Ford provides jobs to individuals with autism

In 1903, Henry Ford launched Ford Motor Company in a factory on Mack Avenue in downtown Detroit. A decade later, the world would be revolutionized by Ford’s concept of the assembly line, and over the next 100 years, the iconic car company would become one of the largest family-controlled companies worldwide.

While their products continue to be cutting-edge technology, it’s a different facet of the car company that’s making waves these days. Ford launched its FordInclusiveWorks pilot program in 2016 to provide individuals with autism opportunities to gain work experience.

Partnering with the nonprofit, Autism Alliance of Michigan, the pilot started small, according to Kirstin Queen, manager of Diversity and Inclusion at Ford Motor Company. The idea came from a similar program Microsoft launched, which Queen learned about at an autism awareness breakfast. She spoke with Colleen Allen, Ph.D., president & CEO of Autism Alliance of Michigan, and brought back the idea to her co-workers at Ford. Queen was surprised at the huge amount of enthusiasm for the program.

“Autism is a personal passion of mine,” Queen said. “I have a family member on the spectrum. I was really impressed by the number of people within our company who share that same passion, who have an appreciation for autism at varying levels in the company.”

The program was launched to level the playing field for employees of all backgrounds and skill levels, and provide additional opportunities for those who might not otherwise get jobs.

“We wanted to launch this program initially because of the high rate of under and unemployment of this population,” Queen said. “Up to 90 percent of individuals with autism are under or unemployed, but up to 50 percent of them have average or above average intelligence.”

That population faces many more challenges than the typical job seeker, but Ford’s program includes support, training and guidance for employees. The pilot began in Ford’s vehicle evaluation and verification organization within the product development area.

The program includes training for both the individual as well as co-workers, management and teams who will be working with the individual. While the supervisors, adjacent employees and human resources staff are trained by the Autism Alliance of Michigan, the special needs workers are also learning during the 30 to 90-day training period.

“In this way, we help proactively create an environment of inclusion for the individual who is going to be joining the workforce,” Queen said. “The Autism Alliance of Michigan provided job coaching to ensure that there is positive communication and working relationships between the individuals with autism and their supervisor and work team. The intent is to create a functioning, long-lasting relationship that can be sustained without the presence of a job coach in the future.”

Following the training period, all four pilot program individuals applied for their positions within Ford’s Dearborn headquarters and were granted employment. As for the expansion, the program will move into two other product development departments, information technology and a third unannounced area.

“We’re anticipating bringing on board between 12 and 24 additional individuals in 2017,” Queen said. “We’re really excited and that’s why it was important for us to start small so that we knew how to do this correctly and sustainably.”

Workers, new hires and community members are happy to hear of the unique program. Feedback from internal employees have only reconfirmed the program’s initial importance of creating an inclusive environment in the workforce. Feedback showed both pride in Ford workers and also hope. Whether it’s a child, grandchild or neighbor affected, many people within the company have a close connection to autism.

“When a company like Ford can do a program like this, where we are proactively seeking to understand how to best work with this population, it gives families hope,” Queen said, “If this can become more of the “norm” on how large companies do business, then there’s a potential to make a huge impact. And there’s going to be opportunities for these folks to work and contribute to companies in the future. We’re really proud of that.”

Cathy Gladstone, office coordinator for the Autism Society of Michigan recognizes the impact a program like Ford’s can have in paving the way for future companies. She works with Anne Carpenter, the society’s information and referral specialist, who has been employed there for almost 30 years. Anne, herself is autistic but provides a wealth of knowledge and resources for the society.

“Companies and organizations would be pleasantly surprised to learn people on the spectrum perform well when they are given the opportunity and training,” Gladstone said.

She spoke on the program and commends Ford for thinking outside of the box.

“It is certainly refreshing, to realize that perhaps as communities become more aware and accepting of autism, there will become more opportunities for a person on the autism spectrum. Ultimately, being able to live, work and have the opportunities known to those that are not on the autism spectrum is what would be the ideal,” Gladstone said.

While the challenges of everyday life and employment remain a reality for those with autism, companies like Ford are working hard to break stigmas and lay the groundwork for a better working environment for all.

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Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn received her degree in Journalism from Lansing Community College. She’s a concert junkie; living and breathing in both the local and national music scene. She is proud to call Lansing her home, finding a new reason every day to be smitten with the mitten.