Most children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) go through a multitude of early intervention programmes, with some making it to university and graduating with stellar results. But when they go out looking for jobs as young adults, the music somehow stops.

Which is why, when it comes to enabling those with ASD to seamlessly integrate into corporate sector jobs, few can rival construction giant Gamuda Bhd’s efforts: the engineering and property development group has been hiring young people with autism for white-collar jobs for a few years now.

Project DA (Differently-Abled) was initiated by Gamuda’s group managing director Datuk Lin Yun Ling and launched in 2013 as part of the public-listed group’s broader Diversity & Inclusion programme designed to create an inclusive workplace.

After all, globally, a strong business case has been made to include people with autism – seen as a largely untapped talent pool – in the workforce, with benefits ranging from intense focus to immense creativity.

Currently, Gamuda has five full time staff who are professionally trained to support the group’s 20 DA employees; aged between 21 and 39 years old, these people have been hired in clerical, research, and IT programming roles across various departments, including human resources, trading, contracts and commercial, IT, and finance.

‘With the right support, those with ASD can be assisted to live a more fulfilling life on their own terms,’ says Hong Kok Siong. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

Gamuda Contracts & Commercial general manager, Hong Kok Siong, who has volunteered with Project DA since it started, has this to say about the success of the programme: “To date, we remain the only company in Malaysia that employs a significant number of people with autism for white collar jobs. We also have in place a proper recruitment structure to provide the necessary support to enable them to become valued contributors to Gamuda.”

He adds that he is amazed by the positive outcomes realised from the programme.

“DA employees are displaying increased levels of self-esteem, dignity, and fulfilment upon finding a meaningful career.

“In addition, the families of these differently-abled persons are comforted by the fact that their children have the opportunity to lead a meaningful and independent life through gainful employment,” Hong says.

Building on success

Now, Hong and his team have scaled up Project DA with the launch of Gamuda’s Enabling Academy (EA), which is a three-month employment transition programme that aims to train more individuals on the autism spectrum so they can be placed in white-collar jobs in other companies.

The academy, the only one of its kind in Malaysia, will also train its students in soft skills involving personal, life, and career management.

Hong says EA is a natural step in ensuring the sustainability of hiring and including people with autism as part of the Malaysian workforce.

“Realistically, how many people with autism can we hire, 50? One hundred?”

“That is why, to ensure that more people on the autism spectrum are able to find employment, we started the Enabling Academy so that young adults who have gone through early intervention and a certain level of education can be employed in white-collar jobs,” he explains.

This month, 10 pre-screened trainees make up the first batch to be trained under EA at the Gamuda Learning Centre in Damansara Jaya, Selangor, where a whole floor is dedicated to training and workshop sessions for people with autism. The purpose-built facility is also designed to simulate a corporate office so that the practical job skills training can be as realistic as possible.

At any one time, the programme will accommodate a maximum of 12 differently-abled trainees, ensuring a ratio of one trainer to two students.

‘If you look at the strengths and attributes of those with ASD, you will find that they will be useful in certain white-collar jobs,’ says Yeo. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

EA manager Yeo Swee Lan says that while there are quite a number of companies offering jobs to those with ASD, these tend to be more blue-collar in nature and mostly in the retail and hospitality industries.

“As far as white-collar jobs are concerned, it is rare. But if you look at the strengths and attributes of those with ASD, you will find that they will be useful in certain white-collar jobs. For instance, those with ASD tend to be very focused and detailed, and they are great at tasks that are repetitive in nature,” says Yeo.

She received training in Japan on how to coach those with ASD for white-collar jobs, and adapted training resources from Britain, Japan, and the United States to suit the Malaysian context.

Forging partnerships

The key to sustaining EA is getting other companies on board as “partner companies”, as Hong puts it.

“We have at least 10 companies who have committed their interest by attending our job coaching introductory workshops, including CIMB, GM Klang Wholesale City, and Feruni Ceramiche Sdn Bhd.”

CIMB, one of the early supporters of the EA, is proud to partner Gamuda in this effort, says CIMB Group Chief People Officer Datuk Hamidah Naziadin.

Hamidah believes that ‘hiring differently-abled staff serves to strengthen CIMB’s diversity and social inclusivity objectives’.

“The CIMB Group strongly believes that to live up to our corporate-with-a-heart mantra, we need to truly embrace various core values including ‘Enabling People’ and ‘Strength in Diversity’, which are also aptly reflected in Gamuda’s Enabling Academy for people with autism.

“We are proud to be a corporate partner with Gamuda in this project, as it supports CIMB’s belief in an inclusive economy, in which everyone has the opportunity and access to an enabling framework to realise their true potential and participate in the nation’s wealth-building initiatives.

“With a 39,000-strong multilingual, multicultural and multinational workforce spread over 15 countries, hiring differently- abled staff serves to strengthen CIMB’s diversity and social inclusivity objectives.

“We laud Gamuda’s efforts in taking this step and in wholeheartedly ensuring that it reaps sustainable results, and we look forward to future collaborations with Gamuda in support of the nation’s TN50’s inclusivity agenda.”

(TN50 is the Government’s National Transformation 2050 platform.)

Hong adds that the EA workshops are also meant to create awareness so that there will be more acceptance of those who are differently-abled in any work environment.

Apart from preparing partner companies, team EA will also help carve out suitable job matches for DA employees.

“All trainees under EA will first undergo a screening process at the very outset of our interview to ensure their suitability for our training programme.”

Prospective trainees also sit for an aptitude assessment to gauge their readiness to be part of a white-collar workforce.

“Once they are accepted under EA, we will find job matches for them in our partner companies,” Hong says.

In addition, Gamuda will also coach a core team in the partner company to enable them to give the right kind of support to their DA colleagues and provide post-recruitment consultation.

As such, Hong is hopeful that other companies will step forward to create a sustainable work ecosystem for those with ASD.

‘I believe the Enabling Academy underscores the fact that hiring people with autism does not fall under the CSR initiative anymore,’ says Lim.

In this, he has the support of GM Klang Wholesale City’s Datuk Lim Seng Kok, who believes that by harnessing their unique abilities, working with diverse people creates greater value for the organisation.

“I believe the Enabling Academy underscores the fact that hiring people with autism does not fall under the CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiative anymore. I know many companies are starting to realise that having a diverse workforce can give them a competitive edge, but they do not have the resources or know-how to train differently-abled persons.

“We are happy to be taking this significant step into creating a more diverse workforce in GM Klang by agreeing to hire two EA trainees for our HR and Leasing & Marketing Department,” says Lim.


Who can attend the Enabling Academy?

Those who are at least 21 years old may apply to join the fully sponsored three-month programme at the Enabling Academy if they meet the folllowing criteria:

> Has an official autism diagnosis or medical report from a registered psychologist/psychiatrist;

> Has completed secondary school education (or equivalent) or has a diploma or bachelor’s degree;

> Has vocational aptitude that is suitable for administrative or professional jobs in a corporate setting, with demonstrated interest in employment;

> Able to observe basic work etiquette such as punctuality and discipline;

> Able to travel to and from work (meals, transport, and accommodation are not provided).

For more information, contact enablingacademy@gamuda.com.my.