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Artificial Intelligence for the Unemployed

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Could a mathematical formula cause a big leap forward in the job search? The New York State Department of Labor thinks so. It's testing an algorithm it hopes will do much better than ordinary job boards at finding work for the unemployed. WNYC's Ilya Marritz explains.

REPORTER: If you are one of the almost 900,000 people in the State of New York who are officially listed as unemployed, maybe you've put your resume on a site like Monster.com or Careerbuilder.

Danielle Lazzaro from East Rockaway says she has tried everything since she was let go from a position doing media relations for the Nassau Colosseum four months ago.

LAZZARO: I’ve been on the internet six to eight hours a day looking for a job, I’ve pretty much made it my full time job looking for a job.

REPORTER: But after sending out more than 130 applications, nothing.

Now the Department of Labor is trying to radically refine the job search. It wants to use a computer to match the unemployed with open positions.

Matt Sigelman is the CEO of Burning Glass, the Boston firm that developed the algorithm that the Department of Labor is using.

SIGELMAN: We are essentially automating the process of reading.

REPORTER: Sigelman says his program looks at phrases and paragraphs in a person's resume, not just keywords. The software has been used by companies like Coca Cola and Accenture to select resumes from pools of applicants. Now it's being applied in the reverse way - to help applicants land on the right desk.

SIGELMAN: The software has literally seen tens of millions of people’s resumes, so it can serve up to job seekers jobs that just intuitively make sense for them.

REPORTER: Lisa Berger is one of the unemployed who got to test the program at the New York City debut of this algorithm. With the help of employment counselor Emily Aponte, Lisa Berger types in her resume, and sends it off so the algorithm can do its work. Five minutes later, the results pop up.

APONTE: What have we got? We have fifteen job matches that were generated for your resume. So this is event planning, associate director for event planning.

REPORTER: Interesting...But not exactly what Lisa Berger was looking for. She was making a career switch into nonprofit fundraising when she lost her job. Most of the suggestions she’s received are corporate.

One position does appeal to her - director of strategic planning at a for profit PR company that focuses on sports. The description says this position is "nontraditional".

BERGER: Yeah I like that because they might then consider a nontraditional candidate.

APONTE: And it might be a little more interesting.

BERGER: And it also reports to the CEO managing partner. It does what I like doing best in the corporate world which is coming up with a strategic plan.

REPORTER: Berger says she'll probably apply, and she'll also revise her resume to show more nonprofit experience.

New York is only the second state to try to connect workers with jobs in this way. Minnesota started using the algorithm in 2007. A spokeswoman for the state says there are no hard data to share but the Department of Employment and Economic Development is pleased with how the program is working.

New York Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith hopes this project, currently a pilot, will help jobless New Yorkers find positions they wouldn't have stumbled onto otherwise.

But Smith says with six applicants for every one job, there's only so much a computer can do. For WNYC, I'm Ilya Marritz.

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