F-M employment center would match autistic workers with high-tech jobs
FARGO - Every parent of an autistic child knows the challenges their kids will face as they grow older. One of the big ones is finding a good job.
Specialisterne Minnesota aims to help.
The recently formed Minnesota nonprofit is looking to capitalize on a business model developed by a Danish company that matches autistic workers with high-tech jobs requiring the types of skills autistic individuals often possess.
As a result, Fargo may soon join a growing number of cities worldwide that are putting the model to work.
"Plenty of research shows some (autistic individuals) have greater visual acuity and pick up patterns and track patterns better than neurotypical people," said Tim Hanson, the operator of a Twin Cities consulting firm and a founder of Specialisterne Minnesota.
"As a parent of a person with autism, I don't want pity for my kid," Hanson said. "I want them to have a chance to use the skills that they have.
"If you really think about it," he added, "we have an industry that desperately needs highly skilled people and we have a huge population of people who need jobs."
Shannon McCracken agreed.
"There are all kinds of people locally," said McCracken, of West Fargo, whose 20-year-old son, Levi Lepird, has autism.
Lepird now works at Hornbacher's doing a job he enjoys.
His mother said the plan is for Levi to receive training that could open the door to higher-paying jobs, but the options are now unclear.
"Absolutely he would benefit from this program," she said, referring to Specialisterne. "He would definitely benefit because he has some of those attention-to-details skills."
Specialisterne is Danish for "the specialists" and refers to the unique talents many autistic workers could bring to a job if given a chance.
The name is also a nod to Specialisterne, a company in Denmark that assesses people with autism and trains them for employment in highly technical positions that are often a good fit with the traits autistic individuals naturally display: attention to detail, low tolerance for errors and persistence in completing tasks.
Hanson, whose 18-year-old son, Joe, is autistic, became involved with Specialisterne about two years ago after hearing about what the Danish company does to help autistic individuals.
While Specialisterne Minnesota is in the formative stage, similar programs have been or are in the process of being set up in Scotland, Iceland, Switzerland and Austria.
Fargo could be the launching point for the first North American location, Hanson said. Microsoft has voiced interest in the program, he said.
"Software companies have become pretty adept at identifying individuals with these special skills who happen to be on the autism spectrum, whether they're diagnosed or not, and they employ them because they do such a good job," Hanson said.
As parents of a son with Asperger's, Paula and Dave Ekman of Fargo say Specialisterne is generating excitement.
"I think it's great that Specialisterne is recognizing that people on the autism spectrum have some special abilities and talents, so if we can help them utilize those skills where they can make a good living for themselves, it's just a win-win," Paula Ekman said.
"Our society is typically telling us all of the things that those on the autism spectrum cannot do," she said. "But to have a company that recognizes that they've got these special skills, that they've got things they can do better than others, is kind of the neat component."
Ekman likened Specialisterne to an employment agency for individuals on the autism spectrum, where Specialisterne assesses, trains and hires autistic individuals to be consultants who then go to work at high-paying jobs in information technology and other fields.
While the Danish model relies on government subsidies for support, the Minnesota version relies mostly on private contributions. The idea is to use suchsources to support the operation until Specialisterne Minnesota becomes self-sustaining.
The nonprofit hopes to raise about $425,000 in start-up funds this year, $500,000 in 2013 and $225,000 in 2014.
It also aims to place 45 autistic individuals, known as consultants, by 2014.
"When we hit $500,000, we will open an office in Fargo," Hanson said. Specialisterne Minnesota has raised about $100,000 so far.
When the time comes to identify potential consultants, Hanson said he's confident there will be plenty of talent.
"The least concern we have is finding qualified candidates; there are so many out there," he said.
"If they can do the work and they want to do the work, we have a job for them," Hanson said. He regularly receives emails from parents who say they will move their families to Fargo if a center is set up.
More than 250 people have gone through the Danish model since Specialisterne began in 2004, said Steen Thygesen, CEO of Specialist People Foundation, a nonprofit that is the parent of Specialisterne Denmark.
He said numbers leveled off during the recent financial crisis in Europe and Specialisterne Denmark now has about 35 consultants. The company plans to grow to 100 consultants in the next four years.
For more information about Specialisterne Minnesota, contact Hanson at (763) 227-3571, or tim.
McCracken, a local advocate of the program, can be reached at (701) 306-6152, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555