Australian tech companies need to look to “untapped talent pools” in order to address the dire skills gap in the country, according to DXC Dandelion Project founder Michael Fieldhouse.

The Dandelion Project is an initiative that helps people on the autism spectrum find employment in cybersecurity, data analytics and software testing. Since launching in 2014, the company now employs more than 80 people in Australia, with over 290 organisations in 77 countries showing an interest in the program.

There are around 157,000 people of working age in Australia with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and about 80 percent of these people are underemployed or unemployed.

But these workers can offer a range of unique skills and specialties that are hugely beneficial for tech companies, Fieldhouse said, and it’s crucial that the sector looks to under-represented groups like this to help fill the talent gap.

“We have to get better at tapping untapped talent pools to fill our needs,” Fieldhouse told Information Age. “If you look at data analytics, software development and just digital jobs in general, we need a lot of talent.

“The organisations that are going to be successful have got to look outside the traditional framework to get talent.”

Individuals that the Dandelion Project has helped to find employment have offered attention to detail, the ability to do repetitive tasks and lateral thinking, among others, to their new employers.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “The rate of unemployment for autistic people is around 80 percent. And we’ve got gaps in our IT environment – it’s a perfect match. Organisations need to be more inclusive to bring people into the workforce.”

Participants in the Dandelion Project have displayed a range of skills and ability to learn complex tasks quickly, to the benefit of the participating companies and government departments.

One new cyber team member was able to memorise a watch list of over 100 IP addresses within a week of starting, another cleared an 18-month cybersecurity incident queue backlog in three months, while another team member was able to deliver an estimated six weeks’ worth of work in just five days.

The initial idea for the Dandelion Project came to Fieldhouse during a dinner in 2013 with two close friends who have autistic children.

“We were in a bit of a skills shortage at the time, and finding good skills was pretty hard,” he said. “Everyone was doing transformation work, including the federal government, and they had gaps in skills.”

At the dinner, the youngest child started to drop pebbles into Fieldhouse’s Japanese urn.

“That was driving me insane, I knew I would have to fish the pebbles out later,” he said. “But I was curious too. He was timing it in perfect intervals, and he did it for two hours.

“That was when I had the epiphany on talent. I couldn’t have done that myself. This was a person who was classed as having a disability, but he has real abilities.”

Fieldhouse and his small team then did a year’s worth of research and due diligence, including investigating other similar programs and the difficulties they faced.

After the program eventually launched the following year, they soon partnered with the federal government, and have since helped individuals work with the Department of Human Services, Department of Defence and Department of Home Affairs.

Fieldhouse said the success of the program is measured in sustainability rather than just how many people they have helped to find employment.

“We found out very quickly that it’s all about sustainable employment,” he said. “We measure things like retention, job satisfaction, quality of life and job mobility.”

Ultimately it’s about helping people on the spectrum find independence, and the program also helps teach life skills like nutrition and financial awareness.

Of those that have participated in the program, there has been a 92 percent retention rate, job satisfaction of about 75 percent, and 80 percent of the participating company’s workforce said they were not impacted negatively by the new employees.

The Dandelion Project is also looking to launch a new work experience program in partnership with Australian universities and primary schools.

“We’re connecting a pathway of hope for these people,” Fieldhouse said. “We want them to look at these higher education students and say, ‘I can do that too’. We’ll break down some of that generational thinking that they’re going to be unemployed.”

World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April is a globally recognised opportunity to raise awareness about people living with autism. Fieldhouse will speaking at a special ACS event in Sydney on 2 April to mark the day. The event will raise awareness, promote discussion and encourage support for people with autism working in ICT.