Neurodiversity hiring could help plug the country's skills gap
Business leaders in the tech industry are only too aware that Australia is facing a significant digital skills gap.
The pandemic has added to an already skyrocketing industry as the demand for technology such as cloud-based solutions continues to rise.
At the end of 2019, Gartner research put talent shortages as the number one risk factor for businesses globally.
Upskilling is on the rise but some industry leaders are looking to a new section of the population – those with autism, Asperger’s and other neurodiverse conditions – to help plug the gap.
HRD spoke to Bodo Mann, CEO of auticon, a tech consulting firm that exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum, about the role HR plays in shifting the dial on diverse hiring.
“There's a huge opportunity in terms of driving that paradigm shift and helping companies and society in general to understand the untapped pool of talent and resources which are not being utilised,” he said.
“Australia still has a way to go in terms of embracing that talent and working with people on the spectrum.”
In 2019, IBM rolled out its first neurodiversity program, hiring 10 employees with autism in technology roles, following similar initiatives by ANZ and JP Morgan Chase.
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While some major players recognise the value of diverse hiring, Australia is lagging behind Europe in tackling the challenges that neurodiverse people face in the workplace.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate of people with autism stands at 34% - more than three times the rate of those with a disability and eight times more than those without a disability.
The figure paints a stark picture for autistic people in this country who may find it impossible to enter the workforce.
Yet neurodiverse employees bring a whole raft of strengths to a business, particularly within the STEM industries.
Neurodiverse people tend to have an affinity for technical or analytical types of work and in the right environment, demonstrate far higher levels of productivity than neurotypical employees.
Data from JP Morgan’s neurodiversity program found that employees with autism were 92% more productive and worked 48% faster than non-autistic employees.
They also bring different ways of thinking, approaching technical problems from a new angle and thriving on solution-based tasks.
But for those on the spectrum to feel supported and comfortable in the workplace, HR leaders have to acknowledge the challenges they face and develop measures to overcome them.
“A typical person on the spectrum tends to have some difficulties with social communication,” Mann explained.
“Corporate politics for example is something that is really difficult. It’s very challenging to fit in and to adapt, regardless of the intellect they bring into a workplace and their ability to think out of the box and challenge standard thinking.”
HR professionals therefore need to be aware of issues like workplace bullying or social exclusion which can have a negative effect on mental wellbeing for the employee.
The traditional recruitment process also brings significant challenges to a person with autism.
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The prospect of a face to face or virtual interview, which relies heavily on a person’s social cues and communication, will always favour neurotypical applicants.
Instead, HR leaders should explore alternative methods of recruitment such as skills tests.
There is no doubt that running a neurodiversity program takes commitment, and Mann says HR leaders can go it alone if they have enough experience or as is more common, they can engage with a third-party provider to bring in expert advice and guidance.
Some business leaders will undoubtedly ask: “Why bother?”
But Mann believes those who recognise the opportunity can reap the benefits, both commercially and from an inclusivity point of view.
“The ability to really sink deep and be super focused in a particular area and work hard to the infinite degree drives an incredible amount of productivity,” Mann said.
Importantly, the benefits go both ways, and by investing in neurodiversity, employers play their part in reducing Australia’s glaring rate of inequality.
“There’s also huge societal benefits in terms of creating a higher qualified workforce,” Mann said.
“By introducing these highly talented people on the spectrum into a corporate world there’s a coloring effect happening where they can introduce ideas, techniques, and innovative thinking which benefits the whole workplace.”