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Finding Your Invisible Workforce

Finding Your Invisible Workforce

How Students on the Autism Spectrum Can Fill In-Demand STEM Jobs Nationwide

America faces a looming crisis in the workforce. According to the 2018 Deloitte Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study, more than 2.4 million STEM positions will go unfilled in American manufacturing and design in the next nine years.1 This gap hamstrings an entire American industry, one that drives nearly every other jobs sector. This gap is unsustainable if America hopes to maintain global economic dominance. Luckily, there is a growing pool of talent that, with the right supports in education and the workplace, could help solve this dilemma.

Recent numbers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict approximately 50,000 students, at a minimum, will graduate from high school annually while experiencing life on the autism spectrum.2 These students are generally uniquely suited to careers in the STEM professions. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) makes communication, especially nonverbal communication, more difficult but grants an enhanced knack for pattern recognition and atypical thinking.

Sadly, without targeted supports in the credentialing phase of post-secondary education, the potential evaporates and America loses a vital talent resource.

Earlier this century, providers identified just one ASD child in 250, so this loss of economic potential was easily overlooked. However, at the current rate of diagnosis (1 in 59)3, the practice of overlooking these students is not a sustainable model in a world of advancing technology, artificial intelligence, programming and all the sub-careers these fields generate.

Maddeningly, the statistics for very capable students on the autism spectrum in higher education are grim. At just 18 percent involvement, these students (many with strong STEM potential) are the least likely to enroll in school or achieve gainful employment in the two years after high school graduation of any measured disability group (learning disabilities, visual or auditory impairments).4

What is needed to discover this untapped workforce is stunningly simple and has, in small pilot programs, proven successful. We must change the way community colleges recruit and support students in order to achieve completion rates commensurate with ability.

In order to recruit this once-invisible population, it’s important to understand the K-12 system. High schools try to prepare ASD students for post-secondary education through a federally mandated process. TCC faculty or staff can join the process to recruit students and inform their parents of TCC programs and targeted support services. Once enrolled, best practice research suggests that more intensive orientation and a cohort-style schedule increased completion and success rates.

ASD students should, ideally, begin TCC with instructors who have additional, research-proven training to understand the small tweaks to curriculum delivery and assessment, that help bolster ASD student success. Students with ASD organizational difficulties additionally benefit from targeted tutoring sessions covering the content as well as the context of higher education culture. To fully utilize existing supports at home (supports with years of individualized design), it is important to offer support and continued information on the transition into adulthood to students, their parents and other key stakeholders (as allowed under FERPA regulation).

As the rates of diagnosis continue to rise and the unique talents specific to the ASD community emerge from new research, TCC holds both opportunities and mandates from the community. As an example, a software developer with one kind of creative thinking may design an application for modern efficiency. That program must be “de-bugged.” This is a specific skill that may seem dull to a neuro-typical programmer. Yet, this is a task that appeals to many on the autism spectrum. It provides for the comfort of routine (the same daily task) and plays to the ASD ability in unique pattern recognition. Hiring and supporting the ASD worker in just this one field benefits the business community by increasing the talent pool. A small number of adults with ASD are currently succeeding in solid, six-figure salary jobs in data analytics, programming, research and myriad other STEM-related fields. In discussion with these successful people, one will hear of the mentor or supportive person who helped the now successful employee understand corporate culture and communication and manage daily interactions. TCC can begin this process as the support service provider.

TCC exists as a “student-ready” college. The smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction offered at TCC make for the smoothest possible transition into higher education for the very capable, but sometimes distracted, ASD student. Once students experience success in higher education and earn transfer credits or the certifications needed for meaningful employment, TCC graduates emerge prepared with skill sets for university culture or workplace success—with skills that seem “just in time” for the digital revolution. There also is a need to train “success coaches” to work with employees with ASD as more Fortune 500 companies are recognizing the talent pool and seek qualified work coaches to provide support.

To ignore ASD potential and the need for STEM graduates in such a quickly growing population damages our community. It seems STEM-capable students miss out on the pathways to adulthood their peers enjoy once they leave the protective bubble of high school. As a global economic powerhouse, we are doubly missing out as well. Instead of earning the credentials they need to contribute to the tax base with well-paying jobs, many young adults with ASD draw on social service safety nets, never gaining the pride of self-sufficiency their peers experience as they venture into the work world. The cost to Medicaid for a citizen with ASD is shockingly six times higher than for similarly aged young adults. In 2005, the CDC reported average expenses of $10,709 for every client with ASD vs. just $1,812 for those without.5 There also is a moral mandate—people living with high-functioning ASD have suicide rates nine times higher for men and 13 times higher for women.6 The psychological boost afforded to contributing members of society who feel accepted by peers can negate the dismal statistics. But we must act.

The choice seems easy. Education provides for equity when proper supports are in place. Education leads to meaningful contributions in the workforce. Without targeted support in higher education, life prognoses seems grim: unemployment, dependent status and wasted potential.

In reality, America can’t really afford to lose 50,000 high-potential graduates every year when our STEM need is so high. We must begin the work before we lose the market to countries who utilize the skills of every citizen, not just those who fit the desired mold.

The solution begins now.

Learn more about TCC’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Program.

  1. “2018 Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study.”, 2018.
  2. Jaslow, Ryan. “Autism Rates Rise 30 Percent in Two-Year Span.” CBS News, 2014.
  3. “Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” CDC, 2019.
  4. Anne Roux, et. al. “National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood.” Drexel University 2015.
  5. “New Data on Autism.” CDC, April 2019.
  6. Kirby, Anna, “A 20-year Study of Suicide Death in a Statewide Autism Population. Autism Research, 2019.