“Research estimates by 2030, 97% of net workforce growth is going to be immigrants and their children. All the baby boomers will have reached retirement age. And we’re going to have a completely new generation of workers. We have to do our part to prepare them for the jobs of the future.” That from Katie Nielson, Ph.D., founder and chief education officer of Voxy EnGen.
“We have a national focus on upskilling, on apprenticeship models, and getting people the skills they need for jobs that have economic mobility. We often just leave immigrants and refugees out of that conversation because they don’t have the English skills to access the training,” explains Nielson.
Today marks the launch of Voxy EnGen’s web and mobile application that helps immigrants, refugees, and limited English-proficiency adults get access to English skills to improve their careers and reach their educational aspirations.
Nielson explains the difference between the Voxy EnGen platform and traditional ESL classes, “So the approach to language learning is completely different with our platform. It needs to be relevant to your goals.”
“[Traditional approaches] teach you ‘at the bank’ before you go to ‘at the zoo’ and then ‘riding the bus.’ They have the content all mapped out based on some idea of how language learning works. And everyone gets the same pathway,” says Nielson.
“Whereas traditional approaches start with a predetermined syllabus, we offer a completely personalized approach. You will get English relevant to your interests and your career goals at the right level. And then the activities themselves will adapt in real time based on your performance.”
“Instead of being sort of a one-size-fits-all ESL class, what this is, is a tool that delivers sector-specific or career-specific English training in bite-sized chunks, at scale,” explains Nielson.
She offers the example of careers in allied health care. “Across the country, there’s a shortage of allied health care workers. Communities of care often don’t reflect the people who live in them. So we have health care workers who can’t actually communicate with their patients.”
“Because health care is a field that once people get an entry-level job, there are very clear pathways to promotion and advancement. It’s an area where it’s relatively straightforward to get someone into a career as a medical assistant, where they can then continue to build their credentials while they’re working and eventually become a nurse or a nurse practitioner.”
Nielson says Voxy EnGen is continuously adding job-specific language to the platform. “I have general workplace content like the English you need to work in a remote office, to write emails, to have phone calls, starting at beginner-level English all the way through advanced.”
“And then I have job-role English – English for customer service, English for IT help and support. English for software engineering, and then very sector-specific English for manufacturing, for oil and gas, for the aviation industry.”
“We’re either reaching learners through their employers or through a program that is helping to upskill workers, in general,” says Nielson.
She cites an example. The University of Maryland was a Voxy EnGen client during the platform’s incubation period. “We work with them, not just as a provider of English language instruction to students who need help with English, but also to their staff. They have a group of housekeepers of residential facilities who have been using the platform now for over a year.”
Among that group is Hana Tadese. She is originally from Ethiopia and came to the U.S. five years ago seeking asylum. Tadese had previously earned a Master’s in social psychology in Ethiopia and would like to get a degree in public health.
She has been using the platform to study the language content related to a variety of health care jobs and topics. Tadese likes the flexibility Voxy EnGen affords her, because as she says, “I have no interest to take a class at night, but this is really good for me because I can do it any time and it’s easily accessed.”
Tadese also notes that Voxy EnGen is more than a language class. “You don’t feel like you’re taking a language course. You feel like you’re studying some field, some profession. [The content] is always very current. I always listen to NPR or some news. And then I can see they bring that current issue with my topic.”
Nielson notes the platform also offers learning opportunities for people who are trying to build English language skills and have low levels of literacy in their first languages. “You start with very basic content. The difference in what we’re doing is that basic content is tied to real world skills. So learners will learn about accessing social services, filling out forms. They’ll learn to write their names into digital forms.”
The platform itself has navigational instructions that can be translated into 14 different first languages, notes Nielson.
But she acknowledges difficulties that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “I’m not going to lie. This population of learner is one of the most difficult to work with, especially now in the time of COVID, when everything is at a distance.”
“We’re experimenting with all sorts of things for how to do all of that at a distance. But we do have the materials and the support staff to meet learners and help figure that out with them.”
Today’s launch comes after Nielson’s decades of research on technology and language learning. She notes the platform has third-party efficacy validation from the American Institutes for Research.
Looking ahead at emerging technologies, Nielson reiterates the immigrant and refugee population cannot be left behind when it comes to jobs of the future. In WorkingNation’s recent American Workers Survey, 30% of respondents express concerns about those emerging technologies, saying automation is a threat to job/career loss and changes in the workforce.
There are many partners that need to be a part of the solution, according to Nielson. “We want to talk to more employers interested in helping upskill their workforce. I want to talk to organizations that are focused on apprenticeships and upskilling to talk to them about how they can increase their talent pool by offering pathways for non-native speakers to access the content they already have.”
“We’re at a really critical moment in the United States where we’ve highlighted a lot of inequalities in the way we think about the relationship between institutions of education and workforce training, job shortages, job losses. And as we think about coming back from that, we cannot leave non-native English speakers out of the conversation.”
Meanwhile, Tadese plans to take some prerequisite courses next semester at the University of Maryland. Because some of her credits from Ethiopia are transferable, she expects to earn her degree in public health in two years.
Tadese hopes that will lead to a public health-related job at the University of Maryland. But long-term, Tadese says, “My dream is working for an international organization so I can do something for my country.”