The autistic worker - an untapped talent pool for the tech industry

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett June 12, 2016
Summary:
A number of IT companies are launching targeted recruitment drives to hire autistic people in a bid to plug the ever-widening technical skills gap. Software giant SAP is at the vanguard of such activity and, along with other experts, shares some of the lessons learned so far.

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In an age of ever-growing IT skills shortages, making a concerted effort to broaden out the pool of people that you recruit from makes an awful lot of sense.

So it was with this consideration in mind that SAP first launched its Autism at Work program in May 2013 at the software giant’s Sapphire user event in Florida. As part of the scheme, it pledged to ensure that by the end of 2020, 1% of its workforce, which now consists of 77,000 employees, would have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental condition that impairs individuals’ ability to communicate and interact with others.

The initiative had initially been piloted in India following a chance meeting between the software giant’s then local managing director VR Ferose and Danish entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne, the founder of specialist autism recruitment services provider, Specialisterne. But it has since been rolled out in seven other countries across the world, including the US, Germany and Brazil, with South Korea and Switzerland being next on the list of possible destinations. Stephanie Nennstiel, the firm’s senior programme manager for diversity, explains the rationale:

People with autism make up a huge untapped talent pool and the specific skill sets that they bring into the workforce fit perfectly in an IT company. Studies also show that by the end of 2016 in Europe alone, there will be more than 800,000 open positions so it was a signal that we had to employ people from new areas. But it’s very important to demonstrate that people with a disability have a chance in the workforce too, especially when we’re talking about digitalization and Industry 4.0.

SAP now employs just over 100 staff with ASD in roles ranging from software development and testing to IT project management and HR back end processing. While some applicants apply directly to the company for work, others are provided by Specialisterne or are referred on by local community partners such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But despite a willingness to hire more, Nennstiel says that finding applicants can be tricky:

We’re on track to hit 1% by 2020, but I’d like to increase our footprint. Our goal is to have 160 people with autism by the end of this year. But sometimes it’s really hard to find enough candidates. People who haven’t been diagnosed don’t apply so we need to find ways of making the pipeline bigger.

In order to do so, the company is now approaching a range of universities to offer specific internship programmes for autistic students, for example.

As to the specific benefits of hiring workers with ASD compared with other members of the population, there are a number. Nennstiel explains:

People with autism have a huge ability to recognise patterns and show great attention to detail so they can spot information that other people might miss. They also like predictability, and for things to be very structured, which means they’re diligent and have a low tolerance of mistakes. So software is often an area where they can use their talents. Software development and testing was where it all started for us, but we’ve also hired people for jobs like graphic designers, data analysts and consultants.

Special talents

Richmal Maybank, employment training consultant at the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS), agrees, pointing out that other special talents often include accuracy, taking a logical approach, sticking to the rules, doing exactly what has been asked of them, and incredible levels of loyalty. But she also points out:

It’s not true of everyone, although it is true of the majority. But there’s a saying that ‘once you’ve met a person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. The idea is that everyone’s different and so you have to be careful not to make assumptions. Managers might feel wary of putting someone in a client-facing role, for instance, but with the right tools, training and support, people would often be really good.

But it is just these kinds of assumptions, together with the autism-unfriendly nature of most recruitment processes and the low self-esteem of many autistic candidates, that conspire to keep employment rates low.

According to the last UK census, about one in every 100 people has been diagnosed with autism, while the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,puts it at more like 1 in 68  - or one in every 42 boys and 189 girls

In both countries, however, only 15% of the total are in full-time employment, with many struggling to keep hold of jobs once they do find one as all too many employers simply don’t have the tools in place to provide effective support, Maybank says.

Nonetheless, hiring people on the autistic spectrum does appear to be catching on in the high tech community at least. Other firms diving in include Hewlett-Packard. With the help of Specialisterne, it ran a pilot project with 11 ASD trainees whose role it was to test software for the Department of Human Services at the firm’s ICT hub in Adelaide, Australia, last year.

Microsoft has likewise taken on 11 new employees with autism in the US and began rolling out a similar pilot scheme for 10 new hires in the UK this February.

But there are challenges to going down this route. According to NAS’s Maybank, one of the biggest hurdles for many autistic people, and their potential employers, is simply getting to the interview stage as there are unintentional barriers at every pass.

 

In part 2 of this special feature, we examine some of the challenges tech firms face when trying to build an autistic employee program - and some possible solutions.