Delaware County company leads way in recruiting job candidates on autism spectrum

Mark Jessen believes that many autistic people rely on a core group of close friends and family to survive in a world built for

Mark Jessen believes that many autistic people rely on a core group of close friends and family to survive in a world built for "neurotypicals." That makes gaining life skills and emotional support on the job crucial

As companies begin to think more critically about how to attract and retain job candidates on the autism spectrum, SAP, a global software company in Delaware County’s Newtown Square recently held a summit to help.

While those with autism often have unique and in-demand skills, they can struggle to make it through a job interview.

“They fidget with their fingers, maybe they were not dressed correctly, so all of these things, even though people who may have been brilliant, those were what are called ‘interview killers,'” said Jose Velasco, who leads the Autism at Work program at SAP.

The recruitment and hiring program — specifically for people on the spectrum — features an interview process that is a series of robotics challenges rather than a conversation.

That’s how Mark Jessen got a job with the company. Before meeting Velasco, Jessen was left homeless after his parents and business partner died within a short span.

Describing his former self, Jessen said, “I could literally go days without speaking. I lived invisibly, because all the social constructs and everything involving that were just either invisible or confusing.”

SAP’s program focuses on life skills and supporting autistic people through job transitions. Jessen believes that many autistic people rely on a core group of close friends and family to survive in a world built for “neurotypicals,” so gaining life skills and emotional support on the job is crucial.

Training and retaining autistic employees actually improves a company’s bottom line, Velasco said, because it’s costly to hire and train new employees.

“There’s a significant amount of talent out there that, because we have not learned how to tap in to it, we have not been able to utilize it to its full potential and for the benefit of organizations like ours,” he said.

Since the program began, Velasco said, SAP’s employee retention rate is 95 percent.

Microsoft and Hewlett Packard have similar programs, and 60 companies have reached out to SAP for help in developing their own models.

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