Could hiring more neurodivergent people help fix Australia's skills shortage?

This article is a stepchange. We neurodivergent people are usually reminded of our problems. To be reminded of our strengths is most unusual. But it is true that we often have eerie abiities. My ability is one of the strangest: An ability to write publishable academic journal articles very rapidly.

That promptly got me a university teaching job but did not do me much other good at the time. But stuff I wrote as far back as 1970 and 1971 is still being referred to by other academics so that could be regarded as worthwhile. At any road, the point made below, that we often have useful talents, is well made. Our divergences can be worth putting up with.

I probably should add the point that we are not all total social misfits. I have had some ups and downs but I have overall had a great time with the ladies over the years -- including 4 marriages. Now in my 80th year, I still have 4 ladies in my life. And I am still in touch with my first girlfriend of 60 years ago. It is divergent but in a good way

Jacinta Reynolds was told she was autistic as a young teenager.

"When I was first diagnosed, it was made very clear to me by the person who diagnosed me that I was a burden on society and that it would be better if my family just hid me away," she told ABC News.

But Ms Reynolds went on to complete high school and graduate with an astrophysics degree.

"Then the real problem was, OK, now I have a piece of paper, a very expensive piece of paper, what am I going to do with this?"

Ms Reynolds now works with Idoba, a mining technology services firm in Perth, not as an astrophysicist, but as a marketing officer.

"I do love telling stories, I love getting into the details and creating a sense of wonder and excitement."

She said her autism gives her unique storytelling skills.

"Being able to pick patterns in the way people are writing and telling stories at the time, what's in fashion, what's not in fashion anymore, what's coming into fashion, because it fluctuates and changes, what people want to talk about and how people want to talk about it, what words are just super popular at the moment and what words people don't really think about and so that all fits nicely into it with a scientific background."

A quarter of her colleagues at the company are neurodivergent.

"We run a very inclusive environment," explained Idoba's chief technology officer Matt Schneider.

"One of the things that we've realised on our journey is that if we're focused around traditional thinking, you get traditional results.

"We're very much focused around what and how do you do that differently, how do you think differently?

"In order to do that, we actually have been very active in the market to create a neurodivergent workforce and about 25 per cent [of us] are neurodivergent, be that autistic, ADHD, dyslexia."

Mr Schneider is also neurodivergent and recalled a time when the workplace was making him uncomfortable.

"We used to have a building that had brickwork and that used to drive me nuts in the meeting and I just couldn't cope," he recalled.

"I said to the neurotypical people in the room, 'I can't be in this meeting' and they said, 'but it's really nice', and I said, 'it is for you, not for me'."

Mr Schneider said being aware of how workspaces can impact neurodivergent people and making small changes can ensure businesses are more welcoming.

"It's that awareness and understanding, and certainly being able to advocate for what makes safe environments is really important," he explained.

"We've put a huge amount of energy and effort into engineering this business to be inclusive for everybody. That's really important, if you don't set up the work environment to support a workforce that's divergent, you won't be able to make it happen."

People with autism under represented in the workforce
The most recent data on neurodivergent people in the workforce was collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2018.

It showed the unemployment rate for people with autism at the time was 34.1 per cent, more than three times the overall rate for people with a disability which was 10.3 per cent.

Participation in the labour force in 2018, that is people with a job or actively looking for work, among people with autism was 38 per cent, compared to 53.4 per cent for all people with a disability and 84.1 per cent for those without a disability.

While those numbers have likely changed in the years since the data was collected, at a time when Australia has a historically low unemployment rate and nationwide skills shortage, advocates say businesses could benefit from hiring neurodivergent workers.

"Many neurodivergent people have amazing skill sets in the maths and sciences field," explained Alex Jenkins, director of the WA Data Science Innovation Hub in Perth.

"They're capable of really deep concentration and really focusing on original ideas, and it's an incredible opportunity for these people to come and solve real-world business problems."

Mr Jenkins works with businesses to help them understand the changes to recruitment processes, office spaces or workflows to make workplaces more accessible.

He said expanding a workforce makes good business sense.

"To be able to employ neurodivergent people is a chance to be more competitive and to get ahead of the game."

His peer, Professor Tele Tan, director at the Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance, agrees.

"Most often, neurodiverse individuals have brilliant minds for memory, pattern recognition and mathematics, which is perfectly suited for data engineering, modelling and data analysis," he said.

"It is an untapped potential and untapped talent pool," Mr Jenkins added.

"You just need to understand that perhaps there might be different interview processes, different selection processes, and some minor accommodations that need to be made in the workplace to get the best out of these amazingly talented people."

An 'untapped resource'

Federal government agency Services Australia hopes to hire 70 neurodivergent staff next year.

In 2020, it launched a program aimed at recruiting autistic people and, so far, 38 people have started work with the agency through its Aurora Program.

"The program is unique in that it looks at engaging neurodiverse job seekers into specialist roles within the agency," said Services Australia's director of inclusion and diversity, Clayton Trevilyan.

"We look at moving candidates into a variety of roles, not just the traditional ICT [Information, Communications and Technology] roles, but other roles such as program management, data analyst positions and project managers."

Candidates are not assessed on how well they do in front of an interview panel, but in on-the-job and skills assessments over four weeks.

Hael Smith, who lives with autism and ADHD, recently started her job with the agency in fraud detection. "I get to be a detective from a desk, which is, honestly, as cool as it sounds."

Ms Smith explained her autism and ADHD make her great for the job. "Things like spotting patterns, that's been one of the really useful skills [I have]," she said.

"It's not something as far as I know, that people can do very easily, but it's looking at some information or some data and going there's something not quite right about that."

She added that her high level of integrity is also an asset.

"A lot of people that I know who are on the spectrum tend to, we don't really do lying, or fabricating up stories and stuff; it's almost like, we don't see the point. Having that integrity is really helpful," she said.

"I've got a really fast brain. Usually, my brain gets me in trouble, because it's faster than I can actually get words out.

"But that actually really comes in handy in investigations, because I can go 'Oh, yeah, that connects to that, alright, cool,' and I've got an instant decision to follow this particular piece of information or find this piece of information."

After years of short stints in hospitality and retail jobs that did not fulfil her, Ms Smith recently told her new bosses she is never quitting, and they will have to "drag her out by her feet" if they ever want her to leave.

"We are literally an untapped resource, but because of the way the recruitment process is set up we will very much struggle with getting employment because it is so much about that social, about how you present yourself, when it should be, as it should be everywhere, about the work you can do and what value you can actually bring to the job," she said.

"Employing people with autism isn't an arduous thing to do, in fact, it's the right thing to do," added Mr Trevilyan, who has a son with autism.

"We want to represent the community that we serve, and it's important to provide people with those long-term meaningful job prospects and for them to be able to have the dignity of employment just like everybody else."


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