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Neurodiverse solution meets data skills demand

09:19am March 28 2022

Geoffrey Smith (left), chief executive of Australian Spatial Analytics, with employee Chris Taylor.  (Peter Cramer)

For a long time, Geoffrey Smith could not reconcile what he saw as a massive disconnect. 

“Why, in an age where data is the ‘new oil’, are 55 percent of young autistic adults unemployed?” asks Smith, a data analyst and chief executive of Australian Spatial Analytics. 

“That's more than 12 times this country's overall unemployment rate.” 

The disparity for Smith lay in the fact so many people on the autism spectrum have exceptional skills in pattern recognition, problem-solving and memory retention – in other words, the skills needed “to be great data analysts” – at a time when Australia’s economy has a critical shortage of workers with these skills. 

“The country needs to fill seven million data related jobs by 2030,” says Smith, last week named a 2022 Westpac Social Change Fellow

“And yet there is still a clear jobs crisis among people on the autism spectrum.” 

At the crux of the issue, Smith says, are the barriers many people on the autism spectrum face in getting their foot in the workplace door, given candidates are typically assessed by potential employers on their communication skills and ability to “sell themselves”. 

But for those on the spectrum – or around 205,200 Australians as estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – the lifelong condition is often characterised by difficulty in social interactions particularly in anxious settings such as a job interview. The unemployment rate among this cohort was 34 per cent in 2018, more than three times the rate among people with disability and almost 10 times those without disability.

These conundrums were behind the creation in 2020 of the social enterprise Smith leads. 

“Australian Spatial Analytics is a strengths-based social enterprise and we employ young autistic adults to do high quality data analysis for businesses and governments,” he explains. 

“Because we specialise in spatial analytics, neurodiversity is our advantage – our team are simply faster and more precise at data processing.” 

With clients across Australia and the Pacific region, he says ASA analysts deliver a range of data services – from mapping travel restrictions for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to designing construction plans for the National Broadband Network – most of which had been traditionally outsourced to offshore data analysts. 

“We address a significant business need, while creating work and wealth for young adults with intellectual disabilities – new, future-driven, skilled jobs for Australia's economy,” Smith says.  

An initiative of Australian organisation White Box Enterprises which builds large-scale jobs-focused social enterprises, ASA’s team has grown under Smith’s leadership to 67 employees – 54 of whom live with a disability, and almost all are under 30 years old. 

Chris Taylor, a data analyst with Australian Spatial Analytics. 

Among them is Chris Taylor, who joined the Brisbane-based enterprise in 2021.  

“It was great to finally find a place where I belong,” says Taylor, who uses mapping and analytic software to deliver clients their asset management and navigation requirements. 

Taylor says he was apprehensive on his first day with ASA, but quickly found himself feeling “empowered and appreciated”.  

“My previous work hadn't enabled me to make the most of my strengths or who I am,” says Taylor. 

“But this work gels really well with my skills and interests in computer technology. Everyone is valued and everyone gets individual attention and training. I am super happy that I found these guys and my perspective on what a career can be has changed.  

“I've gone from wondering where I would be in a few years to being happy with where I am right now.”

Smith says prior to joining ASA, most team members had been unemployed over the long-term and, for about half, their job with ASA is their first. 

“Two have given up the lifelong disability support pension to work full time for us.  We've supported four of our team into other skilled employment after 12 months, and we haven't had anyone fall out of work,” says Smith, who notes ASA provides its analysts integrated training and development and timely wrap-around supports.

“We are changing lives.” 

ASA employee Chris Taylor shares his experience. (Peter Cramer)

Smith has plans to continue the fast expansion of ASA, aiming to grow the team to more than 250 people over the next 18 months, 200 of them on the autism spectrum. In doing so, he estimates ASA will contribute $7.5 million dollars into the Australian economy by the third year of operation.

He says his path to leading ASA was spurred by his “astonishment” at the “hardened attitude towards supporting vulnerable people into work” he witnessed as a young executive at a disability employment provider. 

Starting his career as a data analyst including with multinational oil and gas giant Shell, he had switched gears in 2018, joining a Queensland-based not-for-profit apprenticeship and employment program provider. As he began to build up his business intelligence team with highly talented people on the autism spectrum, he was motivated to do more to address the “unacceptably high” unemployment rates among young adults who were being disadvantaged. 

As a result, he threw himself “all-in”, studying work-integrated social enterprise in a Maters’ degree and putting his hand up to run Australian Spatial Analytics.  

“I put into action the viewpoint that digital skills can create work and wealth for disadvantaged communities,” Smith says. 

“Big data is a mechanism to rupture current employment paradigms for young autistic Australians, to harness their distinct cognitive talents to excel as digital professionals.

“It’s also a way of driving a societal shift to value autism as necessary for positive organisational culture and productivity.” 

Australian Spatial Analytics received a community grant from Westpac Foundation and Geoffrey Smith was awarded a Social Change Fellowship by Westpac Scholars Trust

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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