Employers Take Note: People with Autism Ideally Suited to Fill Critical STEM Jobs

Is it just me, or do you also feel like it's only a matter of time until an account gets hacked and all of your personal data stolen? Seemingly each week there's another major company victimized by a cyber attack, exposing our social security numbers, bank accounts and other vital data.

With Labor Day upon us, these cyber breaches have me thinking about what it's going to take for our nation to protect itself, particularly when it comes to the skilled labor needed to tackle this vexing problem. My chairman, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, calls it a "global scourge" and has recently focused his work on helping companies be better prepared.

Gov. Ridge and I agree one thing companies need to do now is to rethink their hiring strategies to find skilled talent in technology. America is already lagging when it comes to STEM-skilled workers. The U.S. will have more than 1.2 million job openings in STEM - or science, technology, engineering and math - fields by 2018. And by 2020, the McKinsey Global Institute reports there will be a shortage of 95 million skilled workers.

Microsoft and SAP are two companies that are filling this STEM talent gap by hiring individuals with autism. Why? They've discovered that these individuals possess in-demand skills in STEM fields, especially jobs that require extreme attention to detail or repetitive tasks, like quality checking software or finding anomalies in data. Remember the character made famous by Dustin Hoffman in the film, Rain Man, who had a remarkable ability to remember numerical sequences? Those same skills can be used to help companies fill critical STEM vacancies.

Smart companies competing in the 'race for talent' - as Baby Boomers grow older and retire - are recognizing the benefits. Microsoft recently launched a pilot program to hire people with autism. And SAP has established a goal to have one-percent of its global workforce - some 650 employees - be people with autism by 2020. SAP's director of its "Autism at Work" program, Jose Velasco, has reported that not only has it expanded SAP's talent pool, it also has created more innovation, team cohesion, greater productivity and better customer relations.

The experience at SAP is not surprising. They and other companies are discovering that not only do individuals with autism offer highly sought after STEM skills, but their brand benefits when their workforce reflects the diversity of their consumers. A strong employer brand built on inclusion can also go far in attracting the best workers in a tight talent market, helping companies save on reduced recruitment and retention costs.

If your organization is considering a more inclusive workforce - whether it's to help bolster your defenses from cyber attacks or simply because you recognize the benefits employees with disabilities can deliver - keep in mind that it may require you to adapt your established hiring practices. For instance, traditional interviewing styles are not well suited to those with autism who have difficulty with typical communication skills, like maintaining eye contact. That's where organizations like ours can help. The race for talent is underway. Don't get caught at the starting line.