Lady Liberty goes AI: A pathway to meaningful employment for immigrants in Vermont
Over the past decade, the number of people forced to flee their homes has steadily increased year-on-year and now stands at the highest level since records began. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that as of the end of 2021, those displaced by war, violence, persecution, and human rights abuses stood at 89.3 million, well over double the figure of 10 years prior.1 The dramatic milestone of 100 million displaced people was reached in May 2022. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, at this rate, over one billion people are at risk of being displaced by 20502.
Refugees escaping war, natural disasters, and persecution typically seek nothing more than stable work and a safe home for their families. According to the World Bank, large countries with myriad unfulfilled job opportunities typically welcome such enthusiastic workers with tailored employment solutions, enhanced job opportunities, and collective long-term planning programs3. Historically, the United States has been a leader in refugee admission. Refugees have become a crucial component of the American job market, notably occupying challenging positions in sectors such as agriculture and construction that otherwise remained unfilled.
Within the United States, large states with booming agriculture and industry sectors have been grappling with labor shortages for decades. In Florida, 500,000 jobs remain unfilled4, while in Texas, labor shortages account for billions of dollars of lost revenue every year. Despite these labor shortages in crucial sectors, governors in Florida and Texas have been recently shipping eager-to-work immigrants out of state in protest of national refugee admission policies5.
“Senator Leahy of Vermont (…) has secured US$ 1 million in funding from the United States Senate to launch an innovative new program that matches unemployed individuals –immigrants, refugees, and longtime Vermonters alike – with employers who are struggling to fill positions.”
Vermont offers one alternative response to the arrival of new immigrants looking for work. Senator Leahy of Vermont, a longtime supporter of workforce development, has secured US$ 1 million in funding from the United States Senate to launch an innovative new program that matches unemployed individuals—immigrants, refugees, and longtime Vermonters alike—with employers who are struggling to fill positions. The Pathway to Employment for Every Working Vermonter (PEEWV) project will begin with a two-year pilot collaborative led by Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), Green River, and SkillLab.
The BDCC and Green River have a long-standing partnership leveraging the green economy for economic development in Vermont. The BDCC is a private, nonprofit economic development organization that serves as a catalyst for industrial and commercial growth throughout Southeastern Vermont. Green River is a Brattleboro software development company with two decades of experience deploying software solutions for public health, workers’ rights, accessible housing and shelter, environmental protection, and other social justice issues. Now, the BDCC and Green River are joining forces with SkillLab, an impact business from Amsterdam that uses career-guidance technology to address the challenges of labor market transitions. Bringing SkillLab’s mobile-based artificial intelligence algorithm to Vermont stands to revolutionize the way job seekers convey their skills, explore careers, and apply for jobs.
Southeastern Vermont’s rural setting presents unique employment challenges. Newcomers and longtime residents alike face underemployment and difficulty establishing a stable career. Meanwhile, businesses struggle to identify and connect with the right talent. Existing approaches have been unable to resolve this challenge.
“The PEEWV focuses specifically on serving both foreign-born and under-served Vermonters by helping them find meaningful long-term employment.”
The PEEWV takes a different approach by locally customizing and deploying SkillLab’s award-winning technology: skill profiling and career guidance that empowers every Vermonter. By recognizing people’s skills and prior learning and providing access to career guidance, the project creates pathways to employment that encourage skill-building and participation in vocational or adult education. UNESCO’s AI research center recognized SkillLab’s technology as one of ten outstanding uses of AI for social good, and Green River will support adoption in the Vermont context. The PEEWV focuses specifically on serving both foreign-born and under-served Vermonters by helping them find meaningful long-term employment, i.e., work in which they are satisfied and happy to stay.
Uniquely, the PEEWV’s software application focuses on skills—not job titles or educational degrees—using a jargon-free interface available in 28 languages. By expressing their past experiences in the language of skills, Vermonters document their prior learning and create their individual skill profile. This profile allows jobseekers to explore different careers, access vacancies, identify career goals, uncover skill gaps and find the adult education options that would best prepare them for their desired career. PEEWV will work with local education providers to include them in the project and catalog their courses. This enables the recommendation of specific courses to help Vermonters to close the skill gap for the job they want.
This application can also potentially boost small employers’ generally low human-resource capacity by creating easy access to talent and capacity development. Taken to the next level, this application would enable labor market change predictions, identification of positions that will soon be available, and preparation of candidates for those opportunities via training. The result: predictive synergies across stakeholders to meet both present and future labor market needs for both employers and employees.
In general, PEEWV seeks to create and retain a flourishing business community that supports vibrant fiscal activity and improves the quality of life of all people, including immigrants and refugees, by improving long-term skill, wage, and career growth outcomes. Crucially, these are the primary determinants of poverty and household income.
Above and beyond
Although they are just getting started in Southeastern Vermont, PEEWV is already aiming to change the current labor market norms statewide and beyond, especially in rural areas where people lack employment opportunities. Such expansion could help bridge the existing gap between the highly competitive urban tech-economy and rural areas that simultaneously face low wages, underemployment, and increasingly acute labor shortages.
“Green River also envisions the PEEWV technology synergistically building on their long-standing work in homelessness.”
Green River also envisions the PEEWV technology synergistically building on their long-standing work in homelessness through an integrated platform that, in addition to informing individuals of their housing application status, helps them find meaningful and lasting employment. Such information integration across public services in the United States, where there is currently no coordination between public health, employment, housing, and urban development services, could be a true game-changer. Given that employment and housing are some of the primary social determinants of mental health and individual well-being, coordinated entry, care, and service delivery across these essential components of well-being would support improved advocate decision-making. Ultimately, this means better outcomes for the beneficiaries of these systems and the larger society to which they belong.
1UNHCR. (2021). ‘Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2021’.
2Institute for Economics and Peace. (2020). ‘Over one billion people at threat of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict and civil unrest’.
3World Bank Group. (2016). ‘Forced displacement and development’.
4The Able Trust. (2022). ‘Solving Florida's Labor Shortage: The Hidden Solution’.
5Le Monde with AP. (2022). ‘Florida and Texas pull partisan stunt by sending migrants to NYC, DC, Martha’s Vineyard’.