Canada needs workers — so why aren't more companies hiring the neurodivergent?
Only 1 in 3 people with autism are employed. But many more of those on the spectrum want to work
The founders of a job fair for those with autism don't only want to find careers for an untapped workforce — they also hope employers will realize these highly skilled job seekers can help solve a national labour shortage.
"People with autism are very much capable of working and they are some of the best employees," said Neil Forester who, along with his business partner Xavier Pinto, created the Spectrum Works Job Fair that ran Friday.
Now in its sixth year, the job fair has grown from having 150 attendees to almost 2,000 job seekers with autism, all looking to connect with recruiters and hiring managers at major tech, finance, hospitality and retail companies across the country. Though it's been held in various cities, the job fair was a virtual event this year and last.
Getting companies to take part, though, has been a struggle.
Of the 10,000 employers Forester and his team have reached out to in the last six years, just 40 companies took part in this year's job fair.
"The majority of the time we don't get any response," Forester said.
The creators of the fair say they understand there is a wide range of abilities across the autism spectrum and, while perhaps not every person with autism is employable, both Forester and Pinto are confident a large portion of this community can and wants to work.
And Forester questions why more employers aren't looking at this neurodiverse talent pool to help solve the labour shortages that so many companies are experiencing.
A national labour shortage
In the last quarter of 2021, Canadian employers were looking to fill 915,500 jobs, up 63 per cent from the year before, according to Statistics Canada.
And with the current unemployment rate so low, "virtually all industries are bumping up against labour shortages," wrote Royal Bank economist Nathan Janzen in an economic update this week.
Even with the demand for workers, employment barriers remain for Canadians with autism.
Data compiled by the Public Health Agency of Canada found that in 2017 just 33 per cent of Canadian adults with autism reported being employed compared to 79 per cent of adults without a disability.
Forester said he was unaware of just how few neurodiverse employees there are in the workforce before he started the job fair.
"I just didn't realize how big of a problem this was or how big of an issue this was to the community," he said.
Javier Herrera is one of the comparatively few Canadians who are both employed and living with autism.
He attended the Spectrum Works job fair last year and got a job offer.
"It was overall a very positive experience. I met not only recruiters, but also other facilitators, coaches, government agencies, non-profits, you name it," said Herrera who now works as a business systems analyst with an insurance company based in Vancouver.
Herrera is encouraged to see that some employers purposefully seek out people with autism, but he feels that "as a society we are still doing baby steps" to get more people who are neurodiverse into the workforce.
The 'Big Four' are buying in
That said, there are some companies specifically tapping into this talent pool, including the so-called "Big Four" accounting firms.
In the last few years, Ernst & Young has made strides in diversifying its hiring strategy.
The multinational launched the Neurodiversity Centre of Excellence in Toronto in November 2020, with a goal of recruiting employees with autism, ADHD or other sensory and cognitive differences.
"We're dying for talent as an organization," said Anthony Rjeily, a partner at Ernst & Young and the company's neurodiversity program national leader. "So we wanted to see if there was any talent pool out there that we could potentially tap into."
Since the launch of the program, the company has recruited 45 neurodiverse employees to their Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal offices — and plans to expand recruitment in other cities.
Rjeily said the initiative has more than paid off, noting the retention rate among neurodiverse candidates that the company has hired is 98 per cent.
"The level of creativity, the innovation, the productivity that they are able to deliver is incredible," he said.
Mohit Verma was one of the first people Ernst & Young hired in 2020 through the neurodiversity recruitment program.
"At EY my work revolves around certain sub-competencies such as automation, data science and, to some extent, blockchain," Mohit said in an interview with CBC News. "So far I have been part of five to six main projects."
Deloitte Canada is another corporation with an eye on hiring the neurodiverse.
In an attempt to better understand the barriers and workplace needs of neurodiverse workers, the accounting giant teamed up with Auticon Canada, a global technology consulting firm that employs people with autism and recently did a survey along with Deloitte of what the needs of employees with autism might be.
Changing the interview process
The survey, 'Embracing neurodiversity at work: How Canadians with autism can help employers close the talent gap,' was done between July and October 2021. It included 454 respondents with autism who completed the survey online, as did seven companies that had neurodiversity in their workforces were interviewed over videoconferencing.
In their survey, they found that 41.7 per cent of respondents were underemployed, meaning they were working on a part-time, contract or temporary basis or were doing jobs that were "under their educational capabilities," said Roland Labuhn who is a partner with Deloitte Canada.
One of the most eye-opening findings was that the hiring process itself could be a major barrier, as 40 per cent of those polled said the job interview was a "great challenge" for them.
"The people we surveyed felt that the interview was a trick or scary," said Labuhn, who worries that the typical job interview process could eliminate some highly qualified candidates with autism.
With a goal of getting better at both recruiting and retaining neurodiverse workers, companies like Deloitte and Ernst & Young are trying to change the interview process so that it focuses more on competence rather than how a candidate might behave in a certain scenario.
That kind of accommodation provides hope to people like Pinto and Forester.
The inspiration for their job fair came out of Pinto's concerns about his son's future. Xavi, 12, is on the spectrum and is "so creative," his father said.
He's "really focused on what he wants done."
And seeing more employers begin to sign up for the job fair gives him hope that he's helping to create a world in which his son can go after his dreams.