Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Virtual Job Fairs, Real Disabilities

A news story about this topic appears on Government Executive's new technology Web site, NextGov.

The 56 million Americans with disabilities spend twice as much time online as do people without. Given how hard it is to get around if you aren't able-bodied, that makes sense. Extending the logic, you might expect that the disabled also would feel more at home in a virtual world, where real world limits don't apply.

Recruitment agency TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications wants to test that theory by sponsoring a job fair for disabled people in the synthetic world, Second Life. And the company wants government agencies to do the in-world hiring. Why government? Well, TMP, which already has had success running in-world job fairs for companies, sees a need and therefore an opportunity.

As it turns out, the percentage of people with targeted disabilities in the federal workforce fell from 1.24 percent in 1994 to 0.97 percent, or just 24,086 employees, in 2006. In fact, Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Christine Griffin has called on agencies join EEOC's Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities initiative to step up hiring of disabled people.

TMP proposes, for a fee, to create virtual buildings for agencies on one of its two islands in Second Life, to advertise the job fair to prospective applicants, teach them how to get around as avatars--3-D representations of themselves—and permit agencies to preview and choose the applicants they want interview, virtually, of course. “We see it as an opportunity for agencies to stem a 10-year decline in representation of people with disabilities,” John Bersentes, director of business development for TMP government solutions, told me.

Further, he sees virtual job fairs as a better way to bring on retirees, noting that those over age 55 are more likely to become disabled. Virtual hiring could help agencies such as Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is attempting to recruit retirees to help handle a huge backlog of citizenship applications.

The idea spawns others, for example, what about serving disabled citizens in world? Or even the able-bodied. What if, instead of schlepping among agency offices to deliver and receive information and to receive assistance, we could let our avatars do the walking? What if agencies seeking citizen input could hold virtual town meetings to allow interaction by the many with the many? No one of us is as smart as all of us, after all.

The cost of entry isn't staggering, either. TMP is charging between $30,000 and $50,000, Resentes estimates, for the virtual buildings and real-life ad campaigns to draw job candidates to them, as well as to teach them how to maneuver in a world where teleporting and flying--without a plane--are perfectly normal. TMP will create a chat-based microsite especially for those with visual impairments.

In-world help is important, if my own experiences as an avatar are any guide. I spend a good deal of time relearning simple things like how to move around or look at the front of myself each time a re-enter Second Life after an absence. Press coverage of TMP's private sector virtual job fair last year showed such glitches aren't uncommon. Some applicants spent hours learning how to create and manipulate their avatars and still weren’t able to master such simple interview etiquette as sitting in chairs.

Nevertheless, finding ways to use virtual worlds to better serve and educate citizens is a laudable goal. If we hope to save fuel, address the needs and interests of Generation Y and figure out how to handle the knottiest problems of our era, then meeting, collaborating, planning and practicing online and in world seems as logical for the able-bodied as the disabled.


Kitty Wooley said...

Boy, this is useful. Not only is disability recruiting the first application of Second Life that would make me even contemplate the learning curve involved, but I had no idea that disability hiring was going down the tubes like this. If I understand the chart correctly, disability hiring is something that used to happen - the commitment isn't there. Even if there weren't so many newly disabled Iraq War veterans beginning to look for jobs, I would find that alarming. As far as the Milennials go, most of my friends in that age range aren't using Second Life now, although some might relish being tasked to develop a presence there for mission-related purposes. Thanks, Anne, for sharing your experience and providing food for thought.

Anne Laurent said...

Thank you, Kitty. I was glad to see you had stopped by. And I, too, was surprised by the falloff in hiring of disabled people. So was the EEOC, apparently, since they started a special LEAP program to address it. As for Second Life, I didn't mean to suggest that Millennials were preponderant there, in fact I believe Gen Xers and Boomers are, but to say that virtual government will take shape as digital natives demand it when they rise to positions of power. That being the case, we who hold those positions now ought to lead follow or get out of the way!