Magazine article Workforce Management

Why Companies Choose to Pick Autistic Workers

Magazine article Workforce Management

Why Companies Choose to Pick Autistic Workers

Article excerpt

When TIAA-CREF purchased a massive apple orchard in Washington state as part of its investment portfolio, managers soon discovered some workers would show up drunk or not show up at all.

"We needed a better workforce, people who really wanted to do the work," says Heather Davis, senior managing director and head of global private markets for the Fortune 100 financial services organization headquartered in New York.

The company chose an unconventional approach: hiring employees with autism for its Fruits of Employment program.

"They take a bit longer to train, but once they're trained, they're excellent," Davis says.

Although many organizations have shied away from hiring people with autism--often fearing potential workplace problems--a handful of companies have embraced the practice.

"People with disabilities have a lot more potential than people give them credit for," says Deb Russell, corporate manager of outreach and employment services at Walgreen Co. The drug-store chain based in Deerfield, Illinois, was an early adopter of hiring autistic workers.

Autism is a very real issue among future workers. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found that in 2008, 1 in 88 children had been diagnosed with autism, Asperger syndrome or a related disorder by age 8, up from 1 in 155 in 2002. Experts aren't sure whether that's because of an increasing incidence of the disorder, increased awareness or both.

"There's a growing need for employment for people aging out of the school system," says Davis, whose 12-year-old son has autism. He has "enormous power of concentration and fine-motor skills"--perfect abilities for someone working in an apple orchard.

Neither TIAA-CREF, officially the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund, nor Walgreen specifically asks potential employees about the kind of disability they have, but often workers will tell their bosses, or their behavior can be an indication.

TIAA-CREF has 10 full-time employees with autism or other disabilities working at its 1,000-acre Badger Mountain apple orchard in Kennewick, Washington. Its 4,300-acre vineyard in Santa Barbara County, California, is staffed by 12 full-time employees who are autistic or have other disabilities. …

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