REskilling or DEskilling of employment specialists and jobcoaches? The social service sector in the wake of digital transformation

By Katharina Fink, dafür gem. GmbH, Austria

The lock-down during the pandemic has challenged the social service sector, which in its basic principles is built on the personal and direct contact with service users to achieve the goals of the support process. Measures aimed to contain the spread of the virus, resulted in the fact, that – wherever possible – face-2-face-contact with service users has been reduced to a minimum. As a result, social service providers adapted their services to online services and found different ways to stay in touch with their service users. Some organisations and institutions already implemented a virtual avatar, helping potential service users in a first assessment and leading them to the right service for their needs.

DEskilling and the risks of AI
As described above, also in social services technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are challenging traditional work processes. This could result in a so-called DEskilling: Qualified employment specialists will be replaced through new technologies. As in the example of the avatar, a computer performs the first contact with the person in need of support. This reduces the strength of a personal initial consultation, where employment specialists apply a holistic and systemic consultation strategy, relying not only on just a few key words. Furthermore, a skilled jobcoach, with a background in psychology or social work and consultation experience, is replaced by standardised responses.

Another example for AI is a new algorithm in the labour market policy of the Austrian employment agency: Unemployed service users are categorized by a few socioeconomic characteristics such as gender, age, duration of unemployment, etc. They are then divided into three clusters as a basis for the further support measures that will be taken to reintegrate these people in the labour market. These kind of algorithms bear the risk of perpetuating and reproducing stereotypes if AI is fed by current data on the labour market.

REskilling and the opportunities
However, as every new development the digital transformation not only bears risks but also new possibilities. Digital consulting tools such as the game we are developing in the “workable” project are a useful way of including digital processes in supporting people with a disability. If the digital transformation is seen as a possibility to adapt consulting and support processes and adjusting them to the digital world, it rather requires a REskilling of jobcoaches.

The workable projects takes this particular and important step into account with training employment specialists and jobcoaches in creating their own online content. This will allow the employment specialists to implement a hybrid approach in their support processes and generate the best of both the analogue and digital world. Of course, digital competence then is not only a must-have on the side of employment specialists. It will become an important task to train service users in digital competences to reduce the ongoing digital divide.

Providing digital content in social services
When creating digital content, it is very important to take into account the target group. In the work@ble project, the needs of the target group have been collected through so-called “personas”. The project partners have built an “ambassador” for their target group. This is a fictitious person with the most common characteristics of the people in their target group Having a very heterogeneous target group among the partners of the work@ble project this means, finding a common denominator for creating the game. The meeting in Talling showed us, that this is possible. For the further process of the work@ble project, the personas will help us to develop a useful tool for a successful support process.

Having in mind the risks of certain digital tools, the social service sector should not close its eyes to the fact, that digital transformation and its successful integration in social support services will be a key success factor for the future.

Gerd Altmann-Pixabay.

Job coaches: maintaining a sense of humour is important

By Kerli Tamme (ASTANGU, Estonia)

It is the job of the centre’s five job coaches to prepare students for work – a job that is anything but boring. They have plenty of fascinating stories to tell, filled with challenges and heart-warming moments. For an job coaches, the greatest accomplishment is seeing a student get a job or find a new employer. Success can sometimes be so thrilling that it makes you jump for joy.

Dream job – utopia or reality?

At the beginning of the academic year, students are asked about their dreams and goals, what they want to achieve at the centre and what kind of job they desire. There are some dreams that are almost utopian, such as becoming a mayor or a pilot. Employment specialists try to take dreams into consideration every step of the way, and if you’re not cut out to be a mayor or an actor, they’ll come up with ideas to combine the two. That’s how a student with a degree in office work who loves acting got an internship at the Estonian Puppet and Youth Theatre. It was an office job, but the field was related to acting.

