By Kathryn B. Creedy
While most people think women and people of color when it comes to increasing diversity, there are many other constituencies needing a place at the table if diversity and inclusion (D&I) is to really mean anything.
That signals the importance of a new Neurodiverse Federal Workforce (NFW) pilot program, a collaborative effort between National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), MITRE and Melwood, a D.C. nonprofit providing job opportunities to people with disabilities.
The World Economic Forum determined that diversity and inclusion is one of industries’ most important issues because studies conclude such programs are essential to corporate success. So along with programs for the inclusion of people of color, women, LGBGTQ, programs must also address the differently abled.
NGA’s new program, launched in December, is designed to increase opportunities for neurodiverse individuals, including those on the autism spectrum.
Supporting a National Security Mission
NGA is a unique combination of intelligence agency and a critical combat support agency. It is a world leader in timely, relevant, accurate and actionable geospatial intelligence. NGA enables the U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Defense to fulfill the president’s national security priorities to protect the nation.
The idea of its neurodiversity pilot program is to create increased career opportunities within the federal government and the creaton of a playbook to help other federal agencies recruit and support neurodiverse talent which have historically been underemployed along with a host of other differently abled people.
Advocates have been saying for years hiring the differently abled is not as daunting as some might think and NGA certainly agrees.
Michael Hales, NGA Analysis Tradecraft and Technology’s Deputy Director for Strategic Transformation, put the pilot program into context what the agency already does.
“The is part of NGA’s existing disability program,” he told Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News (FA/AW News). “First, we want to better support our existing neurodiverse workforce and second we want to hire world class talent. Our experience has been positive and we’ve talked to other federal agencies who already have people on the spectrum so it is important to determine if we can do more to support these workers. Our programs already have structures to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are met.”
Indeed, the new six-month NGA pilot program is designed to improve on NGA’s positive results. The pilot program increases federal employment opportunities.
The program addresses a significant need. The US has one million young people with autism turning 18 over next decade with a range of abilities, according to AJ Drexel Autism Institute.
“The level of underemployment in this population at different skill levels and the inability to find meaningful employment is a real problem,” said Anne Roux, research scientist for the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the institute. “One of our core issues is the lack of employment capacity in our communities. This is true particularly about the types of jobs that are available. It is easier to find low-skill jobs in manufacturing or transport. But individuals who have special interests or abilities may be good candidates for the type of jobs in the pilot program.”
A 2015 report – National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood by the institute found young adults with autism had the lowest rate of employment compared to their peers with other types of disabilities. Research also shows only about one-third of young adults with autism are employed the first two years after high school.
“From a civil rights and social justice perspective, so many diversity and inclusion programs focus on racial, ethnic or gender diversity,” said Roux. “You rarely see anything about diverse abilities. We must expand the concept of diversity and inclusion to include people with disabilities. I think younger people expect this because they grew up seeing it every day in our public schools. People on the autism spectrum have a full spectrum of abilities to work. Once you open your eyes to the possibilities, people are more ready to accept different people into the workplace.”
Roux sees the NFW program as opening more possibilities for people on the spectrum with a high level of cognitive skills.
“It provides a new job sector for employment,” she told FA/AW News. “It is also a proof of concept that hiring neurodiverse people is doable and the type of modifications in the workplace may not be as daunting as it is perceived.”
Roux also pointed to the many benefits involved in adding neurodiverse individuals. “It increases the confidence of employers in hiring. Once they do hire, employers find they are intensely loyal and focused employees who have a unique set of skills. Computing and coding can be ideal jobs for those who are neurodiverse.”
Special accommodations for these individuals can be as simple as a different kind of lighting, noise cancelling headphones or being in an area that is less distracting, Hales explained, adding what NGA hopes to learn the accommodations needed for the future.
“People on the spectrum have been asking for this for a long time,” said Roux. “Now the workplace is figuring out the accommodations are very minimal including frequent breaks and presenting tasks in a different way.”
