Workers with autism make connections at St. Paul job fair

People take part in a job fair
Attendees at a job fair for teens and adults with autism talk with staff from Metro Transit to learn about job opportunities on Thursday in St. Paul.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

A job fair for adults with autism drew about 350 attendees to the State Services for the Blind office in St. Paul on Thursday. The fair was meant to facilitate the job hunt — something that can be hard for autistic workers.  

It was a lot like any other job fair: employers gave out business cards, snacks and branded pens; attendees could learn about work opportunities and pass on resumes.  

But this fair had several accessibility measures built in. Attendees could head to quiet break rooms, grab free snacks and use fidgets piled on tables. Staff were on hand to review resumes and help people talk to potential employers. 

Ashrum Henson was one of the attendees. He said he appreciated the chance to meet employers and get resume help.    

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“I think it’s really nice that they set this up,” Henson said. “This gives us a better opportunity for [employers] to meet us on a more personal level and I feel like that’s gonna help people actually go out and get jobs.” 

Sheletta Brundidge organized the fair. She’s the founder of the media company Sheletta Makes Me Laugh, and she has three autistic kids. She got the idea for the fair when she started hearing about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which happens in October. The month is meant to bring attention to unemployment among disabled people.  

People take part in a job fair
Minnesota Twins mascot T.C. Bear dropped by a job fair for teens and adults with autism on Thursday in St. Paul to take photos with attendees and employers.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

In Minnesota, 9.8 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed, compared to 3.7 percent of adults without disabilities. Finding a job can be challenging for adults with autism — kids with autism have resources in school, but adults are often left to figure it out on their own.  

Brundidge said she saw a lot of notices recognizing the month, but not many events or actions.  

“Everybody’s doing these proclamations [about] disability employment awareness month — that proclamation is not going to help these people find a job,” Brundidge said. “Work is going to happen when we take community leaders and community members and businesses and come together to make it happen.” 

So Brundidge decided to put together the job fair to help close that gap.  

Several employers with a wide range of open positions came to the job fair, including HyVee, Metro Transit, Andersen Windows and Doors and Bremer Bank. Brundidge said she trained all the employers before the fair started.

She wanted them to understand that some people they meet might not want to shake hands or make eye contact and might need to step out of the room — all things that can be hard in a typical interview.  

The high turnout at the fair kept employers busy. Kenny Richardson works for Metro Transit, and he spent the morning recruiting for mechanics, cleaners and other positions. He said they found lots of people who seemed interested in working there.  

People take part in a job fair
Attendees at a job fair for teens and adults with autism chat with staff from Metro Transit to learn about job opportunities on Thursday in St. Paul.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

Richardson is also autistic, and he said that was why he wanted to work the fair.  

“For me as an autistic person, it's really encouraging to see this kind of very public outreach and support, that folks were willing to put together a big event like this and we’re having really high turnout,” he said. “That for me is just a big change and demonstrates a lot of progress.”  

Richardson said the biggest difference between this fair and other job fairs he’s been to is that people here were more excited. Usually, he works job fairs at technical colleges, where attendance is mandatory, and students might not be all that interested.  

But he said attendees at this fair were more enthusiastic to learn about opportunities. 

“Everyone is here because they want to be here, they’re excited about it, they’re interested in what’s open to them,” Richardson said. “I think that energy is very different, and it’s a more positive atmosphere.”