Are we underserving the neurodiverse talent pool?
The value of employing neurodiverse talent is often unclear to Australian employers.
Many are still only starting to understand the many strengths that people living with conditions like autism, ADHD and others can bring to their organisations and customers, and how to make their workplaces open and inclusive enough to channel those talents well.
That value is very clear, however, at Services Australia.
In a bid to fill technology roles in the organisation during the skills shortage, Services Australia recently moved to expand its existing Aurora Neurodiversity Program, a unique, specialist disability employment program that recruits people living with autism into technology roles.
After success working with 33 employees since 2020, Services Australia is planning to double its hiring to 70. It will also expand the locations it is able to hire into the program from, building on its current base in Canberra to include Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne.
Government services minister Bill Shorten said the Aurora program, a partnership with Specialisterne Australia, "is a truly unique and specialised disability employment program that was demonstrating the value of providing an accessible and inclusive workplace."
Awakening to the demand for neurodiverse talent
Services Australia is not alone in recognising the value neurodiversity provides. The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) actively targets people living with autism for their potential in areas like code breaking and cyber talent, while the Department of Human Services (HSP) has been another public sector trailblazer in building opportunities for neurodiverse individuals.
At a time of significant skills shortage - particularly evident in the technology industry - could this be an opportunity for employment services providers? Could they take a tailored approach to placing neurodiverse individuals into an industry that is hungry for their talent?
The opportunity exists. On the one hand, there’s clearly demand: the Technology Council of Australia says the tech workforce will very soon top 1 million (growing from 816,000). There are more software engineers and developers now than solicitors, plumbers and hairdressers.
On the other hand, people living with conditions like autism bring skills to the table employers need. Many have higher than average abilities; people with autism and other conditions like dyslexia have been linked to special skills in areas like pattern recognition, memory or mathematics.
There’s also an underemployment problem. ABS stats show 40.8% of people of working age with autism participate in work (more than 2 hours a week), less than the 53.4% of people with other disabilities who participate in work (and the 83.2% of people without a disability).
A tailored, inclusive approach to neurodiverse talent
Services Australia’s approach to recruitment into the Aurora program gives us some clues about how we could support neurodiverse talent. The process looks at what these candidates could achieve if empowered, rather than starting from a view of their constraints and limitations.
This meshes well with the existing employment services approach. After all, DES providers are already highly experienced in identifying the strengths and skills individuals can bring, and using this information to place people into roles who might, at first, look like 'out of the box' candidates.
There’s obviously much work to be done on the employer side. Many global employers have built dedicated neurodiversity hiring and employment programs in the last decade, including SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Ford and EY, to name just a few.
However, large organisations have the capacity to stand up dedicated programs and engage in cultural change to ensure their workplaces are accessible and inclusive. Many other organisations exclude even highly talented neurodiverse people through the hiring process.
The challenge for employment services providers is really around recognising and actioning the opportunity, by communicating the value of neurodiverse employees to employers, and contributing towards employer understanding of how to leverage their talents well in the workplace.
If the employment services industry can do that, we will be on our way to better utilising neurodiverse talent, mitigating skills shortages, and giving the opportunity for people living with autism and other conditions to have better and more fulfilling lives.