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MBA students develop concept for Calgary’s first autism spectrum disorder employment agency

February 6, 2017

According to Autism Speaks Canada, the unemployment rate among people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder is 80 per cent and the number of children diagnosed with ASD has increased 100 per cent over the last ten years.  Of the many challenges they already face, one of the most significant is the struggle to find meaningful employment. A group of Haskayne MBA students is looking to change that.

Spurred by a conversation with Shirley Anderson from the Sinneave Family Foundation, Piers Steel, Research Chair with the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership (CCAL), invited a group of parents, all with children on the autism spectrum, to talk to students in his MBA organizational consulting course about their struggles and hopes for finding meaningful employment for their sons and daughters. The challenge put to them was this: could the MBA students come up with a business concept to help?  Students Hilary German, Kathleen Welsch, Maj Benedikte Toxvaerd Laursen and Paulami Saha immediately offered to act as consultants to the group.  Originally tasked to determine an employment solution for individuals living with ASD, the student-consulting group quickly realized that the parent group had abundant ideas, passion and commitment but needed structure.

CCAL mentors from the Calgary business community, Blake Kanewischer from SAIT and Len Nanjad from COREinternational, stepped in to provide coaching to the student-consultants as they worked to create a sustainable business concept based on market and academic research.  Thus was conceived the idea of a web-based staffing agency for candidates living with ASD.  Through the consulting work of the student group, the parents named this idea “Aut2Employ”. 

As a staffing agency, Aut2Employ would screen and train individuals with ASD for jobs that are currently underserved in Calgary; it would also work with employers to prepare them to integrate ASD employees among their staff. 

Aut2Employ’s potential impact goes far beyond standard job-placement. It is all too easy for people with disabilities to default into unemployment with the consequence of slipping into isolation, dependence and feelings that they have little or nothing to offer.

Committed to addressing this situation, Aut2Employ (when fully developed) has the potential to support both those living with ASD and employers who stand to gain from employing these individuals. Research shows that people living with ASD excel in focus and constancy – translating into dependable employees with lower turnover.  

Keeping our sights focused on Calgary’s current situation, Aut2Employ could not be more timely.  No staffing agency in Calgary services individuals with ASD and no disability training programs offer ongoing support to integrate these individuals into long-term paid employment in a wide range of industry sectors.   The MBA students’ study also showed that employers stand to benefit from this untapped talent pool, particularly in four under-served industries in Alberta:  animal care, arts and entertainment, craftsmanship, and cleaning and maintenance. 

What’s stopping it from fulfilling its mandate of helping non-productive, non-working and consequently dependent community members become skilled, productive, employable and confident members of the workforce and providing much-needed, dependable and focused employees for underserved sectors?  Funding, certainly, and more fundamentally, destigmatizing ASD in the workplace.

But there is hope.  Despite still taking form, Aut2Employ was shortlisted for the RBC Social Enterprise Accelerator competition and invited by Innovate Calgary to participate in workshops for social enterprises. Innovate Calgary is clearly interested in supporting a social enterprise that helps the ever growing number of individuals living with ASD – and of course, to help industry too.

Hope for Aut2Employ and social enterprises in general also resides in the powerful experience they offer those working for their success.  MBA student Hilary German acknowledged the abundant work she and her team put into this project but for all that, remains thankful for the opportunity.

 “To be given the opportunity to develop an idea and business concept that will improve the quality of life for individuals living with ASD based on feedback from the community and a tremendous amount of research has been an incredibly rewarding experience. We are so happy that we created a viable business model for the parent group during our MBA program, and we are excited to see Aut2Employ come to fruition.”

Aut2Employ is on the lookout for committed partners – whether you are a parent, professional, employer or investor – to help realize the contributions of the untapped autistic workforce. To find out more, please contact Julie Horne at aut2employ@gmail.com.

Hilary German, Paulami Saha and Kathleen Welsch, respectively.