Finance Secretary backs call for tech sector to attract more people with “neurodiverse” skills

Scotland’s finance secretary has said the tech sector is missing out on a “massive” talent pool of people with ‘neurodiverse’ conditions such as autism.

Kate Forbes said she she would like tech companies in Scotland to hire more people with lifelong disorders and learning disabilities who are presently excluded from the workforce, but whose skills could greatly boost productivity, creativity and innovation.

Ms Forbes, speaking at the beginning of the 23rd annual ScotSoft conference, hosted by the tech trade body ScotlandIS, backed the released today by Skills Development of its “Neurodiversity in Digital Technology” report.

She said: “As a government, and as a sector, we need to attract more people but we also need to broaden our horizons and draw upon the talents and potential from across society. And that’s why today’s report, Neurodiversity in Digital Technology, by Skills Development Scotland, is so important.

“It highlights that technology employers are missing out on a massive talent pool with proven skills that can improve productivity, creativity and innovation in the workplace. The report also makes it clear that more needs to be done in schools and further education to encourage neurodiverse people to study digital technology skills.”

states that at least 1 in 10 of Scotland’s population are neurodivergent, but the true number could be far higher as many people are undiagnosed or don’t report themselves.

Although no figures yet exist that cover the entire neurodivergent population in work, statistics relating to autism showed that only 16% were in full-time employment while 75% wanted to work more hours but couldn’t find suitable opportunities.

The SDS report recommends tech employers take action to benefit from increased neurodiversity in their teams, including changing job ads to be more inclusive and easier to read, and introduce more flexible recruitment processes that aren’t just focused on form filling and offer more practical task-based interviews.

The report also made it clear more needs to be done in schools and further education to encourage neurodivergent people to study digital technology skills.

Present Pal founder Chris Hughes, who chairs the SDS working group on tech and neurodiversity, said: “We need to nurture neurodivergent talent from a young age. As the founder of a tech start-up myself, and having dyslexia, I know how challenging it can be on that learning journey.

“We need to change the attitudes of those with a poor understanding of neurodiversity, as well as their reactions to people who display different behaviours. We also need to adapt the way neurodivergents are taught, such as less focus on writing for those with dyslexia and less group work for those with autism. This can make a huge difference to people’s lives. And in turn that will have a positive impact on the tech sector skills gap. ”

Joining Chris at the event was parent and campaigner Beverley Harrow who lives in St Andrews. She is the mother of two children with Asperger’s, the youngest being Geordie who at 16 has decided to pursue a career in cyber security after attending an SDS workshop on ethical hacking at Abertay University. He is also now undertaking a Foundation Apprenticeship in Software Engineering following that workshop.

She said: “I’ve got a lot to thank SDS for. Not only did they help steer Geordie on to a career path he is ideally suited to and loves – but knew nothing about until the workshop – they have also produced this much-needed report which verifies what I’ve always campaigned for.

“Big companies such as SAP have been running pro-ND campaigns for a number of years and reports say that the programs are, and I quote,  “already paying off in ways far beyond reputational enhancement”. Those ways include productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement.

“That’s the message that needs to be promoted. I strongly believe that disability should never be a barrier to achievement, but to facilitate success it will take the combined skills of the educators and employers to make this the norm rather than the exception.”

During the launch of the report SDS also revealed they have been working on a new initiative with Scottish Government to enhance career prospects for neurodivergents in cyber security. Inverness College UHI, Edinburgh Napier University, West Lothian College and Perth Autism Support have received grants totalling £150,000 to develop new education programmes specifically designed to tackle some of the challenges mentioned in the report.

Claire Gillespie, Digital Technologies Skills Manager at Skills Development Scotland concluded; “With more than 13,000 job opportunities waiting to be filled in the tech sector, we need to look at as many different ways as possible to plug that skills gap. By ensuring neurodivergent people are given all the support they can get in education, which this funding aims to achieve, we will be able to help them as individuals while also building cyber security capacity in the tech talent pipeline.”

In a speech at the beginning of the tech conference, Ms Forbes said that the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity to “reflect” on the nature of Scotland’s economy and that recovery and national ambitions – to be fairer, greener, to be more equal – “will be driven by technology”.

But whilst many companies have moved operations online, she warned that there are “still too many that are not taking advantage of existing technologies”.

She said: “That’s why the Scottish Government recently announced a doubling of funding for the Digital Boost programme to support the digitalisation of Scottish SMEs. To further strengthen digitalisation across Scotland the Scottish Government is also launching a consultation for our digital strategy.”

She said: “What this pandemic has taught us among many things is that digital technologies are at the vanguard of our response to the pandemic, whether that’s the data that drives the modelling, the hardware that connects family and friends or trading platforms that join businesses and customers. Things have changed and Scotland needs to drive that change.”