Gamuda's Enabling Academy prepares autistic young adults for employment

The academy trains young adults with autism spectrum disorder for white-collar jobs.

Gamuda Bhd is no stranger to corporate social responsibility efforts but the organisation’s Enabling Academy (EA) is possibly one of its longest-running and most impactful yet. A scaling up of the company’s initial initiative (previously known as the Differently Abled programme) that began in 2013, the academy trains and prepares young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for white-collar jobs.

Successful applicants undergo three months of training at EA — located within the Gamuda Learning Centre in Damansara Jaya — after which they will ideally obtain job placements. The academy accepts a maximum of 12 trainees per batch and there are two batches every year. Twenty of the graduates are now employed — 18 as employees and two as interns.

Hong Kok Siong, who is also the general manager of contracts and commercial at Gamuda Engineering Sdn Bhd, is the project lead of EA, the latter being a role he undertakes on a purely voluntary basis. “[Gamuda group managing director] Datuk Lin Yun Ling initiated this programme because he realised that people with ASD lacked support after the intervention stage and wanted to fill that gap,” Hong tells Options.

Further explaining the gap, he says, “Neurotypical people will seek employment but it is a struggle for people with ASD to adapt, from the school to the workplace. Because of their core deficit, they face challenges in typical job interviews.”

The training that EA provides encompasses personal management (such as building a portfolio, understanding learning style and accommodation needs, career development goals and grooming), career management (relating with fellow colleagues, positive communication skills and time management) and life management (maintaining a healthy lifestyle, leisure appreciation, money management and healthy relationships).

The trainers at EA are experienced job coaches with professional qualifications in special education, vocational rehabilitation and psychology. One such trainer is Tan Ming Mei. Previously attached to the company’s human resources department, she trained in relationship development intervention in Australia before working in EA full time.

Job matching begins at the early stages of training through an aptitude test as well as interviews with the candidates and their parents or guardians. “It helps us profile these young adults as well as identify and build on their strengths, so that they can fit perfectly and function with very minimal challenges,” Hong says.

Upon completion of the programme, the trainees are assigned “buddies” at the workplace to guide them. A supervisor will monitor them while a support team of EA trainers will oversee their progress until the workplace builds its own ecosystem. Interestingly, it is not only the young adults who undergo training — their peers at the department they are placed in are required to attend a job coach training workshop as well. The workshop enables the buddies and supervisors to work efficiently with their new colleagues.

“We (society) can be an impatient lot and we rarely see the strengths in people. We are quick to see only the weaknesses,” Hong says, explaining the rationale for training the job coaches. “Because they (the trainees) look just like neurotypical people, some who do not understand them may put certain behaviour down to attitude problem.”

In order to mitigate this risk, part of the training at EA takes place in a mock office where each person is given a workstation, and general office activities such as photocopying, scanning and answering the phone are simulated. The aim is to allow them to experience a work setting and ease them into the corporate environment, which can be daunting for those with ASD and no prior working experience.

Since Gamuda may not always have vacancies in suitable positions for all the graduates, Hong tells us that the engineering, property and infrastructure company “works with partner companies from other corporate sectors that are willing to continue this journey together with us”. He explains that this is one way to promote neurodiversity in the workplace.

Partner companies are welcome to hire EA graduates, provided that they are able to offer a suitable job match. The partner organisations will then work closely with EA to create relevant practical training for the said job, nominate a supervisor and buddies to attend job coach training as well as educate and raise awareness within the organisations. “The students are very employable, provided they are given proper training and support. We have found, from our years of doing this, that the circle of support is very important — as it is for everyone,” says Hong.

While he concedes that the acceptance level of the existing employees during the early implementation of the programme was quite low, he is happy to report that it has increased. “It is still not at 100% but it is at conducive levels. We, as colleagues, have learnt to pay more attention, look out for them and sometimes mentor or coach them when necessary.

“Not only do the EA colleagues develop but the neurotypical colleagues learn from them too, such as giving systematic instructions and being more patient. We [at Gamuda] are very result-driven and strive to achieve our KPIs. While that hasn’t changed, we are also more efficient in giving instructions so that our department can operate better,” he says, citing better people management skills as one of the intangible benefits for the neurotypical employees.

According to Hong, one of the challenges is having to turn away applicants as not all of them meet EA’s requirements. “It’s quite difficult to turn away applicants as everyone would like to be given an opportunity. Unfortunately, we have found that some of them are not ready [to undergo training].”

In such circumstances, they may be referred to other non-governmental organisations or academies that concentrate on developing certain vital skills, and are encouraged to reapply at a later time.

EA’s requirements include a preferable age of 21 and above and a minimum of an SPM qualification or its equivalent. Hong says in some cases, they make an exception for those who were homeschooled. Another requirement is a medical diagnosis that certifies the individual’s autism spectrum condition.

“Nowadays, the public is more aware of what ASD is and we are glad that more corporations are willing to hire our trainees,” Hong smiles.

Perhaps what motivates him to keep going is the positive feedback from parents whose children have obtained jobs after undergoing training at EA. “They feel like their young adults have blossomed into people with more dignity and are able to blend in with society.”

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