For over a century, the Ford Motor Company has distinguished itself as an innovator in automotive technology and design. With 67 plants worldwide, this industry giant commands a workforce of over 200,000 that will now expand to include persons on the autism spectrum as part of its groundbreaking program FordInclusiveWorks. While similar employment models are increasingly common throughout the business world, what distinguishes the Ford initiative is that positions will be offered at various levels throughout the company rather than in assembly lines alone. According to Monique Brentley, Ford spokesperson and Ford’s May 25, 2016 press release, “Ford understands that individuals with autism bring a unique set of strengths to our employment talent pool. Utilizing a diverse and inclusive workforce, one that represents our customers, makes us a better, stronger company. Ford believes that gaining experience with working with individuals with autism contributes to business objectives and enhances diversity at Ford and adheres to our desire to construct a ‘better world’ through collaboration with and support of those in the community around us.”
Crucial to achieving those goals has been the partnership Ford built with Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM), a well-established organization offering case management and supports for adults with autism. AAoM CEO and President Colleen Allen points out that in constructing the program, from the very beginning, Ford was open to bringing people with autism to all levels of its company. Allen and her staff, all equipped with degrees in autism related fields, worked with Ford to develop the program and were responsible for the selection of the five individuals who currently participate in the FordInclusiveWorks pilot.
Having officially launched on June 1, 2016 in the Ford product division, the program is still very much in its infancy. Nonetheless, Allen is already excited by what she sees. She anticipates that this success will spark a revolution in hiring people with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, not only in the automotive industry as with Ford, but in many other industries, as well.
FordInclusiveWorks developed organically when interest from both Ford and AAoM intersected through the personal motivation of its employees. Kirstin Queen, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Ford Motor Company, has a brother on the autism spectrum. Allen recounts, “Kirstin’s father heard of one of our programs on employment issues and brought the ideas to Kirstin, who then proposed developing such a program at Ford.”
Raj Nair, Ford’s Executive Vice President of Product Development and Chief Technical Officer, enthusiastically volunteered to serve as the program’s executive sponsor. Having been touched by autism through friends and family, Nair, like Queen envisioned Ford as a forerunner in such collaborations: In the May 25 release, he states, “We (at Ford) are committed to making people’s lives better, and this pilot program has the potential to not only make the participants’ lives better, but also help Ford be an even more diverse and inclusive workforce. Autism affects many people in our communities, and I’m proud we’re taking on this important initiative.”
Ford data further explains that as FordInclusiveWorks took shape, AAoM and Ford partnered to review work at Ford that was both essential to meeting business needs, and was complementary to the typical skills and abilities of individuals with autism. Next, AAoM spent time observing employees performing the work, gathering integral information regarding work requirements, conditions, and surrounding support and structure that would contribute to success. AAoM worked with Ford supervisors to structure job duties, in addition to reaching out to local colleges, universities, and agencies to identify individuals with autism and the skills and/or experience to perform this work at Ford.
The next phase of development focused on equipping Ford personnel. Prior to the start of the pilot AAoM provided autism awareness and effectiveness training for Ford Human Resources and employees who will direct and work adjacent to pilot participants. To ensure effective communication, natural supports are put in place within the Ford team, creating a greater likelihood of successful retention and high performance of pilot participants. One such support, the “On-the-Job Work Experience” portion of the program is coordinated by AAoM and provides job consulting to both pilot participants and to the Ford employees who work alongside them. AAoM also provides training for Ford employees involved in the program to increase their understanding of autism and a position everyone to better relate to their new colleagues.
According to Ford’s May 25 press release, although specific skill sets vary for each job, all of the pilot program positions are located within the product development department. For example, in the vehicle evaluation and verification test lab, a FordInclusiveWorks participant will log and prep tires for test vehicles used by engineers for product assessment. The work is highly structured, according requiring a great deal of focus, and calls for a high level of attention to detail and organization. Skills required to complete this task (and other tasks) safely and with a high level of quality lend themselves to strengths typically associated with individuals with autism.
In that same May release, another Ford executive also spoke about the value of the program. “Individuals with autism bring a unique set of talents to our business,” said Felicia Fields, Ford group vice-president, human resources and corporate services. “We recognize that having a diverse and inclusive workforce allows us to leverage a wider range of innovative ideas to make our customer’s lives better.”
Monitoring the Progress and Determining the Success of the Pilot
For Allen and her staff, developing and launching the program are just the beginning. This collaboration with Ford includes ongoing assessment of the program so that each participant finds the best possible fit, ideally performing at the highest level, given the nature of the job assignment. Allen notes that “often the issues are resolved by simply letting the person know what is expected beyond the job description. Sometimes it is as simple as explaining the culture of the workplace, what it means to take a break, how they will get to work, where to go for lunch and more on that level. We are watching the entire project closely so that we can create best practices guidelines. We hope this program can be eventually broadened and replicated in other operations.”
At this phase of FordInclusiveWorks, AAoM candidates participate for 30-90 days of on-the-job work experience. During this pilot time period, Ford will assess the individuals for quality of work and fit within Ford culture. If quality and production standards are met, and a fit with Ford is positive, the individual will be invited to apply for the position as a Ford employee through Ford’s recruiting process.
“Individuals with autism bring a unique set of talents to our business,” says Felicia Fields, Ford group vice president, human resources and corporate services. “We recognize that having a diverse and inclusive workforce allows us to leverage a wider range of innovative ideas to make our customers’ lives better.”
In terms of employee support, Ford has several employee resource groups (ERGs) at Ford including Ford Employees Dealing with disAbilities (FEDA). This ERG was organized in 2002 and helps ensure the company’s ongoing commitment to all of our employees with disabilities. FEDA provides a first-stop resource for information and networking tools for employees dealing with disabilities of their own or of others.”
The Road Ahead
Colleen Allen anticipates that other initiatives will quickly follow this pioneering program in the automotive industry and beyond: “Ever since the article on this project appeared in Disability Scoop, we have been contacted by one company after another–more than thirty by this writing. They want to see if they can also start a similar program. We hope to develop guidelines for such programs so that they can be replicated in other parts of Ford and in other industries. Employment of people on the autism spectrum is the future. Ford is making that future a part of our present reality and helping assure its continuity and success.”