Mother-daughter team Mary and Alice Hayes started Workbay in 2012. Workbay began as a platform for industry clients, government agencies, and tribal nations to share resources and information with each other as they worked to support people in transition. Workbay has since become an interactive career development platform that links recruitment, skill-building, and career navigation.

Increasingly focused on adult learners and seeking to work more closely with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, Workbay entered the U.S. Department of Education’s Future Finder Challenge to reimagine career navigation for adult learners. One of five finalists, Workbay is now participating in a six-month virtual accelerator to build and test its digital career navigation tool. We spoke with Mary and Alice about their accelerator experience and their developmental priorities as they look toward their company’s future.

How does Workbay support its users through the career navigation process?

Alice: Workbay is a mobile app and a web-based platform that job seekers, students, educators, workforce boards, nonprofits, employers, and community stakeholders can use to share resources. Our most common users are job seekers and students. And when they log on, they go through a brief entry survey that is really friendly, conversational, and chat-based, and answer key questions about who they are, what they do, what they would like to do, what their education background is, and things like that. With that information, we suggest key career pathways.

When they log in, they sign in to a community-specific platform that connects them to all of their local resources as well as a suite of videos, learning content pieces, and job postings provided by our standardized system. What’s unique about Workbay is we understand that employment, especially for our target audience, is not something that can be nationally solved or nationally prescribed. It’s about the people and demand in their neighborhood; it’s about the person down the street who might have an opportunity available. So we always localize, and our strongest implementations are the ones that are championed by local people who are bringing everybody together to use our resources and share their own.

What are some of your developmental priorities for the Future Finder Challenge?

Mary: For the Future Finder Challenge, our core innovations are evolving that initial capture of user information so that we more fully engage with the user’s narrative and drive better recommendations to career pathway resources. Currently, we ask for their skills, knowledge, interests, education, experience, and goals using text-questions and imagery. But we are building AI-integrated audio capture and smarter interactivity within strict ethical and security parameters that require significant constraints. We’re evolving the engineering of the systems architecture, algorithms and metadata. All of these improvements add to the value of the resulting Learner Employability Record (LER) and career resource recommendations as well as the analytics that the system provides to educators and workforce counselors.

Alice: And I would add we’re increasing the ability for somebody to communicate in more languages, and more natural language.

What have you found most exciting about designing for adult learners?

Alice: We are all adult learners, and we are all continuously learning. The world is advancing at such a rapid pace, and it’s hard for anybody to keep up and continue their learning evolution. So I think that adult learners are relatable, and they also make up a lot of people. And that’s exciting to me. There are great benefits to be made by helping adult learners and giving them tools that are going to help them support their families, support themselves, and live a fulfilling life.

Mary: Democracy works best when everyone in a community is engaged in contributing value, learning and working. For our Future Finder project, our focus is to improve outcomes for people returning to their communities after incarceration. It’s estimated that 600,000 to 750,000 people are released from judicial supervision each year. Many more may pass through a short-term county jail experience. In our economy, more than half of all employers say they cannot find the workforce they need and there are job postings in the range of 10 million opportunities. We are working to apply AI and technology solutions to improve speed to employment by linking folks to the right work skills training and other learning resources so they’re ready to interview on release. Our work inside judicial supervision environments runs parallel to the platform that’s available nationally. Returning citizens can reactivate their record of achievements earned while incarcerated, including all of their career navigation results and job recommendations, LER credentials, and invitations to interview. For our Future Finder project, we’re working to better connect people to jobs and jobs to people, with a focus on improving results for returning citizens.

There are a lot of ways we can work together, and something that we say a lot is this problem that we’re trying to solve is so massive and so urgent that there’s no time for competition that isn’t collaborative. There’s no shortage of people who need better tools to find their path.

Alice Hayes

What have you found most valuable about the accelerator?

Alice: During the New York City boot camp, it was really cool to sit at a table with a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing. And the mentors that came in were amazing. The thing that was the most powerful for me about the in-person session was the combination of hearing from Deborah Kennedy, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Literacy, who gave us the entire landscape of everything that’s going on, and then hearing from real adult learners who are experiencing the barriers to finding a job.

Mary: It feels like there’s just the perfect combination of collaboration and competition inside of this challenge. Sometimes I need to feel that collaboration to be inspired, to feel like, “Yeah, we’re part of a community and we’re doing it.” And other times I feel very competitive like, “Wow, look what they’re doing. Why aren’t we doing something as cool as that?” That push-pull is a really sweet tension.

Alice: There are a lot of ways we can work together, and something that we say a lot is this problem that we’re trying to solve is so massive and so urgent that there’s no time for competition that isn’t collaborative. There’s no shortage of people who need better tools to find their path.

Where would you like to be by the end of the accelerator, and beyond? What’s next for Workbay?

Alice: Our focus with this accelerator is on individuals who are incarcerated and preparing for reentry. We are currently deployed to tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals via tablet and other providers and will soon reach many thousands more. With our technology, we are developing a new model where natural language and audio intake interviews create verifiable Learner Employability Records that will help individuals connect to tailored resources — jobs, career pathways, and online learning — on our site. Our goal for the next year is to see thousands of individuals who are reentering society be matched with good jobs through our systems. Three years from now, we want to see that number in the hundreds of thousands.

Mary: We want to use the energy of the Future Finder Challenge to push all of our endeavors forward so that adult learners — in our case, those who have completed their judicial supervision — connect with employers and workforce boards in a better networked system of support that will help us build a better economy.

Looking ahead: Judging and beyond

At the end of the accelerator, finalists will submit their market-ready tools and accompanying proposals, and present at a live demo day this fall. A judging panel will review the submissions against the Stage 2 criteria and recommend a slate of winners to the Department. One grand-prize winner will receive $500,000, and up to two runners-up will receive a share of at least $250,000, to be announced in fall 2023.

Beyond Stage 2, the challenge will support winners into 2024 as they deploy their solutions. To help promote further innovation, challenge resources and videos will remain available to all entrants as well as to those who did not participate in the challenge. Innovators are encouraged to continue using these resources to develop new digital tools that reimagine career navigation for adult learners.

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