BY ERNST VANBERGEIJK, PH.D., M.S.W.
Without specific job training, individuals on the autism spectrum face rather bleak employment prospects. At best, the employment rate is 45 percent for this population. Anecdotal reports find that only about 10 percent of individuals on the autism spectrum find employment. Often, employment is part-time, minimum wage work which does not afford the individual a living wage. Entitlement programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance limit the amount of money an individual can earn from outside employment. This pigeonholes the type of work a person
with a disability can do. Frequently, families must subsidize their adult children with disabilities.
The question remains, “Where can people with autism find employment that capitalizes upon their strengths,
provides meaningful employment, and allows them to earn a living wage?” Every community in North America
produces a huge amount of waste from computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices. This is collectively
known as e-waste. This represents a unique opportunity for individuals on the autism spectrum as well as individuals with other types of disabilities. As a society each town and city will have to develop systems to deal with e-waste.
According to Do Something.org (2014), 80 to 85 percent of electronics wind up in landfills. Aside from being incredibly wasteful, this also represents a significant health hazard. Although e-waste only represents 2 percent of waste in landfills, e-waste accounts for 70 percent of overall toxic waste. Globally, 20 to 50 metric tons of ewaste
are produced each year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified e-waste as the fastest growing waste stream in the United States (Do Something.org, 2014). In fact, much of this “e-waste” is not waste at all. It can be refurbished either in its entirety or its usable parts. Individuals with disabilities can learn how to differentiate between electronic equipment that can be refurbished, disassembled and have their parts sold, or reduced to their essential components and recycled. Precious metals such as gold, copper, silver, and palladium can be harvested from the devices that are no longer serviceable. People with a variety of skills will be needed at each and every step of the process.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. BLS) tracks the health of the nation’s economy by researching
employment and unemployment trends. They categorize the management of e-waste as being a part of Green
Goods and Services (GGS) industry. In 2011 there were 3.4 million jobs in GGS accounting for 2.6 percent of total
employment in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, 2013). The Green Goods and Services Industry was
tracked by a new division under BLS which was created under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the government shut down in 2013 triggered across the board spending cuts under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, as amended (more commonly known as sequestration). The newly created division was
eliminated shortly after this final report was generated. No new data are available about the growth in jobs in this sector of the economy.
Finding data on the median wages in e-waste industry is difficult, especially since the sequestration cuts eliminated the data collec-tion in this field. We can, however, look at similar positions in related fields. The Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics is an interactive web site that allows the reader to
conduct inquiries into a myriad of job classifications. The data include not only median income, but also education and training levels necessary for the position in question as well as the prospective job growth or decline in the foreseeable future. For the lowest level positions in the e-waste industry we could make a comparison to sorters in the recycling industry.
According to BLS “…these workers are included in the occupation laborers and freight, stock, and material movers,
hand. The median annual wage for laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand in the remediation and
other waste management services industry group was $23,570 in May 2010. The wage is the median annual wage for the entire United States. Wages vary by employer and location” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014a). Drivers in this industry would be comparable in terms of wages and skills in the traditional recycling industry. “The median annual wage for refuse and recyclable material collectors in the remediation and other waste management services
industry group was $29,610 in May 2010” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014b).
Disassembly technicians will play a huge role in the management of e-waste. Although no direct data are collected on this occupation, the BLS does collect data on positions involved in the assembly or fabrication of parts. “The median annual wage for assemblers and fabricators was $28,580 in May 2012…”(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014c), providing a living wage for individuals in some parts of the country. Wages for disassembly technicians may fall
between the median wage for manufacturers and computer and office machine repairpersons. The median wage for computer repair persons was $38,310 in May 2013 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014d). Auditors in the e-waste industry can make more money depending upon whether they possess an associate degree or post-secondary certificate. Again, auditors in this field are not a job classification tracked by the BLS. Electro-mechanics may be the job classification that comes closest to the auditor position in the e-waste industry. Electro-mechanics median
income was $51,820 in 2012 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).