Visual presentations, she said, provides a different perspective on the entire task and signals other employees of the different ways something can be done. Colleagues also benefit, morale goes up as does job satisfaction. There is less turnover and more loyalty, she added.
NGA Deputy Director Dr. Stacey Dixon agrees. “NGA mission success is contingent on a world-class workforce with a wide diversity of opinions and expertise,” she said. “Neurodiverse talent can bring new perspectives to the NGA workforce and make important contributions to the mission.”
Hales explained the new workplace perspectives they bring strengthens the agency mission because they bring a new way of thinking about data and technology.
“They think in a very linear fashion while others have a gift for seeing the big picture and the implications of different efforts,” he said. “We need both to provide the best product for our customers. This is all part of our continuous effort to improve our mission and our approach to value all employees who support our mission. Each is unique but we see ourselves as a collective and have diversity of thought and perspective helps our mission.”
Roux agrees. “Neurodiverse employees have a different approach to problem solving which is an asset because of their ability to focus, their execution of routine tasks and keeping at it untiringly.”
Apprenticeship/Internships is Best Practice
Dixon explained the new hires in the program undergo an intensive, one-week training and interviews workshop before interns are placed in six-month internships in geospatial and imagery analysis roles supporting NGA’s mission. They are matched with buddies or mentors to help the new hires assimilate into working for the federal government.
“This is a tremendous learning opportunity for NGA,” said Dixon. “It allows us to demonstrate that neurodiverse talent adds significant value to the geospatial-intelligence tradecraft and helps the agency better support its existing neurodiverse employees.”
Roux said using the apprenticeship/internship model for people to learn is a best practice that enables them to move on to higher level jobs.
“Our entire education system is geared to send people to college, but this program is capitalizing on a group that often doesn’t go to college but has the cognitive skills to perform these jobs. This program is definitely something guidance counselors in schools need to be aware of.”
Diane Malley, director of Community Impact, Transition Pathways at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, noted those on the autism spectrum already work in aviation and pointed to Yasom Davis, who commutes an hour to work at Philadelphia International Airport.
Davis, who works helping to shred paper, the ride-on floor buffer, labeling boxes and completing other service tasks, was part of the first cohort of talent recruited for the institute’s Project Search, a flagship program, designed to make the last day of school look like the first day of the rest of your life. The program hosts a cohort of eight students in a series of internships and vocational training designed to prepare students for competitive employment after graduation. Of the sixteen students who completed the program in the first two years, fifteen went onto the job search and are currently employed. Project SEARCH’s successes inspired similar programming and new initiatives around the city.
Federal Government Initiative
The NFW pilot resulted from the Office of Management and Budget and General Service Administration’s Government Effectiveness Advanced Research Center Challenge, a competition to solicit proposals to solve the federal government’s toughest management problems while collaborating with the private sector, academia and the public. MITRE’s neurodiversity proposal garnered a grand prize.
“This work will be an invaluable building block for creating meaningful change across the federal workforce,” said Teresa Thomas, program lead, neurodiverse talent enablement for MITRE. “NGA has stepped forward to lead by example, collaborating on an internship program that will benefit interns on the spectrum and NGA.”
Hales agrees. “Our goal is to make hiring neurodiverse people part of the normal hiring process,” he said. “It is getting there and we are hoping this program will help get us farther. We hope to learn what does and doesn’t work.”
Hales also noted the impact on other employees and sees it as a tremendous boost signaling parents of the neurodiverse that there are not only opportunities but benefits in hiring the neurodiverse.
“It really depends on the individual and what interests them and what their talents are, just like anyone,” he explained. “They have the ability to be employed in any job. We are a very data driven agency, and we have analysts and staff in a wide variety of roles.”
The NGA program illustrates, when it comes to workforce issues, we need to change the conversation if we want to meet industry D&I and workforce goals. It shows a desire to include everyone who has something to offer and who can be mentored and trained to increase diversity in aviation and aerospace. Most importantly, it shows federal workforce policies and aviation/aerospace are welcoming and should be seen as a model for others.