and corporate disability consultant who helped Walgreens create its innovative autism/disability employment initiative. Emmett agrees with Russell, adding, “All companies seem to start there until they find the spark to move forward.”

However, why should companies “move forward” at all?  If compliance is safe and business is profitable (or at least adequate), what is “the spark” to trigger investing in employing individuals with autism? At least two easily come to mind.

* The first reason to move forward is altruistic. We all know the statistics – rates of autism among children have been steadily rising for more than a decade and a half, with a cumulative increase of approximately 800% or more. Now those children with autism are graduating from high school – what do they do for the rest of their lives? The U.S. Department of Education’s National Longitudinal Transition Study shows that young adults with autism have only half the employment rate of young adults with other disabilities.

Each year, a larger group of young people with autism graduate from high school, and there is no end in sight. It is reasonable to ask if the business community is ready for this huge influx of qualitatively different job seekers.

A few pioneering businesses, including AMC, Walgreens, TIAA-CREF, and Best Buy, among others, have decided to recruit and support more employees with autism because it is the right thing to do in the face of this growing need.

* The second reason to move forward is productivity. One year after Andy Traub and his team developed and implemented the FOCUS project, AMC surveyed its managers about the program and the “associates” (employees) working under the FOCUS framework of supports. “Ninety percent of the general managers ranked their FOCUS associates as meeting expectations or higher,” Traub says. “All the statistics about people with disabilities, and their loyalty and their attendance, and their engagement – now our theatre staff are actually seeing that for themselves.” In an industry that historically has high staff turnover rates, AMC has found a growing new pool of potential staff members with significantly lower turnover rates.

Russell says Walgreens is seeing similar benefits – decreased staff turnover, higher productivity, and higher satisfaction.

Wednesday: Autism Employment Programs Increasing.