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Woolf Leads Campus Team Awarded NSF Grant to Develop Tool to Aid Workers

Beverly Woolf

A campus team led by research professor Beverly Woolf of the College of Information and Computer Science (CICS) recently received a one-year, $838,722 grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program to support their project to create a tool for workers to analyze their profiles and skills and identify training and education to aid their career paths.

Faculty team members in addition to Woolf are Andrew Lan and Shlomo Zilberstein, CICS, Tom Juravich, sociology, Andrew Cohen, psychological and brain sciences, and Ina Ganguli, economics. For this project, they will develop algorithms and software to help companies and workers be successful in an evolving workplace. 

Among other components, they will analyze anonymized data about workers' skills, education and career path, plus information about job postings for open positions and about job seekers, in collaborations with Connecticut-based Stanley Black & Decker, the world's largest tool manufacturer, the City of Holyoke and MassHire Holyoke. One goal is to create a tool where job seekers input their skills, interests, work experience, education and other information and receive a skill assessment, recommendations about job opportunities and suggestions for future training and education.

As Woolf explains, "Technology and automation can lead to greater inequality among people and increased demands on workers. This NSF project will gather extensive data on workers, develop an infrastructure for data analysis and support a deeper understanding of changes in the workforce based on advances in technology."

Lan, CICS assistant professor adds, "Prior work mostly studied the problem of matching workers to jobs based on their current skill set but the impact of upskilling and lifelong learning efforts have not been looked at."

Shlomo Zilberstein, CICS professor and associate dean of research and engagement notes that the researchers are committed to creating an equitable system, by focusing on fairness and equity at every stage of development. "There are always unforeseen ways in which a system like this could end up being unfair. Fairness has many flavors - there is no one box to check to make something fair. The way to avoid that is to give equitability a lot of thought at every step. "

Commenting on fairness and artificial intelligence (AI), he adds, "AI is not a technology that creates or solves problems by itself. It all depends on how you apply it - if you apply it one way it can create problems, and if you apply it another way it can solve problems. We want to be part of the solution." Woolf agrees that the team takes pride in how this work fits in with the CICS "computing for the common good" effort.

NSF's Convergence Accelerator program supports multidisciplinary research teams to work on projects that will help companies apply big data in ways that enhance the lives of workers. Over 40 awards totaling $39 million were given to teams across the country who will focus on open knowledge networks to pool many types of information and AI to connect workers with jobs of the future and innovative approaches to support workers seeking to upscale their skills.