Savvy Hires, Northwell building autism ‘pipeline’

Put that in your pipeline: Savvy Hires CEO Felicia Fleitman is building autistic "Bridges" to major corporations. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

A startup recruiting firm with modernized methods for matching talent and opportunity has made significant headway on a potentially enormous – and socially conscious – vertical.

Westbury-based Savvy Hires, launched in July by entrepreneur Felicia Fleitman, will partner with two well-known corporations – including New York State’s largest private employer – to create unique internship programs for autistic students through Adelphi University’s Bridges to Adelphi program.

In concert with the school, Savvy Hires has received a “verbal commitment” from Great Neck-based Northwell Health and Missouri-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car – which maintains four Long Island offices – to create summer-internship and graduate-development programs for Bridges students, including recent graduates and “rising seniors” entering their final year, Fleitman told Innovate LI.

Bridges to Adelphi is designed to make the transition to the Garden City-based university easier for incoming students on the autism spectrum, as well as students with other nonverbal learning disorders or socialization challenges. The program also works to improve challenged students’ vocational skills, giving them a better chance for successful post-graduation careers.

Enter Savvy Hires, where the focus is primarily on “creating internship programs for the express purpose of pipeline hiring,” Fleitman noted – including pipelines for autism-spectrum workers, a quickly growing, highly skilled and largely untapped talent pool, according to the entrepreneur.

The one-on-one interview is a traditional barrier for anyone seeking a job, Fleitman said, but for the autistic or “any person who’s not very social,” it can be insurmountable, no matter how intelligent or skilled the candidate might be.

“Whether or not they even realize it, the interviewer is considering, ‘Do I want to work with this person every day? Do I want to have lunch with them, or grab a beer?’” she said. “Traditionally, it’s very difficult for a person on the spectrum to succeed in a one-on-one interview.”

Mitch Nagler, director of the Bridges to Adelphi program, could not be reached for comment by press deadline. But the idea, according to Fleitman, is to “build out the vocational aspects” of the Bridges program.

“It’s very important that the program help students on the spectrum make a successful transition to college,” she noted. “But the real goal of any vocational program is finding a job.”

One way to do that is to show companies “the benefits of these individual employees,” added Fleitman, who took her time before launching Savvy Hires, first accumulating years of hands-on experience with recruiting and internship programs and other key facets of HR management.

Learning more about each socially challenged intern’s specific skillset is precisely what will happen at Northwell Health, which boasts over 60,000 statewide employees to rank as New York’s No. 1 private employer. Northwell will work with the Bridges program to identify appropriate candidates for existing internship programs.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, meanwhile, has committed to “creating specific outreach efforts to Bridges students,” Fleitman said, including “creating exclusive interview and hiring processes for these students.”

“They are really providing commitment to inclusion,” she added, of the new partners. “Part of that is tweaking the interview process so these students can be successful.”

In addition to helping students who might not otherwise be employable lead self-sufficient lives – and even discover high levels of professional achievement – the Savvy Hires/Bridges to Adelphi collaboration will also provide “autism in the workplace” training for Northwell, Enterprise and any other company that come on board, Fleitman said.

The program partners will also provide “job coaches,” she added, comprised mostly of graduate-level Adelphi University psychology students – surrogates who will be there every step of the way with the Bridges interns.

“The job coach will learn the job and make sure the student understands the exact tasks required,” Fleitman noted. “They’ll also help the students identify the right person to talk to for each situation.

“It’s just an extra level of support, so these students can really succeed.”

With the ink still drying and budgets still forming, it’s too soon to say how many students the Savvy Hires/Bridges to Adelphi internships might include. But those and other details should come clear quickly: Fleitman said the new internship programs, each designed to run eight to 10 weeks, will begin this summer.

And that’s merely a first step, she added, with Savvy Hire planning workshops designed to show all employers how to get the most out of strategic-hiring initiatives. Also coming, in early 2017, is a “big announcement” regarding new pipeline partnerships, the founder and CEO noted, including additional internship programs.

“We are talking to several companies about creating strategic internship programs for pipeline-hiring, for both students on the spectrum and students not on the spectrum,” Fleitman said.

While the startup is not focused exclusively on the hiring of spectrum students, programs catering to autistic talent could ultimately prove to be Savvy Hires’ top vertical.

“Ninety-two percent of people on the spectrum are unemployed or under-employed,” Fleitman said. “As a hiring expert, I believe that’s because of the interview process.

“But struggling in a one-on-one interview doesn’t mean a person isn’t capable, or can’t do an amazing job.”

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