‘A win-win’: Life-changing program provides job skills to adults with autism


MONTREAL —
An innovative, life-changing job training program is making change for Canadians with autism who are facing some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country.

Giant Steps Montreal, an organization devoted to educating autistic youth, has teamed up with grocery chains Loblaw and Provigo to provide training and internships as part of a new nine-month program.

“They have an opportunity for full-time employment, full pay [and] benefits, which is what we are hoping for them,” Wagar Adult Education Centre principal Nick Katalifos told CTV News. His school is providing students as part of the program.

The national unemployment rate in Canada is just over eight per cent, but that figure is more than ten times higher for Canadians with autism. And the new bilingual Polaris Enterprise initiative is hoping to tackle that by preparing students to be ready for front-line work.

“It’s not about social responsibility or charity. It’s really about the bottom line. And there’s a whole business case around employing autistic adults and people with disabilities,” Andre Pereira, project manager at Giant Steps for Employment Initiatives, told CTV News.

Through the program, students will be getting hands-on training for warehouse work. And in a mockup mini-mart in a corner of a cafeteria in a Montreal school, students will also learn how to take online orders and cashier training.

And this type of training can be a crucial step for Canadians to land a job.

“I have never worked before. I am not used to working in real jobs because I never had [one] before,” Ismael, a 28-year-old trainee at a grocery warehouse, told CTV News.

Eric Bourbeau, who has trained dozens of would-be workers in his 17 years on the job at Provigo, applauds Ismael’s progress so far.

“You have to take a little more time to train them, but after that, you will have a very good employee,” Bourbeau told CTV News, who said he felt these employees were big assets for companies.

In a press release, Pereira agreed and explained that beyond employers having a more cohesive and diversified team, the benefits also included higher retention rates for a business with high turnover; lower rates of absenteeism; and equal, if not higher, productivity.

The Polaris Enterprise program was inspired by a U.S. company that built a state-of-the-art distribution centre, with 40 per cent of its workforce made up of people with all kinds of different disabilities, according to the release.

The initiative hits close to home for the higher-ups at the company that owns Loblaw.

Richard Dufresne, president and chief financial officer of George Weston Limited, a food processing and distribution company, has a son with autism and said he’s grateful for the new partnership.

“This is one [initiative] where I would like our competition and others to copy because it is a win-win for society,” he said.





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