There is talk often of a nationwide shortage of STEM workers. But historically, STEM fields also faced challenges representing our country’s diversity when it comes to women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and people with disabilities. Tackling two problems with one solution, Specialisterne USA hopes to secure 100,000 future jobs for special needs STEM workers in the U.S.
Specialisterne is a global organization dedicated to helping people with autism and other similar abilities succeed after high school. They create job opportunities for employees with autism through partnerships with tech companies ready to accept the unique skills that those employees bring. Though it started in Denmark, the model has worked successfully throughout Europe. One such partnership is with German software company SAP. The SAP chief diversity and inclusion officer, Anka Wittenberg, argued in SAP News that the heightened visual perception of people with autism can make them useful software testers.
With the interest of diversifying the workforce for competitive advantage, SAP alongside Specialisterne worked on an initiative ensuring one percent of SAP’s global jobs will be filled with workers with autism by 2020.
Is it time that more U.S. companies take notice of what people with special needs can offer STEM? Specialisterne USA certainly thinks so. Some companies have gotten a head start. Last April, Microsoft and Specialisterne launched a pilot program to hire people with autism for full-time positions.
Many might follow in Microsoft’s footsteps now that Specialisterne USA is tapping into The Arc’s network. The model Specialisterne uses to employ people with autism includes job training for individuals with autism, coaching and mentoring for both employers and employees, and working with employers on making their recruitment efforts more inclusive. Specialisterne USA plans to train participating chapters of The Arc with the same methods that worked overseas.
The Arc provides support, services, and advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the nation.
“We consider this [partnership with The Arc] a very important step on our journey to enable 100,000 jobs in the USA,” said Thorkil Sonne, president of Specialisterne USA. “The Arc is a perfect partner as the largest organization in the US working with people with disabilities and we have already had a very positive experience working with the New York chapter of The Arc.”
If Specialisterne USA is successful, it will be the responsibility of schools like STEM3 Academy in Los Angeles, California to continue producing potential STEM workers out of children with special needs.
All of the students at STEM3 Academy enroll with challenges that affect their learning and social abilities, like autism-spectrum disorder, Asperger's and ADHD. But the school concentrates on these students’ academic strengths—STEM subjects like math and science.
"There's a huge demand for qualified workers in STEM. On the other hand, there's a huge supply of individuals with special needs who are either unemployed or underemployed," said Dr. Ellis Crasnow to LRP Publications, director of the STEM3 Academy. So for Crasnow also, training students who have disabilities to fill STEM jobs just makes sense.