AI and the Discouraged Worker

AI and the Discouraged Worker

Nebraska has the potential to become an exemplar in using artificial technology to bridge the gap in the State’s workforce by providing employment opportunities to those currently excluded from the labor market. 

Nebraska boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States, standing at 2 percent, tied for the fifth lowest in the country. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reported that in the previous year, four job opportunities were available for every unemployed individual in Nebraska.

A low unemployment rate harms our ability to train and retrain workers. It also increases wages, which subsequently affects the prices of other goods and services. 

Our governor has recently convened task forces to tackle the workforce shortage in the state to understand better the problems and how business leaders might mitigate them. One potential solution is to use technology to increase the participation of discouraged workers in the workforce. 

The calculation of the rate of unemployment does not include people who have given up looking for work. Some people in this group are classified as discouraged workers. They want to work but cannot find a job because of discrimination, or they believe that there are no jobs they are qualified for or can do. According to an estimate, there were 400 discouraged workers in Nebraska in 2002, which on its face seems low.

The stereotype that discouraged workers are lazy is inaccurate. Often, these workers perform poorly due to hidden barriers preventing satisfactory job performance. Once a person cannot maintain several jobs because of barriers, these discouraged workers become just that. 

Recent technological advances within the last year have the potential to open opportunities for these discouraged workers. The simplest way to explain artificial intelligence is to have a machine look through a library and predict an answer to a question. We now have a technology that allows people to interact using natural language, which could fool people into believing that it is a human being. This is often called the Turing Test. 

Here are some ways technology can help Nebraska’s discouraged workers be employed workers. 

  1. Job Coaching: Imagine if someone with a learning disability could get help learning ways to manage work stress day or night and provide emotional support. A textbox would provide emotional support and a learning coach without needing an in-person job coach.  
  2. Smart Spellchecker: Spellchecker in Microsoft Word has been ubiquitous in white-collar environments. However, it still takes work to go through one error at a time, especially when a person has learned English as a second language. An AI Spellchecker program could not only flag errors but also tell what kind of error is and suggest possible fixes. 
  3. Emotional insight: Reading between the lines of an email can be difficult for any person. Is this person mad, or is everything OK? For those with autism, reading emotional emotions can be insurmountable. Some tools allow those with autism to interpret and interact more clearly with colleagues by having an AI program read the email and explain an appropriate response. 
  4. Job Interviewing Skills for People with a Criminal Background: Prison can be rough, and knowing how to discuss prior mistakes at a job interview can be daunting for people coming out. An AI bot can be trained to be a mock interviewer, asking criminal background questions in a secure and safe environment. 

This is only a starting point for deeper policy discussions about how Nebraska could encourage the discouraged worker through technology. What has become clear is that there is no single answer to our workforce challenges and that we as a state should explore every possibility for getting every person who wants to work into the labor market. 

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