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How to Engage Neurodivergent Talent in the Government Workforce

By Erica J. Ford , Principal, EY US Government and Public Sector People Advisory Services Leader, and Hiren Shukla, EY Global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence Leader

Neurodiversity is becoming top of mind for government leaders — across federal, state and local agencies — as they ramp up efforts to recruit and hire neurodivergent talent in the workforce.

The neurodiversity movement challenges the medical model’s idea that a neurodivergence, like autism or ADHD, is dysfunctional and inherently requires treatment. Instead, it supports the notion that neurological differences among people should be recognized and respected, and it calls on society to further adapt to meet the needs associated with neurodivergence.

The term “neurodiverse” is inclusive of both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals; while we recognize that these terminologies are ever-changing, the widely accepted term “neurodivergent” is used to describe an individual having an inherent cognitive variation, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and/or dyscalculia. It is understood that a significant portion of neurodivergent individuals are unemployed or underemployed. This presents an opportunity for agencies to focus on this relatively untapped market.

Truly neurodiverse teams embrace talent, technology and transformation. “If you wrap those three together and inject a deliberate sense of belonging and equity, you will drive exponential results that will cascade across process, people, product,” said Hiren Shukla, EY Global Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence (NCoE) Leader. “This was the hypothesis that we had when EY began this journey. Not only have we not looked back, but we have tripled down on the intersection of talent, technology and transformation.”

Four key factors frame the neurodiversity conversation: managing the talent shortage, utilizing the unique abilities of neurodivergent talent, sharing leading practices for recruiting and retaining that talent, and cultivating a network of leaders interested in neurodiversity as a workforce strategy.

Neurodiversity as a transformation play

Neurodivergent individuals’ inherent cognitive differences often enable them to excel in future-focused competencies through adeptness in pattern recognition, enhanced ability to manipulate data, technology quality assurance and an analytic mindset.

Creative reasoning, analytical thinking, technology design and programming, and complex problem-solving skills are in great demand. Neurodivergent individuals could be part of the untapped talent pool that meets the demand for cyber, machine learning, artificial intelligence and other skills that government leaders agree are hard to find — and even harder to retain.

Federal, state and local government agencies concur that recruiting talent has changed with the pandemic. There are more workers resigning from their jobs, and that’s increasing the competition for employers to find and retain talent. This, in turn, is adding criticality to current hiring and recruiting processes within the federal government.

There is a focus on pivoting away from the traditional behavior-based interview to a performance-based approach that encompasses observing, coaching and identifying interests. More time spent up front supports better retention and productivity.

Organizations should be training their workforces to recognize individual skills and potential and giving them the tools to be their best from a work perspective. The differences are what is valued: creating a team that blends individual personalities with inclusion.

Innovation, pride, purpose and leadership

The concept of breaking down employment barriers for people who are neurodivergent is supported by business needs and talent requirements. This model develops digital solutions, optimizes processes, and creatively uses data and technology.

Our NCoEs are striving to bring together all stakeholders — business leaders, governments, nonprofits and universities — to recognize the power of leveraging neurodivergent talent and accelerate technology, talent and transformation. (The NCoEs are communities within EY that include individuals with cognitive differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and Asperger syndrome, and are designed to apply the talents of these neurodivergent professionals to meet clients’ business needs.)

A commitment to neurodiversity can help address talent needs and skill gaps within the government. Our NCoEs have found that individuals who are neurodivergent and are applying for roles often have a degree/certification or come with a baseline in skills, such as automation, blockchain, cyber, data analytics and predictive modeling, and excel in innovation, efficiency and productivity. We typically find that those who do not have the abovementioned skills have an interest and ability to upskill and be trained in these areas.

Our NCoEs are changing lives, increasing employee engagement, and encouraging pride and support. The culture of inclusiveness has generated a 92% retention rate at our NCoEs over the past six years. One unexpected result is the qualitative impact on leadership. Team members need transparency, directness and clarity, which, in turn, is making their supervisors better managers.

Thinking through the next steps

Government leaders can leverage lessons learned from a powerful neurodivergent program: everything from sourcing avenues to improving the interview process to onboarding and ongoing engagement. There is no single solution, but hiring and training neurodivergent individuals — and integrating them into a team — has tremendous universal application.

Agencies are interested in proactively reaching out and hiring an untapped candidate base. “Digital dexterity” is a term that emphasizes the general business need for change across the entire workforce. It’s a phrase that agencies will be building on as they work with corporate partners to tap into this talent pool. No one must develop their own pipeline. They can build one together, with a business case that defines metrics and outcomes.

The idea of leveraging neurodiverse talent is new to many organizations. For those just starting on the journey, there are several key steps:

  • Identify stakeholders and cultivate an understanding of how engaging neurodiverse talent can support their agency’s mission and talent strategy.
  • Determine who is driving the traction and execution; this requires support from multiple business units, particularly human resources.
  • Focus on business leaders who are experiencing skill gaps and need to optimize processes.
  • Develop a road map for a 6- to 12-month pilot with empirical evidence, costs, pain points and metrics.

Erica Ford drives the growth and visibility of EY’s People Advisory Services capabilities in the Government and Public Sector (GPS). As the GPS Lead, she helps government clients leverage technology and innovation for future workforce planning, workplace strategies, learning transformation and dynamic experiences. She is experienced in human capital strategy, designing and implementing large organizational transformations for federal, state and local governments.

Hiren Shukla’s experience spans more than 20 years across accounting, strategy, automation, innovation and change management. He currently leads internal automation and innovation efforts at Ernst & Young LLP and is the founder of Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at EY Global.

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