Tapping into neurodiverse talent to tackle the tech skills gap

The UK is suffering from a serious skills shortage, and IT, cyber security and data roles are among some of the hardest hit. The WEF’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 states that tech-related roles account for more than half of the top 20 in-demand roles globally. Similarly, our own research shows that among the most in-demand roles post-pandemic are Data Analysts and Scientists, Cyber Security Experts, Robotics Engineers, Automation Specialists and Software and Application Developers. In the US, the rate of growth for information security jobs is projected at 37% between 2012 and 2022 – much faster than the average for all other occupations.

As the market for specialist IT skills tightens and traditional graduate schemes fall short of delivering the volume of talent required, the pool of viable candidates continues to diminish and costs for attracting these workers goes up. In order to close the skills gap, organisations must look outside traditional talent pools. New sources of previously untapped talent need to be identified to help bolster capability and keep organisations ahead of the curve.

So, what’s the solution?

There are several ways organisations can go about rethinking how to address this, but many do not realise there is an underrepresented pool of candidates with a huge amount of skill and talent to bring to the table.

Autistic people often have key strengths that are being frequently overlooked. These strengths include logical thinking and problem-solving, an attention to detail and an ability to see patterns that are not so obvious to others. Studies show that 60% of this population have the same or higher cognitive ability than their neuro-typical (non-autistic) counterparts. Despite this, the unemployment rate of people with autism is shockingly high at 78% – the highest across all disability groups.

What is the reason for this high unemployment rate?

Many aspects of the world of work have been built with only the neuro-typical in mind. Autistic people often find it difficult to get jobs or stay in them because the way that they think and react to social situations differs from the way that organisations choose to recruit and select employees. They do not fit the management and learning methods that businesses typically use.

This does not mean that autistic people can’t perform highly skilled roles or become part of an effective workforce. It simply means that our traditional recruitment methods, management styles and workplace environments need to be adjusted to allow these candidates to demonstrate their potential.

Making a few minor changes can open up a fantastically powerful new channel of highly skilled candidates and create real positive change.

Skills that bring value

As with all populations skills and abilities vary tremendously, however within the autistic population there are often some common traits that lend themselves particularly well to cyber security and data roles. These include:

  • Logical and analytical capabilities
  • Attention to detail
  • Good visual memory and long-term memory
  • Ability to see patterns
  • Sustained concentration and perseverance even with repetitive tasks
  • Perfectionism, eagerness to please
  • Taking things apart and putting them back together
  • Ability to learn routines, adherence to rules and schedules
  • Detailed knowledge of specific areas of interest and comprehensive technical expertise.

In fact, some of these soft skills such as analytical thinking and creativity are some of the most sought-after skills by organisations hiring for tech roles.

With the right balance of job type, support and workplace environment, some remarkable performance results and innovation have been achieved by autistic teams – with performance benefits in excess of 25% compared to neuro-typical teams.

What can organisations do to enable autistic candidates to succeed in the workplace?

We need to be deliberate about reducing the high unemployment rate of autistic people. That’s why Experis, part of ManpowerGroup, has partnered with Untapped, to help employers remove the barriers facing neurodiverse talent.

Untapped has created an ecosystem to build, support and deliver leading evidence-based autism employment programs to help corporates and governments accelerate their ability to address critical talent gaps, whilst supporting autistic adults to build the skills and knowledge to establish sustainable careers.

Experis and Untapped have teamed up to support the expansion of DXC Technology’s Dandelion Programme into the UK. The programme is designed to recruit people from within the autism community and provide the technical, workplace and life skills required to build a sustainable IT career. In June 2021 we welcomed the first cohort of eight neurodiverse trainees working in Software Testing and User Experience (UX) to the programme.

This programme is unique partly due to the support of Autism Spectrum Consultants (ASCs). The ASCs work with the candidates to support them throughout their assessment stage, onboarding, functional, living and social skills, induction weeks and first two years of employment. During the first weeks of the programme the candidates may experience difficulties due to anxiety, transition, sleep difficulties or sensory issues. The ASCs work through these challenges holistically with the candidates and support them through their transition. In addition, the ASCs provide training and mentorship to employers and senior stakeholders, with an emphasis on building an inclusive work environment.

Laura Harman and Romeana Gudger, Untapped’s ASCs supporting the DXC team, can see the positive outcomes this type of programme can make, stating: “It was easy to see how the DXC Dandelion Programme differs to other autism employment initiatives. The programme is grounded in research and evidenced-based practice. Having known the programme has run with huge success in Australia since 2014, the opportunity to be employed as an Autism Spectrum Consultant, working alongside the Untapped and DXC team was extremely attractive. The experience has been exciting and enormously rewarding.”

The candidate’s perspective

The insights that some of the trainees have provided into their journey is testament to the impact the programme has already had:

“I was not diagnosed as autistic until January 2018, at the ripe age of 36. Until then I just went about thinking that I had a few quirks, as everybody does. I have had a number of experiences during my life which had also led to me being diagnosed with PTSD, which increases my anxiety amongst other traits.

As a British Army Veteran, I am signed up to a few veterans’ charities. A gentleman involved with the charity Walking with the Wounded sent me a link to the Dandelion programme when I asked if he knew of any opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. I had a Teams meeting with Untapped to learn more about the roles and the assessment process. I was already very interested by then, so I applied for the role.

This whole experience has been refreshing from the start, from engaging with Untapped and undertaking the assessment phase – which helped to identify people’s strengths, and possibly state weaknesses – right through to interacting with Experis and Paul in relation to the additional application process, clearances, and setting up contracts too. The process was different to what I had ever experienced before. It was very insightful and refreshing as I had not interacted with so many people on the spectrum before, nor with people who were, and are, so very interested in working with autistic people like me.

I’ve been openly referred to Access to Work to see what specific equipment they may be able to assist me with. This is a barrier that was put up for me in previous roles and is what forced me to seek employment elsewhere. This support has helped me transition into the role, and I hope that the time and effort put in to assist me can be turned into something that may go on to help other people within the autistic community as well.

For me, this is a great opportunity for anybody on the autism spectrum. It is great to be working firstly with a company who already know that I am autistic, understand that I have strengths and weaknesses, are alright with me learning at my own pace, and are also very welcoming too.”

With the right support, this is a key talent pool that organisations can access. Employers need to re-evaluate their hiring strategies and how they view the labour market in order to reduce the high unemployment rate of those with autism. This will benefit both organisations who are facing an unprecedented skills gap, as well as providing meaningful work to an underrepresented group who have a huge amount to offer.

If you would like to find out more and explore how you can go about hiring people on the autistic spectrum for key roles in your organisation, please contact Ed Price.

Written by: Jo Pursaill, Director of Talent at ManpowerGroup, co-authored with Ed Price, Experis and Adam Easterbrook, Untapped