By Daniel Metz
Special to Delaware Business Times
After 20 years working as a user interface analyst, Anthony Moffa was still unable hold down a job. He was passionate about his work, but he struggled to get along with co-workers and navigate office politics. Finally, at 48, Moffa was diagnosed with autism.
Armed with a name for the challenges that had plagued him for decades, Moffa discovered a wealth of resources. Through the Autism2Work program and the Delaware Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, he was able to find work as a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase and the support to turn that job into a career.
Autism affects 1 in every 68 Americans. A total of 2,109 students in Delaware’s public schools were classified as autistic in 2017. Once they reach working age, this population struggles disproportionately with finding a job. Unemployment and underemployment for adults with autism is estimated between 70 percent and 90 percent. Everything from the traditional job interview to everyday interactions with co-workers can become stumbling blocks.
None of this was news to Ernie Dianastasis when he founded the Autism2Work program for Computer Aid Inc. (CAI).
In the summer of 2012, Gov. Jack Markell approached Dianastasis, who rolling out his “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities” campaign through the National Governors Association.
Markell was aware of Dianastasis’s work with groups like the Easter Seals and other nonprofits focused on helping Americans with disabilities. So he asked Dianastasis to develop Autism2Work through Computer Aid Inc.
Dianastasis struck out on his own in September 2016 to found The Precisionists Inc., which provides services to companies to help them incorporate more autistic workers. His goal is to get 10,000 Americans with disabilities hired by 2025. Since then, the company has helped hire over 100 Americans and expanded its efforts outside of Delaware and into Tennessee.
James Mahoney, executive director of JPMorgan Chase, said he’s proud of the success of its partnership with CAI. In less than three years, the bank has integrated over 70 employees with autism into its ranks at varying levels and expanded the program into five other countries.
“We have to be able to think in non-conventional ways of ‘where do we find talent? How do we get different ways of thinking, cognitive diversity?’”
Asking those questions, he said, has paid off. Its experimental ventures with CAI led to employees who he said performed between 48 percent and 140 percent as effective as veterans in those departments. The benefits didn’t stop at entry level jobs, he said.
“We have hired somebody who did have his Ph.D. in statistics and he had undergrad 4.0, bachelors 4.0, Math SAT perfect 800, got certification from Stanford, highly highly credentialed. He worked for 16 years at a small company and his job was to set up computers for new employees, and they gave him 30-32 hours a week with no benefits,” Mahoney said. “We hired him a couple of months ago as a vice president.”
Vice President and General Manager of Dover Downs Pete Bradley said more businesses should consider following suit. A partner in Autism Delaware’s Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation program, his company employs 11 Autism Delaware clients.
“Put your toe in the water and try this,” Bradley said.
Dianastasis agreed that many of these workers, with the proper support, are well-equipped to succeed.“These are some of the most innovative people that I’ve ever met in my entire life and I’ve been in the workforce for years.”
His success in Delaware has led The Precisionists Inc to spread across the nation, though he hasn’t lost his passion for helping Delawareans: While he said his goal is to spread to 15-20 markets by 2025, he aims to employ 1,000 Delawareans with autism and other disabilities by that time.
Moffa, for his part, said he is happy with his new job at JPMorgan Chase. “It takes me out of my comfort zone, and the people are very supportive, so I have room to sort of fail and not be in trouble for it.”