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An untapped solution to the public-workforce crisis: neurodiverse talent

By Mark Funkhouser

In just about every conversation I have with local-government officials, they name hiring and retention of staff among their top challenges. Job postings go unanswered or receive very few applications. Offers are turned down because the candidate has received a better one elsewhere. It’s the tightest labor market in recent memory, and local governments are having an even harder time than usual competing against the private sector.

Albert Einstein supposedly once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. While Einstein may or may not have said those words, the point is valid: Governments are not going to solve staffing problems by doubling down on what they’ve done in the past. They have to start thinking differently, particularly about workplace diversity and inclusion and specifically about making use of the impressive abilities of people with neurocognitive disabilities.

This is a largely untapped workforce that’s talented, creative and perfectly capable of helping meet the staffing crisis as long as their individual needs can be met in the workplace. People with disabilities represent as much as 15% of the population and are underemployed to a staggering degree. A case in point: According to one estimate by Autism Speaks, as many as nine in 10 adults with autism spectrum disorder are either unemployed or underemployed. And yet they have much to offer to employers both public and private.

A lot of research and energy in the private sector has been devoted to employing people with disabilities. A 2019 Institute for Corporate Productivity report highlighted several case studies at companies such as Boeing and UPS that found hiring employees with apparent or non-apparent disabilities boosted overall attendance, morale and engagement among all workers. Moreover, the perceived higher cost to accommodate a worker who is differently abled wasn’t borne out: Data found that the cost of accommodations very rarely exceeds $500.

What’s more, the tech world is increasingly recognizing that neurodiverse individuals — those who interact with and process their surroundings in atypical ways due to neurological or behavioral conditions such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia — exhibit heightened capabilities that make them well suited for careers in information technology. Those capabilities can include accelerated problem-solving or following instructions or rules with accuracy. KPMG has an entire program dedicated to creating employment opportunities for neurodiverse individuals and has partnered with the disability advocate and employer Melwood to focus on filling the tech talent gap.

The public sector, with its vast array of jobs at all skill levels, paths to promotion and inclusion goals, could greatly benefit from expanding its talent pool to incorporate people with diverse abilities. And it’s time governments start working more concertedly with groups that can help.

One such organization that works to remove barriers to employment is PRIDE Industries in the Sacramento, California, area. PRIDE is the nation’s largest employer of people with disabilities, helping facilitate work either within the organization or by contract work.

In the public sector, PRIDE provides custodial services for the Sacramento International Airport and just expanded its operations and maintenance contract with the Judicial Council of California. In 2019, it partnered with San Diego County to launch “Jay’s Program,” which provides individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities opportunities for six-month, part-time paid internships with county departments.

PRIDE succeeds in providing these opportunities not out of charity but because it garners meaningful savings for the public sector. The airports contract, for example, is projected to save the public purse nearly $600,000 over the three-year term thanks to PRIDE’s innovative cleaning methodology. Jay’s Program was inspired by Raymond “Jay” Bariuan, a person with autism whom County Chair Nathan Fletcher hired years ago as an assistant and soon discovered had many other talents.

The fact that these deals also represent meaningful work for a portion of the population that is habitually overlooked is icing on the cake. In the investment world, this is called a “double bottom line” because it provides both a financial and a social benefit. “Most of the time, people with disabilities just need to be given a chance and a few supports,” said Jennifer Luebke, PRIDE’s chief workforce inclusion officer. “Providing that accommodating, inclusive environment also can mean keeping tabs on that person to keep track of the skills they’ve gained and seeing if they want to try other jobs or advance.”

Creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities doesn’t necessarily require anything beyond what’s already recommended to promote a productive and inclusive workplace culture. Offering training options, employee resource groups, the freedom to innovate and mental wellbeing policies are just a few outlined in a recent Accenture report. Autism Speaks’ evidence-based employment system, Workplace Inclusion Now, provides employer resources to build and support inclusive workplace culture.

Moreover, the organization as a whole benefits: Accenture reported that among the companies in its study, the organizations most focused on disability engagement were growing sales nearly three times faster and profits more than four times faster than their peers. These numbers aren’t to be taken lightly as local governments stare down a future with fewer workers, revenue volatility and higher expectations from the public.

Responding to these demands will require that local governments focus on the quality of their jobs rather than the quantity, because oftentimes when employers provide all workers with the support to thrive and the flexibility to take initiative, they do. That saves time and money, and also happens to amount to real inclusion rather than simply lip service to the idea. “It generates loyalty — not just from the employee who is hired but for others,” Luebke said. “When you’re working at a place you see being that inclusive, it shows that place really cares about its people.” When governments genuinely care for the people who work for it, good things can happen.

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