People with special needs are an undertapped source of manpower, especially in a tight labour market.
This was the key message yesterday at the first Fostering Inclusion At The Workplace seminar, attended by 160 business leaders from 80 companies.
"It's a win for everyone," said Autism Resource Centre (ARC) president Denise Phua, who is also an MP for Jalan Besar GRC and Central Singapore District mayor.
"The employers and tight labour market can tap on an underexplored manpower pool. If we train and support people with disabilities well, many of them can work," explained Ms Phua, who was a panellist at the forum. She co-founded the Pathlight School - Singapore's first school for children with autism.
The trick, said companies which already have an inclusive work policy, is to match jobs with the strengths of such workers.
United Overseas Bank, for instance, has 19 staff with autism in a 56-man team at its Scan Hub, where customer documents are scanned and classified. These employees have high levels of attention to detail and concentration - which managing director and head of group technology and operations Susan Hwee said makes them perfect for sorting and scanning documents. "They're engaged and highly motivated... We should change the word 'disabilities' to 'abilities', because that is what we hire them for," she added.
HIGHLY MOTIVATED WORKERS
They're engaged and highly motivated... We should change the word 'disabilities' to 'abilities', because that is what we hire them for.
MS SUSAN HWEE, managing director and head of group technology and operations at United Overseas Bank, on the employees with autism at its Scan Hub.
FairPrice, which has been hiring people with disabilities since 1983, has about 50 such staff. They mostly work with merchandising, displaying and replenishing stock. "One of them is very good at remembering stocks and he knows exactly which aisle lacks the goods that should be displayed there. We employ them according to their capabilities," said Mr Tan Ying, deputy director and head of HR partnering at FairPrice.
ARC has placed about 150 people with disabilities in employment, with nine in 10 still in their jobs. It started its Employability and Employment Centre programme in 2012 and placed 20 to 30 people in each of the first three years. "This number has increased to close to 50 clients each year," said Ms Jacelyn Lim, ARC's deputy executive director and head of the Employability and Employment Centre.
There are also public schemes to help firms which hire those with disabilities, such as the Open Door Programme. It provides training grants for firms to develop customised programmes for those with disabilities.
But hiring such staff is not without its challenges. For instance, there may be resistance from managers and other employees who might not be comfortable with having colleagues who are disabled.
"We had an employee who asked questions hourly and it was too draining for the manager after a month," Mr Tan recalled. "It calls for a lot of patience and empathy."
Mr Gino Tan, Pan Pacific Hotels Group's area general manager for Singapore, said: "We have various townhall sessions to tackle this so that everyone can... be cognisant of the need for adjustments."
Pan Pacific Hotels Group, which organised the forum, has trained more than 30 staff with disabilities.
Two of them, 18-year-old Noramira Mohd Amin and 19-year-old Brenda Tay Wan Ying, who both have intellectual disabilities, said their work has helped them grow in confidence. "I like to work in a team and meet guests," said Ms Noramira.
Said Ms Tay: "I can earn money and buy dresses for my mother and shoes for my nephew."