Rethinking work to embrace diversity

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Last week ABC TV aired the first episode in the series Employable Me. The series follows a group of neuro-diverse young people as they search for meaningful work. The blurb describes the series as 'uplifting, warm and insightful'. I couldn't agree more.

Scene from Employable MeIndeed, the insights the program offers are a call to think carefully about the world of work and the role of employment as a social good rather than a purely economic one — and how we make employment more inclusive.

Much of the contemporary focus on the future of employment grapples with the challenge of engaging with a world overtaken by technologies. Digital futures raise the frequently posed question of whether a robot will take our jobs. The consensus seems to be that where a machine can do a job, it will. On the up side, there are many ways in which machines cannot (yet) replace humans. The service sector, for example, is touted to grow as we rely more heavily on employees to do our caring work.

As a consequence, there are calls for education to emphasise so-called 'soft skills' including emotional intelligence and creativity. Meanwhile, work is becoming more precarious, with a rise in part time work and a rapidly growing 'gig economy'. This growth in freelancing requires entrepreneurial skill.

Jobs that continue to exist in the traditional paradigm follow a well-established formula. In a highly competitive market, to gain the attention of employers, applicants require qualifications, prior experience, including internships, and a range of extra-curricular activities. Hiring is increasingly automated, so that applications are vetted by computers. Targeting an application to attract the attention of a computer program is a skill in itself. Where an interview takes place, it is frequently performed in groups.

For the neuro-divergent jobseekers on Employable Me, contemporary discourse surrounding employment and the processes of recruitment are unlikely to resonate. Questions about the future of work ring hollow where the young people featured on the program have not ever been employed. Recruitment focusing on prior experience, or extra-curricular activities, will necessarily present a barrier to those already excluded from the workforce for reasons other than opportunity alone.

The three stories featured in the first episode highlight the narrow confines of qualification for employment. The outcomes illustrate the possibilities that would exist if only recruitment and employment looked different.

 

"If ever there was any doubt about the importance of shifting thinking to open up possibilities of employment, it can be seen in the smiling eyes of Tim upon gaining permanent employment."

 

Rohan, a young man on the autism spectrum, has a bubbly personality and an amazing memory. The psychologist who assessed his strengths identified that he would be well suited to employment requiring him to draw on his long-term memory. His work experience as a tour guide demonstrated how he could put his skills to work.

Musician Kayla's Tourette syndrome would flare in particular when she was anxious. However, her work experience as a sound engineer — topped off with an impromptu live music performance — showed how engaging in work requiring intense concentration was fully within her capabilities.

The third jobseeker, Tim, suffered severe social anxiety. He turned down one job because the commute would be unbearable for him. Yet his second job trial showed just how the workplace could easily accommodate an employee of his considerable skill. The interview was largely non-verbal, involving problem-solving tasks, and he had the option of working from home.

These stories illustrated for me, how rigidly we conceive of employment and employability. Centrelink requirements for job searching and participation in training programs are an example of the one-size-fits-all approach. For so many, in particular neuro-divergent people, such activities performed for the sake of satisfying an arbitrary requirement are unlikely to harness their capabilities. And worse, imposing such requirements may even cause distress. A fear of loud noises, or public transport, or the touch of shaking hands, all ostensibly run counter to the prevailing celebration of 'emotional intelligence' and making an impact through personality.

As with Centrelink job-seeking processes, recruitment processes are largely self-selecting, inherently intolerant to difference. Yet, as demonstrated by the successful job placements in Employable Me, there is no good reason for the prevailing standardised approach whereby appropriately skilled people may be excluded from consideration. Such recruitment processes thus represent structures that preclude so many from the work that would serve as an entree to inclusion in society itself.

To generate better outcomes both for individuals, but also for society, we need to broaden the discussion about the future of work: a future that must be inclusive of diversity. To do so demands that we remodel the thresholds for employability and the methods used to recruit.

If ever there was any doubt about the importance of shifting thinking to open up possibilities of employment, it can be seen in the smiling eyes of Tim upon gaining permanent employment. I offer my gratitude to the stars of Employable Me, and their families, in sharing their insights with the wider community.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image: Scene from Employable Me

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, Employable Me, disability, work

 

 

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Existing comments

One of the most inspiring and brilliant shows TV has offered for a long time. Words fail me to express how I felt about these people. I have taught many children with assorted issues and I so often wonder what has become of them. Hope they find support like this somewhere. And a serious hats off to the parents as well, those who have stuck by their children through it all. No doubt, all have learned a great deal about the meaning of life along the way - it's not just about work - we live live to work but work to live.
Stephen de Weger | 09 April 2018


I didn't catch the first episode last week but it's a date for next episode. It's important to realise the very real benefits to employers when they think outside the square.
Pam | 09 April 2018


Thanks for this great review article Kate; and thanks ABC. As part of university MBA courses shouldn't there be a subject: 'How to tailor-in and benefit from employees with diverse and different talents.'?
Dr Marty Rice | 09 April 2018


My parents who saw their own dreams die in the Depression always urged education towards safe, well paid jobs in the public service. Meanwhile the sisters ,brothers , priests and my Cardijn formation along with the sixties culture led by Seeger , Dylan urged the dignity of work as a vocation to share your God given gifts with others as a core activity not something you did in your spare time. I tried to fulfil my parents wishes for two years but took the latter path in 1970 for the next 44 years where I was one of the few that did not become a multimillionaire with multiple houses , overseas trips and a good golf handicap at a prestigious golf club but 17,134 lives I had helped to shape through teaching. These people have gone on to make the world a vastly better place and much more satisfying that a good golf handicap or a super balance which would make more choices unlimited. It takes a while to find the harmony between your skills and true fulfilment but as that wise lady from the Daly River, Miriam Rose, told us at a recent conference "" listen with to your gut" and you find your mission.
WAYNE McGOUGH | 10 April 2018


@ WAYNE McGOUGH | 10 April 2018. Totally get you and agree, Wayne. Well said. PS the last line in my first comment should have read...we don't live to work but rather work to live, and, I might add, help build the communities in which we work and live. This is what work in a proper capitalist society should be and mean.
Stephen de Weger | 10 April 2018


I’ve watched both episodes with my wife and it is really inspiring and uplifting to see the largely autistic people not only trying but achieving success in their job seeking. It’s great that there are people out there willing to give them a go. The sadness for me is that it is just a small proportion of high-functioning people with autism that will be able to reach this level of achievement. Certainly our son is not amongst them.
Frank S | 10 April 2018


It's very encouraging to see programs like this one which validate to worth of people whose potential has been so overlooked. So many have much to offer in this overly technical world where the soft skills are so often lacking. To dignify the skills and efforts of all and to realise the role of employment as a social one, not merely an economic one is so important. Work should be for the flourishing of people not the inflating of corporate wealth.
Anne Doyle | 11 April 2018


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