WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — A one-of-a-kind Air Force Materiel Command employment initiative has entered its second successful year, bringing job opportunities and growth for a unique set of college graduates who might otherwise face challenges when looking for work in today’s competitive job market.
The Autism at Work program, a collaboration between AFMC and Wright State University, Ohio offers students and recent graduates with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum the opportunity to participate in paid, one-year internships across the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base footprint. The program provides the interns not only real-world job experience as Air Force civilians, but it also offers them the opportunity to learn and practice soft skills such as business etiquette and communication under a team of mentors dedicated to helping them achieve success in the internship and beyond.
“This is a unique opportunity for individuals with autism to gain that critical career experience they may not have the chance to obtain in a traditional work environment,” said Molly Fore, AFMC Autism at Work program lead. “These students are smart and have degrees in areas such as science, engineering, computer technology, math and a number of other areas that are highly relevant to our mission needs. We help break down barriers to employment and work with them as they progress from interview, to job offer, placement and beyond, helping them to achieve success.”
Nearly 20 interns are at Wright-Patterson AFB this year, working in positions ranging from mechanical engineering to computer software development, database migration, computer support and biomedical engineering. The interns work closely with supervisors and mentors trained to recognize and understand the unique challenges of working with the individuals and to help ensure an environment conducive to success.
“I believe that everyone, with and without a disability, needs a chance to show what they are capable of doing and should not be judged or labeled,” said Sharon Stauffer, human resources management analyst and mentor.
Stauffer is mentoring one student at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.
“It is important that the employee knows himself better than I know myself. He was able to identify what tendencies and characteristics that he didn’t like people doing around him and voiced them to me so that I could avoid them,” Stauffer said. “He also was very honest with his personality traits and how he reacts in certain situations. He had me examining myself and how I react to others and situations and it was very eye opening to find that I had similar tendencies. This taught me that being autistic didn’t mandate a person would act a certain way,” Stauffer said.
A major challenge that many of the interns face stems from difficulty with social cues that may prevent them from being successful during the interview process. They may not be comfortable shaking someone’s hand or with making eye contact, which may influence an interviewer’s perception of their ability to meet the requirements of a job.
Fore, along with the Wright State University Office of Disability Services, works closely with both job candidates and potential mentors to mitigate these interview challenges.
“Hiring managers who express interest in a candidate are coached on some of the characteristics that someone on the autism spectrum might display during an interview. This awareness helps them to better focus on a candidate’s responses to questions, versus the traits that may act as a distraction,” Fore said. “We also coach the candidates on what to expect when working on a military installation, such as gate procedures, reveille and retreat, exercises and more so that they can be better prepared.”
Support for both the mentors and program participants is an ongoing process, with regular meetings and lunch-and-learn opportunities focused on things such as communication skills, workplace etiquette and health and wellness, among other topics. These help provide a network of connections and support for the program participants, which is key to ongoing success, Fore said.
“We usually get a good turnout for these events, with mentors and participants benefiting mutually from the discussions and exchange,” Fore said. “It’s a great way for everyone to learn from each other.”
For one participant, the Autism at Work program has provided the confidence and motivation to pursue a long-term career as an Air Force civilian.
“I applied for the Autism at Work program in order to gain some work experience while in college to prepare myself for my future endeavors,” said Joshua Haralson, a legal assistance intern. “Learning so many new things so quickly has been challenging, but I have done my best to rise above it. I can envision myself working for the Air Force in the future. I am convinced that there are jobs in the Air Force that could use talented people like me, and it would bring me great pride to work with the same group of people in which my mother served as an active duty military member.”
For Laurence Forshaw, an AFLCMC intern working towards a mathematics degree, the program has helped him to better define a focus for his future career.
“Before I applied for this, I was not sure that I wanted to do computer programming as a career. After a few programming assignments, I am much more certain,” Forshaw said. “I appreciate the support I am receiving and look forward to serving my country.”
In addition to offering access to a unique pool of talent, the Autism at Work program also helps to increase diversity in the workplace while helping to grow the workforce for the future.
“People typically shy away from things they don’t understand or things that are outside of their comfort zone. From my experience, hiring people with autism is a great benefit for the government. As with any new hire, the person’s job skills would need to be matched to the right job for the hiring to be successful. The employee that I worked with was very detailed oriented, efficient and dependable,” Stauffer said. “The Autism at Work program is a good first step in order to see how a person fits in with the organization and handles the workload.”
The Autism at Work program is funded through the Workforce Recruitment Program, an internship initiative co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Defense. The program offers candidates with disabilities an opportunity to work in offices within the DoD at no cost to the organization. Established in 1995, the WRP maintains a searchable database for managers and human resources specialists to source candidates nationwide by degree discipline, location preference and clearance level, among other qualifications. Current college students and recent graduates within six years of degree achievement are eligible for the funding.