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Adelphi internship program gives students with autism a foot in the door

A chance meeting two years ago led Savvy Hires founder Felicia Fleitman to an instrumental role in creating the program.

Adelphi University senior Richard Spiegel speaks with Northwell

Adelphi University senior Richard Spiegel speaks with Northwell Health employees, from left, Liz Zgaljardic, Lesly St. Louis and Lauren Pearson. Spiegel is part of the Bridges to Adelphi program, which helps connect students on the autism spectrum with employers offering internship opportunities. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Just two days after starting her firm in July 2016, Felicia Fleitman attended a networking luncheon that would change the course of her business.

At the luncheon, Fleitman, founder of Westbury-based Savvy Hires, a workforce development firm specializing in creating internship and apprenticeship programs, listened to a speaker from Specialized Autism Support & Information talk about the struggles individuals on the autism spectrum face in finding employment.

“I had never thought about this population before,” says Fleitman. “Her passion inspired me.”

She started volunteering for the group. Soon after, Adelphi University contacted SASI for help in finding internship opportunities for its students with autism. SASI in turn called Fleitman.

That connection led her to a role as a paid consultant to the university's Bridges to Adelphi program, which offers academic, social and vocational services to students on the autism spectrum and those with other non-verbal learning disorders. It also resulted in the creation of a pilot internship program last summer that started with just two employers and is expanding to close to a dozen this summer.

“Last year, we had seven interns,” says Fleitman, noting they hope to at least double that when the program starts in mid-June.

Expanding employer participation is critical for members of this population, who often find themselves unemployed or underemployed.

“This is very much an untapped labor pool,” says Marcia Scheiner, president of Manhattan-based Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, an organization that works with employers to help identify, recruit and retain professionals on the autism spectrum.

The unemployment rate among college graduates with autism is 85 percent, she says.

“Our traditional vocational system has typically focused on placing people on the autism spectrum in lower-skilled work,” says Scheiner. Yet, about a third of the autism population is achieving higher education levels and looking for competitive employment at their skill level, she says.

There are some real benefits to hiring this population, including their accuracy, attention to detail and ability to hyper-focus, she says. More employers are becoming aware of their value as evidenced by major companies like Microsoft devoting dedicated hiring programs to this population.

Following last year’s pilot program, New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health hired two Bridges interns for full-time jobs in information technology and research, says Lauren Pearson, Northwell's manager of workforce readiness.  

Northwell representatives were at Adelphi last month to interview intern applicants for this summer. Peason says the interviews are conducted at the school rather than in a Northwell office "to make it a more comfortable environment” for the students.

One interviewee, Richard Spiegel, 20, a senior studying computer science, said he appreciated Northwell coming onto campus.

“It definitely alleviates the stress,” he says. Last year he interned at Enterprise Holdings through the pilot program.

Spiegel says the Bridges program has helped prepare him for what to expect from an interview and also for participating in an internship.

“Bridges provides a much easier opening for you to come in and find opportunities for internships and jobs,” he says.

That’s the intent, says Bridges director Mitch Nagler, who hired Fleitman in 2016 to provide students with opportunities to connect with potential employers.

"If we don’t provide our students with support as they get close to graduation, it’s going to be difficult for them to gain employment in the areas they studied where they get paid competitive wages so they could live independent lives,” Nagle says.

Fleitman says these students are just as capable as “neuro-typical” students, but just need support.

She and the Bridges program also offer support to companies. For example, they went to Northwell to conduct "autism in the workplace" training for managers. Northwell also created a video inviting interested Bridges students to its campus and then arranged a trip to Lake Success before the interviews.

This helps, considering the interview process alone can be daunting for these individuals, Fleitman says.

Scheiner agrees. Her firm, Integrate, coaches companies on behaviors that might make them discard a candidate, such as not making eye contact or taking a few extra seconds to process a question before answering.

Still, employers don’t have to drastically change the way they operate.

“It’s 90 percent about clear communication,” says Scheiner, recalling an instance when a manager asked a young man on the autism spectrum "‘Would you like to work on this project?" and he answered "No." When she asked the young man why he said that, he said it was because he was already working on something else. Rather, the manager could have tweaked his direction by saying, "We need you to work on this project."

“It’s the little things,” Scheiner says.

Fleitman says companies are becoming more open to giving internship opportunities to students on the spectrum. She’s expanded her reach to more employers this year. Northwell and Queens-based Enterprise are participating for a second year. Medcore Health Group of Garden City and Spark Foundry, a Manhattan media agency that is part of Publicis Media, are among the new companies that have signed on. 

Enterprise hired a management intern from last summer’s program to stay on part time during the school year, talent acquistion manager Natasha Johnson says.

“Participating in the Bridges to Adelphi program is a perfect fit with our company culture and values,” she says.

Fleitman says the internship program has exceeded her expectations, adding that this niche now constitutes 70 percent of her business.

She’s also working with other schools in similar capacities, including Suffolk County Community College.

“This has really shaped my business model in a way I didn’t expect,” Fleitman says. “My overall goal is to really impact the employment landscape in a positive way.”

At a glance

 

Company: Savvy Hires, Westbury

Owner: Felicia Fleitman

Specialty:  Creating internship and apprenticeship programs

Founded: 2016

Revenues: 70 percent from school partnerships; 30 percent from companies seeking interns

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