Webcor Embraces the Potential of Neurodiversity

Honoring our commitment to diversity

October 25, 2019

Strategy / Planning

Unemployment among the neurodiverse population is about 80%; those who do work are frequently underemployed. However, more and more companies are finding that the people that fall within the neurodiversity category can bring huge advantages. According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, "Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from 'neurotypical' people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value."

Based on Webcor’s commitment to diversity -- and our BOLD Core Value – we are preparing to welcome the second cohort of neurodiverse interns with the ultimate goal of making one or more permanent hires.

In addition to autism, neurodiversity includes conditions like dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, and social anxiety disorders. Research has found that people with these conditions also have special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet until recently, few companies brought them on board, usually because their names didn't surface through the usual recruiting channels.

The PUC Opportunity

The first group of three interns wrapped up their tenure at Webcor a few months back. "The program was a success in that all three completed their internships," says Human Resources Director Jacqueline (JT) Tona. "It was less successful because we didn't hire any of them." JT hopes the second class of neurodiverse interns leads to permanent employment.

The internships were the result of a partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that arose shortly after Webcor was awarded the Biosolids Digester Facilities Project. The PUC launched a hiring program targeting workers with autism and other neurodiverse conditions in early 2018, focusing on the segment of the community that experienced the greatest difficulties in landing jobs.  

The PUC brought The Arc San Francisco on board as an intermediary to recruit, screen, and coach prospects with developmental differences. Seven participants were identified by the end of October 2018, four with autism diagnoses and three with other significant learning conditions. The PUC hired one; the other six were placed at companies doing work with the PUC. They approached Webcor along with Stantec and Brown & Caldwell, each of which took on one intern.

"We were intrigued by the program," says Webcor President and CEO Jes Pedersen. "After meeting with them, we jumped in with both feet."

Jes turned to Human Resources Senior Vice President Mei Lin Wolff, who already had a personal interest in neurodiversity. At a conference a few years back, she heard a speaker talking about a similar program. "I was so inspired by that," she recalls. "My job is about creating people solutions that have an impact on the organization and that better lives. At Webcor, we are looking at diversity and alternative talent channels. And programs like this can also have an impact on the broader community, inspiring more organizations to consider the benefits of employing the neurodiverse."

When the opportunity to be part of the PUC's program came up, Mei Lin partnered with Webcor Senior Vice President Matt Rossie,  HR Director Jacqueline Tona, and Vice President Brian Morton to make it happen. "We all have personal experience with neurodiversity," Matt says. "The potential benefit to Webcor is significant. A lot of the work at job sites can be monotonous but people with autism often are very focused on details. It may be the kind of work they love to do."

Statistically, they also tend to stay with the companies that hire them, bringing tremendous loyalty, as well as empathy, to their jobs.

Two of Webcor's first class of interns worked on job sites after concerns about safety were addressed, according to JT. Their work included scanning, document control, and mail, among other things. The other worked in Human Resources, handling data entry, I-9 verifications, and filing.

No Secrets

Transparency is a big part of the PUC program. While some organizations struggle with whether to disclose the difference of neurodiverse employees, the PUC committed to informing staff about the participant joining the company as well as the program goals. According to Kristen Pedersen, the senior director of workforce inclusion at the Arc, "Our experience is that if colleagues are aware of a person's developmental differences, they nearly always rally in support."

"That was one of the PUC rules," Jes explains. "It was insightful. Having transparency translated into empathy from co-workers." People at the sites where the interns worked had to be patient with the interns' differences, "but in the end, we're all a little different," he says.

That transparency also makes it easier for co-workers to understand the accommodations that are often required for neurodiverse workers, such as the need for headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation; they also sometimes have eccentricities that take some getting used to, though the accommodations and challenges are generally manageable and, as experience has shown, the potential returns are great.

"That's what we hope our participation in the PUC program will lead to," Mei Lin says. "As a company, we have needs we have to fill and the more diverse the talent pool, the more likely we will be able to fill them."

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