Rachel Lee, Director of Client Solutions at Tech Dynamism, recently led the development of a web app that could have a transformative impact on the Charlottesville Works Initiative.
Charlottesville Works uses “peers” to identify individuals who are a good fit for specific jobs. Peers interact directly with those who are struggling to find good jobs, and are especially well-connected and respected in their communities.
The app, N2Work, helps peer counselors match their job-seeking clients to jobs and social services that can help them succeed in their new job.
Charlottesville Tomorrow interviewed Lee and Ridge Schuyler, director of Charlottesville Works and Dean of Community Self-Sufficiency Programs at Piedmont Virginia Community College, about their collaboration. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the main problem that Charlottesville Works and Tech Dynamism are trying to solve?
Schuyler: In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, 5,600 families don’t earn enough to be self-sufficient. Nearly one in five families in our area needs to have a higher income, and that won’t happen without some intentional effort. The best way to make that intentional effort is talk to people who know those folks.
Most people find jobs through friends and personal connections. But that word-of-mouth process that humans relied on since the beginning isn’t always efficient or effective. It’s absolutely essential for us to amplify that word-of-mouth.
If you are a single mom who has been left behind in the economy, I’m not sure your friends are going to know what good jobs are available. And your chances of getting a job on an online jobs board are going to be slim.
But what if we could intentionally give information about jobs and support services to your friends, and the well-connected people in your neighborhood?
N2Work, the tool Charlottesville Works developed with Tech Dynamism, allows us to reach way more people. If we can get instantaneous information about jobs and the services that are out there, we can take this to scale, and we can make a dent in that number.
Lee: Tech Dynamism works with a lot of nonprofits in Charlottesville, doing assessments of their IT and computer hardware. We see technology as a tool to serve a need; to help you do what you do even better.
Schuyler: N2Work allows us to amplify what people are already doing. There already are people in our community who help their friends find jobs, and this tool can make their lives so much easier. These relationships already exist. The technology isn’t replacing people, it’s helping people.
What kinds of services can your clients access through this app?
Schuyler: Childcare is one of the most important services for our job-seekers. You can have all the care-giving skills in the world and be on the path to a job in nursing, but if you don’t have someone reliably taking care of your kids, you’re not going to be successful at that job. If we don’t look at that person in three dimensions before sending them to their employer, their chances of success are diminished.
Lee: Clients might need to learn additional skills to even apply for a job. They will need transportation and childcare to attend training. With a peer vouching for them, hopefully they will get the job. But there also needs to be a continuity of service to make sure that they have the resources to be successful after getting hired.
One way Charlottesville Works does this is its loaner vehicle program. It lets clients borrow cars for few months after they get a job, until hopefully they will have the means to secure their own transportation.
How did TechDynamism become involved in this project?
Schuyler: The Center for Nonprofit Excellence was very instrumental in encouraging collaboration across different service providers. They are interested in finding ways to align services around people and families who have multiple needs.
In 2015, Charlottesville Works set a goal to develop a user-friendly platform that would allow our peer counselors to assess the supports that are needed to move a talented individual into a quality job, and lets different providers coordinate services behind an individual. We started asking around town to figure out what technology companies could help us do this. We thought Tech Dynamism would be interested.
Lee: Our founder, Jason Daniel, immediately understood the importance of a project like this. We did the first phase of development for N2Work pro bono. That gave Ridge something he could show to his donors, and it allowed us to go forward with subsequent phases.
We thought through the best ways for employers to describe a job quickly in an impactful way, and decided to add a video component to the app. Employers can upload a snippet of video that shows a day in the life of a person in that job. By watching a video of someone working at that office, or interacting with patients, the applicant can get a sense of whether it’s the right environment for them.
User engagement was another major focus for us. People need to want to use this tool— it should be fun! We added things like a dashboard that lets peers track different applicants, with icons that turn green when they access the services they need.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
Lee: N2Work can automatically match clients to service providers that they are eligible for. But it is amazing how complicated the app’s internal logic needed to be in order for this to work.
Each person looking for a job provides so much information— their demographics, their income, their work history, and more. Without a good computer program, our peers would spend all their time trying to figure out what the client is eligible for. Ridge worked with us to develop complex algorithms that automate this process.
How many people are being helped by this technology?
Schuyler: We started in October 2014 with two peers and a paper based system. We have trained 64 peers [as of November 7], and we are hoping to increase that number. We are serving 340 clients, and showing initial success. There’s always room for improvement, but we feel that there has been enough success that we are on the right track.
Lee: We also are excited to see the data reporting that will come out of this. In six months or a year from now, Ridge will be able to see which providers were used a lot, and which services are really needed. All kinds of useful information could be gleaned from this.
Is there potential for more collaboration between tech companies and human services organizations in Charlottesville?
Lee: We would love to see more. You see a lot of pro bono work by law firms, but it’s not yet a big thing for technology firms. We are a for-profit company, but there is so much room for creative collaboration, and using our skills for some mutual benefit. We like sharing what we do. I think there is a lot of opportunity out there for us to do more, and for other companies to do more.