Employers are risking their own growth by not hiring a diverse workforce, a leading North East politician warned.

The note of caution came from elected Metro Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, as he joined members of the local autistic community to call on bosses to get better at supporting people with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD. The North of Tyne Mayor issued the challenge after meeting with local autistic people who had previously faced barriers to finding and holding good jobs – but who were now happily thriving in roles that better suited them.

Photo of Hannah Roxburgh in her job working for Tyne Tunnels. Image shows a young White woman with short hair and glasses wearing a green hoodie sat at a computer.

Hannah has now landed a great job at Tyne Tunnels, thanks to help from DiversityNE

During a recent visit to DiversityNE, the Mayor heard from residents such as Hannah Roxborough, 32, who is autistic and spoke movingly about her own experiences of discrimination in the workplace. “It’s very difficult to find an employer who supports us”, she said. “The most important thing is that you have an understanding employer.”

Hannah, from North Tyneside, hasn’t always had good managers in the past. She told Mayor Driscoll how a former boss once said to her, “‘Why can’t you do it like everybody else?  “Because I’m not like everybody else”, she continued. “Autism is a recognised condition, so why aren’t [employers] recognising it?” she asked.

Hannah has now landed a great job at Tyne Tunnels, thanks to help from DiversityNE. The organisation works closely with employers and provides specialist support to neurodivergent people who are trying to find and stay in employment. “It’s the first permanent job I’ve ever had”, she said excitedly, “and it’s amazing… the team leader always makes sure I can participate.”

DiversityNE is funded directly by the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and the European Social Fund. It works with a range of national and local services, including Jobcentre Plus, the NHS, local authorities, and community groups. It was there where Hannah met Gary Hankinson, her employment advisor, who helped her land the new position. “Gary, every week, was on it”, she said. “He’s awesome. I couldn’t have done this by myself.”

Callum, taking a call while in his job for the NHS. Image shows a young White man - bald and clean shaven - in a white dress shirt with blue lanyard taking a phonecall while making notes.

Callum – ‘the support and guidance I was given really helped ease my worries and boost my confidence’

Hannah isn’t the only one who found support at DiversityNE. Callum Jewell, 26, from Newcastle, had been out of work for five years and experiencing anxiety before he signed up with DiversityNE and met Steve Brown, his employment advisor. Together, they built on Callum’s confidence to the point where he could carry out a work experience placement at the North East Ambulance Service. This, Callum said, “definitely helped”. From there, Callum and Steve worked together – setting goals, polishing his CV, learning new IT skills, and applying for jobs – until Callum got a job working in palliative care in the NHS. Twelve months later and he has just secured his first promotion, covering for a colleague on leave.

Reflecting on the challenges he experienced and the support he found at DiversityNE, Callum said: “I think autistic people can have barriers that make it harder for them to get employment than a neurotypical person. For me it was struggling with social interactions and getting anxious very easily. I think the support and guidance I was given really helped ease my worries and boost my confidence to the point where I could go through a job interview and succeed.”

After meeting Hannah and Callum at DiversityNE’s offices in North Shields, Mayor Driscoll laid down the gauntlet to employers. He said: “We’re coming out of a once-in-a-generation pandemic and have fallen smack bang into a cost-of-living crisis. Our economy – our country – needs to recover from these. It needs to grow again. But a recovery isn’t a real recovery, and growth isn’t real growth, if people are left behind. Organisations risk their own growth by not employing a diverse workforce. Neurodiversity, diversity of background and experience, these all mean a richer range of knowledge, character, thought, and ideas. What smart employer wouldn’t want these things?”

The Mayor encouraged employers who want to benefit from neurodivergent people’s experiences and expertise but who might be unsure about getting their own recruitment and retention processes right to get in touch with DiversityNE for guidance and advice.

DiversityNE is the employment support service provided by North East Autism Society (NEAS) and Azure Charitable Enterprises. Last year, NEAS worked with Mayor Driscoll and his team at NTCA on their Equalities Assemblies programme. This brought together people with lived experience of barriers and discrimination – because of their age, race, disability, or other protected characteristic – to finding and keeping work. The scheme aims to draw on these lived experiences and expertise to identify ways in which NTCA can help to reduce and remove these challenges. Its final report will be published later this year.

Are you an employer? Want to find out more about the benefits of diversifying your workforce? Visit NEAS and DiversityNE to find out more.