Carlsbad firm tests hiring program for workers with autism

Joseph Riddle, left, director of Neurodiversity in the Workplace, works with David Chidester, 22, on a project

By Pam Kragen, San Diego Union Tribune

Carlsbad — David Chidester has loved computers ever since he was a little boy tapping away on his dad’s old Dell PC running Windows ’98. As a result, the 22-year-old programmer is eager to show employers what he can do.

But since earning a computer science degree from Willamette University in Oregon last spring, Chidester has had trouble landing a job. Chidester is on the autism spectrum, and while he’s confident in his coding abilities, he’s less secure in the social skills needed to ace a job interview.

Fortunately for him, companies in the technology industry are beginning to rethink the hiring process to level the playing field for workers who are “neurodiverse.” Neurodiversity is the concept that people with neurological differences, such as autism, dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are simply different, not diseased.

Chidester is one of eight applicants with autism taking part in a neurodiversity hiring program at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology firm with offices in Carlsbad. The two-week pilot program, which concludes this Friday, will end with job interviews for a handful of posted open positions in the areas of data analysis, business intelligence and predictive analytics

Austin Richardson-Solorzano, left, seen from behindm Jacqueline Sailer, center, and Jason Freedman work on a project at Thermo Fisher Scientific during a hiring training program to promote neurodiversity in the workplace on Aug. 16 in Carlsbad. Chidester is part of a group of adults with autism who are hoping to get jobs at Thermo Fisher. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Only 16 percent of adults with autism have full-time jobs because they often struggle with communication, forming relationships, social cues, anxiety and other issues that can become magnified in a job interview. Joseph Riddle, director of Neurodiversity in the Workplace, said adults with autism are often drastically under-employed because they never get their foot far enough in the door to show employers what they’re can do.

“With the hiring program, we replace the interview process with a skills demonstration,” Riddle said. “Skills-based hiring is an equitable way of hiring because it ignores the culture fit factor and only focuses on the skill set.”

Over the past five years, several companies have launched neurodiverse hiring programs. The first was SAP software, which originated the program that Neurodiversity in the Workplace is now re-creating nationwide. Other adopters have included Dell, Ernst & Young, Thermo Fisher and, soon, Bank of America.

Pammi Bhullar, senior manager of global diversity and inclusion for Thermo Fisher, said that if the Carlsbad pilot program is successful, it will be replicated at the company’s other divisions. With 100,000 workers nationwide, that could mean a lot of jobs for the neurodiverse.

“We want to de-bias the interview process to make our company more welcoming,” said Bhullar. “Since we started working on this initiative, there has been so much excitement and passion among our corporate staff that it actually floored me.”

Matt Mouer, vice president of operations for The Arc of San Diego, said the Thermo Fisher program attracted 17 qualified job candidates from around the state, most of them in their 20s. They were pre-screened to verify their credentials, suitability for the available positions and willingness to relocate to Carlsbad, if offered a job.

Nine were chosen to take part in the hiring program, but one dropped out last week because he was suffering from anxiety. Except for that one bump in the road, Mouer said the process has gone exceptionally well. If some of the program participants are hired, Thermo Fisher’s workers will be given follow-up training on working with people on the spectrum. Also, Mouer said Arc of San Diego will provide the new employees with ongoing counseling and support. The open positions are not restricted to applicants with autism but to applicants of all abilities.

Chidester, who traveled from Oakland to participate in the program, said he’s grateful he can ease himself into the interview process by showcasing his skills upfront.

“I have Asperger syndrome, so some things that come easily to the neurotypical don’t come as easily for me,” he said. “I have difficulty advocating for myself so I’m looking forward to the group project.”

Ted Chang, left, and Jacob Rachal, right, work on a project at Thermo Fisher Scientific during a hiring training program to promote neurodiversity in the workplace on Aug. 16 in Carlsbad. Chidester is part of a group of adults with autism who are hoping to get jobs at Thermo Fisher. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Another program participant is San Diego resident Jacqueline Sailer, who turned 27 on Sunday. She holds a liberal arts degree from Swarthmore College, a data-mining certificate from UC San Diego Extension, and has experience with multiple programming softwares including Python, R, SQL and Java.

Sailer already has a job in data entry analysis but it’s solitary by nature. She longs to work with other programmers in a collaborative environment, something that can be difficult for some adults on the spectrum.

Sailer is the only female among the program’s eight participants. She’s comfortable working among men, who make up the lion’s share of programmers. But she’s encouraged that neurodiverse hiring efforts may mean more opportunitie down the road for women and minorities on the spectrum.

“Being the only woman in this pool,” she said, “my question would be how would it be possible to ensure hiring diversity in gender and race in choosing applicants in the future?”