By Danny Bradbury, Contributor
With demand for technology skills outpacing supply, companies have been looking high and low for talent that can help bridge the gap. Now, they are finding help from an unexpected and overlooked community.
Technology literacy advocacy group Code.org collated state-level data from the Conference Board’s Help Wanted Online program to identify nearly 550,000 open computing jobs. In spite of this demand for computer science roles, Code.org’s analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data found that in 2015 (the most recent available year) fewer than 50,000 graduates specialized in a corresponding field. This shortage should concern recruitment managers.
“There’s a huge demand for technology workers from entry-level to senior-level positions but the biggest issue is a lack of American talent to satisfy these roles, so these vacancies are increasing,” said technology entrepreneur Oliver Thornton. “A lot of companies must resort to HB-1 Visas and recruiting software professionals from overseas.”
In response, Thornton founded technology startup Coding Autism. It is one of several initiatives hoping to bridge that gap by training people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for technology careers.
Understanding the Talent Pool
The ASD community can be a rich source of technology talent, explained Diana Burley, executive director and chair of the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P) and full professor of human and organizational learning at George Washington University. She also co-directs the university’s CyberBlue initiative that works with organizations to place people with ASD in cybersecurity roles.
“There are individuals on the high-functioning end of the spectrum with the innate ability to focus on problems and notice anomalies. They would be very good at specific tasks in the cybersecurity workforce but wouldn’t have been considered before because they have social differences,” Burley explained.
Recruitment managers hungry for new technology skills are taking notice and creating initiatives to accommodate job candidates with ASD that go beyond cybersecurity and venture into the broader technology space. Microsoft has an autism hiring program, while SAP employs 140 team members through its Autism at Work program, which launched in 2013. In the finance industry, JP Morgan Chase has created its own Autism at Work program, and so has consulting firm EY.
“People have a perception that [people with ASD] are all genius savants or that they’re all non-verbal and non-communicative. Those ends of the spectrum represent a small percentage.”
-Gary Moore, co-founder of nonPareil Institute
For every technology-focused Fortune 500 company taking the time to reach out to this community, though, there are hundreds that aren’t taking advantage of this talent pool. That is often because they don’t understand it, explained Gary Moore, co-founder of the Dallas-based nonPareil Institute, a nonprofit that trains and employs those with ASD in technology careers.
“People have a perception that [people with ASD] are all genius savants or that they’re all non-verbal and non-communicative,” Moore said. “Those ends of the spectrum represent a small percentage.”
In fact, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that redefined autism as a continuum of symptoms. ASD now encompasses conditions such as Aspergers syndrome and “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified” (PDD-NOS).
While there are common symptoms, such as repetitive behaviors, a sharp focus on a narrow field of interest and some difficulties with social interactions, they manifest to varying degrees and in different ways along this continuum.
“More [people] are in the middle [of the spectrum], [and are] moderate to high-functioning,” added Moore. “Any conversation about individuals with autism must start with an understanding of the spectrum and that they will all have different outcomes based on how severe their autism is.”
However, for those that fall somewhere in the middle, there tend to be commonalities that are advantageous in the tech world. “We refer to these individuals as digital natives,” he said. “They just tend to gravitate to the digital space, including interactive media and technology.”
Employers hoping to target job candidates with ASD must take a different approach to human resources, warned Thornton. Traditional interactions such as sink-or-swim interviews don’t work well with a group that can have difficulty maintaining a conversation or making eye contact. Employers must also think about more than just technology skills.
“There are many initiatives within tech companies where they’re trying to hammer down on soft-skills training and provide people who can work with autistic individuals,” said Thornton, who has ASD.
Both Coding Autism and the nonPareil Institute focus on soft-skills training as part of their own curriculum to help prepare people with ASD for technical careers. Whereas Coding Autism seeks to prepare its graduates for jobs elsewhere, Moore’s company has traditionally focused on retaining that talent.
The nonPareil Institute trains people with ASD to become part of its 225-person strong workforce, which it calls ‘The Crew.’ This group builds digital products, including a range of apps and digital art assets, such as 3D-models that nonPareil has published under its own label.
In January, the nonprofit also expanded its revenue stream with an outsourcing initiative that takes on jobs from external clients. The Crew has been working on a six-figure contract to create digital art for Texas-based utility company Oncor Electric. The art is going into an app that teaches children about electrical safety.
As companies and the public learn more about ASD and its unique challenges and advantages, these types of targeted programs will likely be on the rise. The Institute has already expanded its locations from Plano and Houston, Texas into Fort Worth and Austin, as well as Florida and Connecticut.
Working in Tandem
Unlocking the potential of the ASD community with opportunities in the technology industry is likely to be a two-sided effort. On one side are the startups and organizations that are helping to prepare a highly capable workforce.
On the other are forward-thinking companies in the technology industry ready to change the way that they approach hiring and support. Between them, it’s a win-win in bridging the US technology skills gap.