Each and every community in the United States will need to deal with the issue of e-waste. The potential for
employment for both disabled and non-disabled population is staggering. One visionary in this field is Mark
Wilkins, CEO of e-Works™ Electronic Services Incorporated (ESI). He has partnered with a number of social service
agencies which serve individuals with developmental disabilities including AHRC of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, ARC of Rockland County, The HASC Center, Clearbrook, and Misericordia Heart of Mercy— to not only create training facilities for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, but also fully operational
processing plants which hire people with disabilities. Wilkins has done this on a national level, setting up the training and processing plants as geographically distant as California, Illinois, and New York.
According to the e-Works web site, “e-Works Electronics Services Inc. (e-Works) was established in 2009
to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities. e-Works achieves this mission by providing competitive recycling, refurbishment and resale services of all types of office and industrial technologies and consumer electronics. This includes items such as computers, tablets, servers, monitors and LCD’s, scanners,
copiers and network equipment, power supplies, TVs, stereos, cell phones and household appliances. Today the e-Works program provides electronics recycling and refurbishment services for local communities and for large global corporations across the US. Our process uses the highest industry certifications in safety and security. EWorks
Electronics Services Inc. achieves this mission not only through its own resources but through the resources of its
partners. E-Works has developed a national network of certified e-Works locations across the United States. The network is made up of agencies that that provide a variety of premium services to assist people with disabilities. Certified e-Works partner agencies have successfully completed the e- Works certified compliance process for providing electronics recycling services.” (e-W o r k s , 2014).
Employees on the autism spectrum thrive in this environment. They thrive in this environment because it capitalizes upon their strengths and interests. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have a keen interest in computers. They also have the ability to concentrate and pay attention to detail. The repetitive nature of the job may be distressing to some neurotypical individuals. e-Works™ ESI is partnering with New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program to create a certificate program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including individuals on the autism spectrum. The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program. It is one of the few residential vocational programs in the United States and is one of the oldest such programs in the country.
The Vocational Independence Program has been serving the special needs community since 1987. The three year certificate program will enable students to earn at least one of three certificates in either (1) computer and electronics auditing; (2) De-manufacturing of computers and other electronics; and (3) Electronics materials handling. Individuals trained as auditors will assess the goods to determine if they are able to re-furbish and
re-sell or donate the items. They will also learn how to determine the market value of the product. Part of this process will include ensuring the devices are free of any harmful malware as well as the elimination of any personal data. According to e-Works, “Data Security and Data Eradication services compliant with U.S. Department of
Defense and NIST standards to assure data privacy for retiring assets” (e-Works, 2013).
These students will learn to use a sophisticated auditing and tracking software system known as the e-Viridis system to help clients track their assets. In addition, “eWorks provides Audit Asset Reports, Recycling Certificates and/or Certificates of Destruction for all assets processed. This attests that services were performed in accordance with client services levels and local compliance standards and laws” (e-Works, 2013). Once the auditors determine that the computer in its entirety will not be re-sold, the unit will be turned over to the individuals trained to do de-manufacturing.
Individuals with good manual dexterity disassemble the computers and other electronic devices. Some of the parts may be re-sold if they pass strict quality standards. The certified materials handlers will not only sort and ship the disassembled assets but will also learn how to handle the e-Works e-Cart™ system. The e-Carts™ are specifically designed to help organizations collect e-waste assets in a secured location with limited space like high rise buildings.
Their pick-up service helps organizations and buildings not only be more green, but can also lead to LEED certifications which are highly sought after designations.
Green Goods and Services industry and the handling of e-waste is one of the fastest growing fields in the near future. With the proper training, individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities can gain meaningful employment. They can also earn a living wage. Organizations like e-Works are providing a sustainable working
environment that provides jobs to individuals with disabilities and helps society at large with the safe and socially responsible disposal of e-waste. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved
Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. nyit.edu/vip . Dr. VanBergeijk also administers
Introduction to Independence (I to I), a seven week summer college preview program for students ages 16 and up.
Do Something.org (2014). 11 Facts about e-Waste. Retrieved from: https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-e-waste July 22, 2014.
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014a). Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/green/recycling/#sorters August 15, 2014.
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014c). Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/print/assemblers-and-fabricators.htm August 15, 2014.
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013). Green Goods and Services News Release March 19, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/ggqcew.htm July 22, 2014.