Untapped Talent Autistic Workers a Worthwhile Challenge for SAP

German software development giant SAP is planning to hire hundreds of people with autism by 2020. The company hopes to benefit from their unusual skillset and says it's ready for any practical challenges. Advocates hope the program could set an example for others.

Sascha Goldmann (left) and Philipp von der Linden work at IT company Auticon, which contracts people with autism to work as consultants.
DPA

Sascha Goldmann (left) and Philipp von der Linden work at IT company Auticon, which contracts people with autism to work as consultants.

By Martin Motzkau


These are no ordinary job interviews. When 53-year-old Christian Quincke meets with an applicant, instead of trying to find holes in their resumes with pointed questions, he must be sensitive. That's not to say that the job seekers haven't already been through a selection process. By the time they reach this point, they have already cleared several hurdles that include an introductory meeting and tests. But what sets these applicants apart is that they have autism.

Quincke works as a job coach for the Berlin IT firm Auticon, which contracts people with autism to work as consultants, mainly in the software industry. Autism is defined as disorder that impairs social and emotional communication, but can also be associated with extraordinary talent for analysis. Quincke facilitates a way to both utilize these strengths and integrate the workers into a professional setting.

Now, German software development giant SAP has discovered this group of potential employees, announcing on Tuesday that by 2020, it plans to hire hundreds of people with autism to work as software testers, programmers and specialists in data quality control. The announcement marks the first time that a renowned German company has opened the mainstream job market to a group of potential employees who have been largely overlooked. The country's FBA autism association has welcomed the step and encouraged other companies to follow SAP's example.

It is hard to say how many people with autism live in Germany. According to estimates, they account for 1 percent of the population, but no official figures exist. They frequently face difficulties on the labor market. Only 5 to 6 percent of them find employment, says social scientist Matthias Dalferth from the Regensburg University of Applied Sciences (RUAS).

In fact, many companies stand to benefit from hiring people with autism, especially in the IT sector. They tend to have an eye for detail, and enjoy tasks such as checking complex figures. In this age of accelerated technological development, when companies have to stay on top of new programs and products if they are to remain competitive, people with autism could be valuable employees.

Unique Talents

SAP hopes to help autistic people pursue a meaningful occupation by promoting their unique talents, the company said in a statement explaining their new program. It is launching its project in Germany in conjunction with the Danish employment agency Specialisterne, or "The Specialists," which has set a goal of integrating one million people with autism into the working world. Danish specialists are to be in charge of training people for the SAP program, with some IT experience being an important prerequisite.

When exactly the first autistic SAP employee might start work remains unclear. The company has employed autistic workers since 2011 in its development laboratory in India and launched a similar project with Specialsterne in Ireland last year. Eight additional countries are to follow.

SAP sees the program as a long-term investment, despite the practical challenges that are sure to arise. Employees who have no experience with autistic people will have to become accustomed to their often unorthodox reactions in different day-to-day situations, says Auticon coach Quincke. Patience and understanding will be required for the fact that autistic people perceive their surroundings differently, he says. The process is not always easy because most companies simply don't have experience with autistic employees, he adds.

"You have to develop an enormous amount of sensitivity for people and situations," he says. The first meeting is especially important, he says, to gain a realistic impression of one another. Despite the difficulties, however, Quincke thinks highly of his autistic employees. "The huge potential of these people makes it worth dealing with the occasional misunderstanding," he says. His employer would seem to agree. Auticon is planning to open additional branches in Hamburg and Frankfurt -- and intends to hire even more people with autism.

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