Jeanie Heffernan was proud that her employer, Independence Blue Cross, had been doing business in the Delaware Valley for eight decades.
But the longevity had created a problem.
IBX has thousands of former employees whose pensions are with the company, where Heffernan is executive vice president and chief human resources officer.
“We weren’t always tech-savvy when it came to our HR files,” she said.
The department’s older records were paper-based and stored in 500 boxes, off-site. When former employees called with questions, HR reps had to arrange for the right box to be delivered to the office, which they’d then rifle for the needed documents.
“It could take days,” said Heffernan.
Still, her department could never seem to get around to converting the files to electronic ones. Such a project would require months of mind-numbing scanning and tedious categorizing by already busy HR staffers. Errors were bound to occur. So conversion was forever being kicked down the road.
“Those files were a thorn in my side,” Heffernan said.
The clutter cleared in summer of 2018 when her boss, IBX CEO Dan Hilferty, suggested she contact Ernie Dianastasis, CEO of The Precisionists Inc. (TPI), a Wilmington-based company that delivers administrative and tech services either remotely or at a client’s site.
TPI is staffed mostly by people with autism and other developmental disabilities, a population that’s chronically unemployed or underemployed.
But when properly assessed, trained, and employed, “They can be extremely high-performing employees in critical and challenging jobs,” like administrative business functions, software testing, and data analytics, said Dianastasis.
He met with Heffernan, and within four months those 500 boxes of files had been converted to an electronic, well-organized library that her staff now accesses with the touch of a screen.
“I can’t believe the accuracy,” said Heffernan. “And the efficiency we’ve gained in serving customers has been delightful.”
It’s also nice, she added, not to pay those storage fees.
10,000 jobs by 2025
Dianastasis, a former senior executive with CAI, a Delaware tech company, founded TPI in 2016 as a B corporation with an audacious social mission: to create 10,000 administrative and tech jobs for neurodivergent people by 2025 – and then widen the reach to accommodate disabled veterans and people with vision or hearing loss. TPI’s Wilmington workforce doubled to 100 in the past year, and the company has opened branches in Nashville and Phoenix.
TPI leads potential hires through a four-week assessment and training program to get them workplace-ready. That includes teaching participants how to interact with a team, make presentations, compose emails, and master the behavioral do’s and don’ts of working in a professional setting. Some are then offered positions at TPI; those who aren’t still leave the assessment period with skills that could help them land jobs elsewhere.
TPI employee Kalyn Morris is Exhibit A for how the right training can turn a life around.
She has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and was unhappily living in a group home, chronically unemployed — or underemployed at menial jobs — and anxious about the future. She flourished during training at TPI, was offered a position there, proved her acumen on the IBX job, and now coordinates multiple projects staffed by 16 TPI employees for clients like IBX, Pfizer, Exelon, Delmarva Power, and UBS.
“I’m in and out of our shared calendar all day long, keeping track of what everyone’s doing, making sure there’s balance in the schedule,” said Morris, who, after two years with TPI, has moved into her own apartment.
Her coworker Emily Brymer, who is also on the autism spectrum, had been stuck in a customer-service retail job for which her quiet, analytical personality was a poor fit. “It was like peanut butter and anchovies,” she quipped.
She feels so inspired by her work at TPI that she began compiling an operations manual for client Exelon that breaks down processes into precise steps, explained via screen shots and video tutorials. It’s over 500 pages.
“She did it on her own,” marveled Diane Shea, TPI’s delivery-services director. “The client is thrilled.”
“I like adding value,” said Brymer, with a smile.
A great source of talent
TPI, of course, is not the only tech employer who has seen the untapped potential of neurodivergent people to contribute to their industry.
Vertex Inc., the King of Prussia tax-software company, has created an in-house program called the Bridge that provides neurodivergent college grads a chance to work for a week with the company’s tax-processing team.
It’s a great way for participants to build their resumés, said Vertex co-owner Amanda Radcliffe, and take their experience to another job if Vertex doesn’t have a position available that would be the right fit. To identify possible candidates, Vertex partners with The Precisionists; local disability agency SpArc, which runs a Neurodiversity in the Workplace Initiative; and software giant SAP, whose Autism at Work program is worldwide.
“It’s been a great source of talent acquisition in a tough labor market,” said Radcliffe, whose company now has 15 neurodivergent employees, with another six working on contract. “One of our Bridge participants did so well we hired him full-time to take a leadership role in the Bridge team.”
Before Vertex, he’d been working at a low-end job with few benefits.
Now, said Radcliffe, “He just took his first-ever paid vacation.”
She knows this world well. Her own son, Cal, 19, is severely affected by autism. He is a day student at Melmark in Berwyn, which provides residential, educational, and therapeutic services for people with autism, intellectual disabilities, brain injuries, and other neurological and genetic diagnoses.
But he is enjoying fun work. The Radcliffe family lives on a farm in Williston, Pa., which Cal has nicknamed “Ohana.” The name is inspired by a line from Cal’s favorite movie, Lilo and Stitch: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind.”
The Radcliffes have partnered with Melmark to have interested students work the farm’s apple orchard. They pick, sort, and deliver the fruit to a processing plant in Bucks County, where they place it on a conveyor belt and watch it get pressed. They fill jugs with the resulting cider and affix an “Ohana Farm” label to the front. They then happily serve the beverage at Melmark.
Sometimes the labels are askew, but the success of the operation makes Radcliffe as happy as the success of the sophisticated hiring program she nurtures at Vertex.
Said Radcliffe: “You don’t have to be a big company to make an impact" on creating meaningful work for people with developmental disabilities. “You can just look around and ask, ‘Where’s there an opportunity for a win-win?’ ”