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If you take one thing from this post, let it be this: Diversity hiring programs are about more than hiring people for a job.

There was a clear message delivered by the panel assembled on the opening day of the 2017 Autism at Work Summit, hosted by SAP Silicon Valley. Four industry leaders – Ernst & Young, HPE, Microsoft and SAP – came together to co-sponsor and share experiences and successes with their own diversity hiring programs for individuals on the autism spectrum. Each company’s presence is proof that such programs work, and the representatives spoke to taking their initiatives to the next phase and scaling for more impact.

On the heels of an energetic, straight-shooting opening keynote from John Elder Robison, a common theme emerged from this powerhouse panel as they described their experiences with hiring differently-abled peopled:

This is about hiring for careers.

Outlining the three-year lifecycle for a candidate in HP Enterprise’s / Dandelion Program in Australia, Michael Fieldhouse noted that year two of its program focuses on “self-advocacy and self-determination.” Having gone through their first year of “job awareness” when their technical and social development is supported and monitored by their manager, the second is about “hearing from the individuals what they want to do with their career and putting in place mentors and certification opportunities to help them get there.” Critical in HPE’s approach is the focus on taking stock of the individual’s strengths, "not their deficits.” Year three is dedicated to setting up the employee for success as they transition to other roles in the company, which supports the program’s overarching goal to build them up for careers. The program currently has 58 hires working in roles in cybersecurity, data analytics and software testing. All of them, notably, are client-facing.

An innovation shared by Microsoft’s Neil Barnett is incorporating a “mock” interview within their five-day program. This practice interview allows candidates to receive direct and real-time feedback from their interviewer while a Microsoft recruiter takes notes for candidates to review later. When interviews may have been the most challenging aspect of a job search in the past, receiving this additional information can help the candidate with their Microsoft interview as well as any future career pursuits. Prior to attending the in-person event, candidates complete a technical skills assessment that provides early insight to their coding and design approach. Over the last two years, the program has gone through multiple iterations from a four-week program down to five days. An interesting fact about their hiring efforts: Half of the 30 people hired through the program had applied to Microsoft before and did not participate in the traditional recruiting process. “It’s about having a career at Microsoft,” he concluded, “not just having a job.”

Though Ernst & Young’s year-old four-person pilot program is nascent by comparison, they too are committed to a much longer, bigger goal and that includes making approximately 80 diversity hires by the end of 2018 through potential expansion of the program to other countries. Hiren Shukla points out there is huge potential in hiring and retaining neurodiverse individuals. “Retention of this key talent…that is a powerful edge in a competitive marketplace.”

This is the second year for SAP's annual Autism at Work Summit. The program launched in May 2013 with a goal to have 1% of its global workforce represented by employees on the autism spectrum; SAP anticipates 650 employees will be hired under the program by 2020 (there are currently 116). Autism at Work currently runs in nine countries and is set to expand to China by the end of the year, and other North America cites.

"If we want to be effective," said José Velasco, who heads the program in North America for SAP, "we have to have the kind of diversity our customers do, including neurodiversity." That means hiring for a career, not just a job.