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Applying Computation to Return Millions to Job Market

By Rob Mitchum // December 7, 2016

Despite persistent unemployment in the United States, millions of jobs are hard to fill due to a lack of qualified applicants. While community colleges and training organizations seek to equip people with the skills required for these openings, it’s a moving target as the American economy rapidly changes. New strategies are urgently needed to help place people in existing jobs, understand the needs of out-of-work people and match them with training and support, and provide tools for individuals to find and track their educational and economic opportunities.

The newly launched National Center for Opportunity Engineering & Analysis (NCOEA) at the Computation Institute (CI) — a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory – will use the latest computation and data science tools to help close the skills gap, reduce economic inequality, and provide new ways to search for training connected to employment and career opportunities.

“Societal challenges of this scale require us to combine data science with knowledge of how labor markets work,” said David Nirenberg, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. “This is very much the kind of problem our Computational Social Science initiative is designed for.  We look forward to collaborating with the new center.”

NCOEA will begin its work to integrate disparate job experience, education, training, employment and labor data into new computational models in partnership with numerous organizations and other institutions to provide higher quality data outputs that can assist both existing programs as well as foster new forms of economic and social science research.

“We have applied advanced data science to large-scale and small-scale problems in groundbreaking work ranging from genomics to dark matter, and these same capacities are used daily for consumer sites and new apps,” said Michael Franklin, Liew Family Chair of Computer Science at the University of Chicago and Senior Advisor to the Provost for Computation and Data. “Yet, we have not applied this computational power to help people find education and training aligned with the quickly evolving job market or help them make career choices aligned with current trend data.”

To achieve these goals, NCOEA will partner with other units at the University of Chicago and critical organizations around the country, such as the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California San Diego.  NCOEA’s co-founder is the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (NLET), a California non-profit that routinely brings together academics, government agencies, corporations, community colleges, and workforce training organizations to more effectively solve pervasive problems for both practitioners and researchers.

“This center capitalizes on cross-cutting science, expertise and computing to make a meaningful impact on job seekers and the economy,” said Rick Stevens, Argonne Associate Laboratory Director and CI Senior Fellow. “We welcome the opportunity to forward this new collaboration by providing scientific leadership and computing resources as part of the center’s future efforts.”

With this new capacity, economic and social science researchers can study finer-grained data about jobs, training offerings, and unemployment to guide policy and investments by local governments. Additionally, job search sites could create better “dating service”-like matching algorithms that pair up job seekers with available training aligned with open positions they may not otherwise discover. Education and training need new tools to support growing demand for well-trained personnel in technical and STEM fields, said Ilkay Altintas, Chief Data Science Officer at SDSC.

“We look forward to helping build NCOEA into a national resource to vastly improve the connections between education and training and the placement of individuals into current and evolving jobs and to advance careers,” said Altintas. “The data problems are complex, but much can be done with big data and other methods to improve upon traditional practice.”

Some of this work is already in progress at UChicago and Argonne and will be unified under NCOEA. For example, the Workforce Data Initiative, a partnership between the CI’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy(DSaPP) with the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Economic Council, launched the Skills Cooperative Research Database in summer 2016.  Likewise, NLET will place into the Center its ongoing funded development work with community colleges and community college systems focused on designing new technologies to assist in regional three-way matches between jobseekers, training programs and employers with open jobs.

“I see this center becoming the premier place for how we look at labor and education data, as well as a place for constructing opportunities to reduce economic inequality,” said Gordon Freedman, president of NLET. “The Center is a place where sophisticated computational modeling, focused on real problems in labor, education and job-seeking, can turn into scalable solutions capable of sustaining change. This need is especially acute regionally where specific adaptations are necessary due to local differences in demographics, education and employment composition.”

NCOEA’s robust agenda and vision will build upon the rich history of University of Chicago in areas of education, economic opportunity and human capital theory, including the seminal work of early 20th Century educator John Dewey, sociologist James Coleman and Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker.   Future research and technology development efforts will focus on large-scale, critical components of national and economic policy such as education perseverance, attainment and transfer into work, and employment and entrepreneurship opportunity. NCOEA projects will also support efforts to assist individual, family and community survival and prosperity.

NCOEA’s founding members also include James Evans, associate professor of sociology at UChicago and CI Senior Fellow, Ioana Marinescu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Matt Gee of the Center for Data Science and Public Policy.

Read coverage of the new center in EdSurge.