It is sometimes difficult to find a job that meets your special needs, but joc coaches are incredibly resourceful in this matter as well. As an example, someone whose greatest ambition was to become a policeman, which was not possible due to their intellectual disability, now works as a police car washer. Another example is the case of a student whose licence was withdrawn following a traumatic brain injury but who had a dream of driving a big car. They were found a job as the assistant to a bin lorry driver at Ragn-Sells, which they are very happy about.

Young men’s dreams and interests are also often linked to the military. They often find a job in Tapa where they can cook for the allied troops currently stationed in Estonia if they are not accepted into the military. The centre helped another person with a military background who had been involved in a car accident, and although they were not able to return to their former position due to severe damage, they were able to find work in a cafeteria at the same place and enjoy it very much. Those with an interest in history have found employment at the Museum of Occupations or the Open Air Museum.

Sometimes, things go wrong.

From time to time, we all encounter mishaps that make us laugh in retrospect. Job coaches always a fascinating story to tell, which becomes legend over time. Occasionally, behaviours that lead to a lot of trouble reveal the particularities of some students. Upon getting a job in a bakery and confectionery company, everything was going smoothly until, for some reason, the student entered the wrong temperature on a large bread oven. In addition to ruining the entire batch, he poked holes in all of the bread when they removed them from the oven. After that, he worked in a dairy aisle at a supermarket, where expired products had to be returned. In the absence of proper instruction, they ate all the products that were to be returned. He kept on removing the expired products, eating them and replacing them with fresh ones. Luckily the shop was understanding and didn’t perceive it as theft, which would have hindered his chances of getting a job in retail in the future. His next job was to become a cleaner; however, due to their poor vision, he rounded out all the corners of the shelves while driving around with a cleaning machine. He has worked in the same place for 6-7 years now operating a tare machine after being promoted from pushing a trolley.

Many fun stories also arise from job interviews. Typically, job coaches assist students in preparing for interviews and also accompanying them. One particularly enthusiastic student came in with their own schedule, saying that these were the times they could work. The employment specialist monitored the situation and did not intervene. Their intention was to let the person be themselves while providing any explanations as needed. As the conversation unfolded, the student picked up the employer’s pen and started sticking it up their nose. When the job coach saw that the employer was trying hard to hold back laughter, she said it was alright to laugh. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of fun; the conversation shouldn’t be too serious.

The students might surprise you

Every year, we meet students who truly surprise us. At first glance, some students may seem to keep to themselves more and it may not appear likely that they will secure a job. However, sometimes, these are the students who will be among the first hired and in the best teams. It can also be the other way around, where the student seems to have the aptitude but is prevented from getting a job due to lack of concentration, lack of interest, family, social skills, etc. In some cases, it may be difficult for a person to get out of the house because of mental health problems, while in other cases, a student who is very skilled in manual tasks and able to work independently at the centre may need constant supervision in the work environment and may be more suited to a sheltered employment service. It is important that all other problems in a person’s life are solved before entering the open labor market. This increases motivation and willingness.

The student who surprise us the most are the ones who find a new job by themselves or move up the career ladder. There were two girls who, upon graduating from an cook’s assistant course, soon got jobs in the field, advanced in the company and in a few years became chefs. Career prospects also depend on whether you get on with your supervisor. The trainee assistant chef and chef, for instance, were very well matched, and after the chef started his own business, the trainee joined them and is now an independent chef. Their fondest dream was to own a white BMW, and when contacted by the job coach, they immediately exclaimed that they had now completed driving school and drove a white BMW. Their dream has been achieved.

Many people change jobs with the assistance of an job coach, but there are also those who make the change on their own. There was a student who, upon graduating from carpenter, went to work for a timber company for 4-5 years. He was still able to perform his job despite a slight physical impairment. As the job coach walked into a building supply shop, the same student came up to her and said that she had changed jobs and were now working in that same shop’s flooring department. She had also purchased a home in the city centre without taking out a bank loan and were getting married in the summer. Job coaches are delighted to hear such news. We keep in touch with the students and celebrate their achievements.

