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When the head of Spano Partners Holdings, a commercial real estate and solar development company in Millstone, decided to make his workforce more inclusive, he had no idea that the autistic young man he had hired to stock the supply room, would turn out to be his next bookkeeper. 

That new employee, Jonathan Kolakowski, showed an incredible aptitude for accounting, which CFO Tony Psomas discovered by taking the time to get to know and mentor him. Before long Psomas was asking Managing Partner Jim Spano to enroll Kolakowski in accounting courses at the community college and Kolakowski was on his way up the career ladder. 

“Jonathan is the ideal employee,” Psomas told the more than 200 people gathered for an online NJBIA webinar Tuesday about expanding employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.  

“He’s dedicated, he really cares, he’s eager to work and very methodical in his work – he finds the mistakes that I make sometimes,” Psomas said. “What I really want to emphasize is that this is not charity … he’s a valuable contributing member of our team.” 

The executives from Spano Partners Holdings were among several employers, including Amazon and Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, who shared their successful experiences hiring people with intellectual and development disabilities. They urged employers who are now having difficulty filling open positions to be aware that thousands of job-seekers with developmental disabilities are ready and eager to work, and could be the right fit for their organizations with training and mentoring. 

Spano said Tuesday’s online event was an “opportunity for all employers to recognize – particularly now where there’s worker shortages … there’s so much opportunity for hiring.” 

“I think Amazon got it right and AMC has gotten it right and I hope that the rest of us participating in this webinar get it right as well,” Spano said. 

Margaret Gilbride, director of Transition, Employment and Aging & Disability at The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, said that two-thirds of developmentally disabled adults are now actively seeking employment. Statistics show that these job-seekers, if given the opportunity, will be dedicated, reliable employees able to succeed in a wide variety of fields. 

“Whether it’s manufacturing, healthcare, banking, retail, distribution, services – there are people with disabilities doing those jobs,” Gilbride said. “You name the job and there’s a person with a disability who can do the job and has the education and the skillsets and the attributes to be successful at that job. People with disabilities are the largest under-utilized source of labor in this country.” 

Employers who recognize the benefits of hiring people with disabilities realize numerous competitive advantages, Gilbride said. For example, employers with inclusive workforces see much less employee turnover, which saves them thousands of dollars in recruitment and training. The employee turnover rate for disabled workers is 8%, compared to 45% for non-disabled workers, she pointed out. 

Caryn Parlavecchio, chief human resources officer at Holy Name Medical Center, said her hospital strives to be reflective of the patients in the community it serves, and therefore, has a long history of hiring people with disabilities. 

“We have had a partnership with Project SEARCH here in Bergen County for many years and the employees we hire through Project SEARCH and elsewhere serve many functions,” Parlavecchio said. “They work in physical therapy, administrative functions, environmental services, and in food and nutrition. Some of the skills that we have found they bring to Holy Name are a tremendous work ethic, positive attitudes and different types of creativity. I would even say there’s a genuine authenticity that they bring to the organization and a love for our hospital and its mission.”