It’s no secret that UK industry has a skills problem. For years, companies have been reporting difficulties recruiting people with the experience they need, yet despite the best efforts of business, academia and professional bodies, progress towards bridging the gap remains stubbornly slow.
As one of the world’s leading professional bodies for the engineering and technology sector, the IET has a significant stake in this issue. When the results of its own extensive annual skills survey are published in December it’s unlikely that the picture will have changed dramatically in the past twelve months.
What if there was a significant community of potential recruits, many with abilities ideally suited to engineering and technology careers, who are being hindered from entering the profession?
That’s a narrative which has often been applied to the low percentage of women in engineering, sitting currently at 16.5 per cent. Now, however, increasing awareness of neurodiversity is highlighting the extent to which the technology sector is missing out on another source of recruits.
And it’s not that engineering isn’t an attractive career option – far from it – it just needs to be seen as more inclusive and diverse. New research by the IET, prompted by a survey which suggests around one in five people already working in engineering believes they are or might be neurodivergent, has revealed an urgent need to make the workplace more accessible if it’s going to avoid losing them.
The study was overseen by an advisory group comprising engineers and technicians, including myself, drawn from the IET’s Neurodiversity Member Network and involved a series of carefully designed focus groups where participants were able to candidly discuss their experiences. Not all chose to disclose their neurotype, but of those who did, all identified as having ADHD, or being autistic or dyslexic.
Their experience of work, sadly, is often not good. Many said they are reluctant to be open at work, and that they face a range of challenges which can be exacerbated if they are part of another under-represented group. Many believe these challenges also mean employers are missing out on opportunities to exploit their specific strengths.
We’re probably all familiar with the idea that ‘neurodiversity’ covers a spectrum of traits and disorders that affect people in a range of ways. Many of these are widely known such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia or Tourette Syndrome, though there are lots more, and it boils down to the idea that all humans vary in terms of our neurocognitive ability. And those differences aren’t deficits. An important initial step in becoming more inclusive is to get away from the idea that there’s a ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving.
Specific data for the engineering and technology sector is thin on the ground, but it’s estimated that between 14 per cent and 20 per cent of the UK population are neurodivergent. An informal survey of people from across the IET community carried out in 2022 found that 19 per cent said they identify as definitely or possibly neurodivergent.
Whichever estimate you trust, it’s likely that you work with someone who considers themselves neurodivergent. They just may not have told you, and the reason for their reluctance can be part of the problem.
For many, it’s still an unknown subject, with some people not wanting to seek diagnosis for fear of stigma, or because they struggle even to access one. Whether or not they have a formal diagnosis, many say they hesitate to be open at work because they observe a lack of awareness and understanding from colleagues and managers. They know there are risks in speaking up, and often calculate that these outweigh the benefits. Too often, they believe, the strengths they bring to their work are not recognised or appreciated.
In my own experience, I was relieved when I received my neurodiversity diagnosis – it made the world make a bit more sense to me, and it helped me understand my traits and ticks – which I use to my advantage. I have been told that I can be very blunt, but this is something that I have been able to utilise in my role. I work well under pressure, and I can advise on large scale projects with one end goal.
Not all of the issues that neurodivergent engineers and technicians say they have to deal with at work are related to the specifics of their neurotype. While lack of awareness and understanding is a big problem, expectations of workplace behaviour can be intolerant of anything that varies from the neurotypical. Add to that the fact that working environments can be distracting and noisy, along with difficulties in accessing adaptations, and the impact on mental health and wellbeing can be significant. Being a woman, part of a minoritised ethnicity, or belonging to another group that’s under-represented in engineering, often magnifies these challenges.
This innovative research wasn’t just an exercise in finding out what’s wrong. It’s clear what needs to be done to build a more neuroinclusive environment and we’ve identified seven key areas where change is needed. As well as raising awareness and changing attitudes, neurodivergent people need to be treated as individuals, with line managers given the ability to support them. Organisations should integrate neurodiversity into working practices and culture, make it easier to access adaptations to equipment where they’re needed and offer targeted career support. Finally, neurodivergent engineers and technicians want to be enabled to access and build the support they need.
Achieving that needs action from everyone in the engineering and technology community, not just HR departments and line managers. To kick-start the change process, we’ve used the study’s findings to create toolkits for all stakeholders to use to help us become more neuroinclusive. They’re perhaps the most important part of the research report and come in the shape of specific recommendations for action targeted at different groups: managers and colleagues of neurodivergent engineers and technicians, employers, and external partners. It also suggests ways in which neurodivergent engineers and technicians themselves can better navigate the workplace and achieve their potential.
For me, I didn’t shout my diagnosis from the rooftops, but I was open with my manager, and we worked together to have an open dialogue – this ultimately led to a better working relationship. We’d have one-to-ones, which weren’t just focused on the workload – it was more about my brain, and how I am finding things – and most importantly what could be done to support me. This gave me confidence and enabled me to ask: can I complete this piece of work “my way”? I was trusted that I would get to the outcome required on my own. It’s really important that we all embrace diversity in people and understand that the route to a solution might be done one way by someone, and in another way by someone else. And that’s OK.
Of course, it’s important that the IET doesn’t just talk the talk on this vital issue. Building a better understanding of the extent of neurodiversity in the engineering and technology sector is an important element of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy that supports its longer-term strategic goals. Looking at how membership application processes can be made more accessible is just one measure that’s already underway.
Although this work has focused on one sector, it’s hard to believe that all types of workplaces wouldn’t benefit from its lessons. Being more neuroinclusive is a challenge not just for everyone in an organisation, from top to bottom, but right across UK industry.
With my professional career focused on engineering and technology, I like to learn about neurodiversity from others outside of this sector. I’m still very much learning about myself and my diagnosis. An Instagram account that I find useful in providing educational insight, and tools for neurodiversity for all ages is @neuro_divers.
The time for personal New Year resolutions and setting formal professional development goals is approaching fast. You don’t need to wait until January to start making changes, but why not make neuroinclusivity part of your personal development for 2024 and beyond?
Andy Parker is Head of UK Benefits and Rewards, Operations at Rolls-Royce. A chartered engineer and IET Member, he is part of the IET’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Working Party.
Read the full report at www.theiet.org/neurodiversity.