Clarification increases understanding

Being open is essential to getting your message across to employers. A job interview usually consists of discussing the interviewee’s strengths. However, when the students of the centre go for job interviews, the job coaches must lay all the cards on the table, explaining the person’s characteristics and what kind of support they need. Employers appreciate this and are more receptive to employing people with special needs. Even so, there can be situations where the HR manager may be open to hiring, but the manager or supervisor is not. Or the manager is willing, but the staff are not. These situations are fortunately few and far between, but they do exist.

There are also many teams that take the student in and make them one of their own. The manager of one store chain even went on a sign language course to better communicate with a hearing-impaired employee. Another hearing-impaired worker was hired, leaving the rest of the staff feeling excluded. The usual workers could work and talk at the same time, while the deaf people needed to pause while communicating. This was perceived by other workers as cutting corners. After that, the job coaches had to do some explaining to raise awareness among the group.

The majority of employers do not require assistance in supporting and explaining job duties to employees with special needs, but they tend to contact job coaches as soon as they cannot reach the employee. In such cases, the first step is to identify the problem and work together to find solutions. Sometimes, the job may turn out to be too much, despite the employer’s best efforts. For example, a student got a job in a shop, but problems arose and the employment was terminated. Several months later, the employer phoned to ask how they were doing. These moments are always heart-warming for job coaches, especially when the student’s situation is challenging and it is not easy to get them into the open labor market.

The job of an job coach is not an easy one, as you have to perform multiple roles and find solutions to complex situations. When interacting with students, it is important to treat them as equals and communicate openly. Laughing together and having fun is key. You can have fun with both employers and students. It is for this reason that job coaches have stayed so long in their field.



By María Carracedo (Fundacion INTRAS

Gamification is a trendy methodology and it is being used in educative environments with the purpose of increasing student engagement and learning by including game-like elements in learning. Nevertheless, it has been seldom applied for job coaching, and never with vulnerable groups with a distance to the labour market due to learning difficulties. But gamification has many benefits for job coaching, and special for those target groups.

People with developmental disabilities, mental health or cognitive problems, generally need a significant amount of time and repetitive practice to master a task because of their difficulty with memory, motivation, and attention. An study published in the scientific magazine Elsevier[1] (Jungmin Kwon and Youngsun Lee) affirms that serious games can be an effective training method for them because games can be played repetitively. “Repetition is one of the most prominent characteristics of gaming. While repetition of a regular task in the real world may not always be interesting, the repetition inherent to games is often enjoyable and motivating. Repetition is known to be the strongest factor influencing memory retention (Hintzman, 1976), making it one of the most important methods for learning among persons with developmental disabilities, who often have short-term and working memory impairments (McCartney, 1987; Turnbull et al., 2012; Vicari, Carlesimo, & Caltagirone, 2008). Persons with developmental disabilities can achieve mastery of tasks through repetition and reduce the short-term cognitive load by automating the skills (Sweller, 2003).”

Through the gamification of the skills training and assessment, final users will take aspects of gaming into non-gaming situations. Gamification involves intentionally integrating rewards, evolving challenges, and rapid feedback into a non-gaming process or task. This new format for life situations tends to then trigger the desire to overcome obstacles, the persistence to keep working until some “finish line” has been reached, and that sense of exhilaration that is only felt when you’ve beaten the odds. In other words: joy.

Games have the effect of producing continued excitement, interest, and optimism despite failure. This motivation is essential for the labour inclusion of vulnerable groups, who use to feel as «not valid» for any job or to quit trying after a failed job interview. Their perspective would change if after every failure, instead of feeling dejected or defeated, they were excited to jump back in and felt confident about the future. What would that do for jobseekers if after making it through the interview but losing out on the job, they immediately felt energized to try again.

[1](2016) Jungmin Kwon, Youngsun Lee. Serious games for the job training of persons with developmental disabilities.