Put me in, coach

Online tool guides job seekers

Tech success: IT solutions in action

Project: Online coaches

Agency: Labor Department

Partners: Devis Corp. and the Minnesota Employment and Economic Development Department

Goal: Provide a step-by-step guide for using Labor's online resources.

Obstacle: Over the years, the Labor Department has developed vast resources for workers and employers. The best way to quickly create guides to them was to let content experts shape those guides.

Solution: The Devis system is designed to let content experts update and manage the online coaches.

Payoff: Businesses, workers and workforce development professionals can find resources specific to their situations 24 hours a day. Labor can cost-effectively offer information and resources to large numbers of users in situations such as a mass layoff or natural disaster.

"One of the significant challenges we face is in delivering vast amounts of information to our customers in meaningful ways," says Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant secretary of Labor for employment and training.

Courtesy photo

It's not surprising that someone who's worked in an auto-parts assembly plant for 20 years might lack job-hunting skills such as resume writing and searching online employment Web sites.

The Labor Department has vast resources to help people find jobs, collect benefits and more. The problem: For some, the resources are too much of a good thing, and they need coaching to help navigate the volumes of information.

With that in mind, the department developed online coaches, a Web tool that runs in conjunction with Web sites and helps users navigate them.

"The coaches are a step-by-step help feature to walk people through the department's Web site for workforce investment information," said Greg Wilson, a manpower analyst in the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration's Division of Workforce System Support. The coaches also can guide users to other federal resources, he said.

The coach and the Web site run simultaneously but independently from one another, and the user can toggle between them.

Written on open-source software, the system has been a boon for the department, said Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant secretary of Labor for employment and training.

"The online coaches are an economical way to provide information, because [with] this kind of software, much of the content can be reformatted and reused," she said.
That ability is important to be able to respond quickly in situations such as hurricanes or plant closings, she said.

"One of the significant challenges we face is in delivering vast amounts of information to our customers in meaningful ways," DeRocco said. "The online coaches let us do that job while separately offering a ready-made platform to respond to economic shocks that strike a region."

The software, from Devis Corp. of Arlington, Va., was developed to ensure information delivery to people who may be unfamiliar with the Internet, said Peter Gallagher, Devis co-founder and president.

"What we see out there today is that the Internet has really become a jungle of information and Web sites, and not everybody is capable of navigating that jungle," he said. "When you have a bunch of different Web sites that you have to work through to get the information you need, it's very complicated for all but the savviest tech users. Savvy tech users often aren't the people looking for that new career or being forced out of a job because a plant closed or some other event."

The online coach, not intended as a search engine, instead helps users by connecting different resources and presenting them as a single business process.
"It lets us bottle a complex process, which might touch a bunch of different Web sources, and turn it into a holistic, streamlined Web resource," Gallagher said.

Many of the coaches can be found on the department's career assistance Web site (http://www.onestopcoach.org).

The coach is set up as a sort of wizard, guiding a job seeker through a series of simple questions. A user, for example, can go from "Job seekers" to "Find unemployment info" to a link that helps locate the appropriate state unemployment office.

The coach is built on EZ Reusable Objects (EZRO), an open-source Web content management system, which can be downloaded license-free and used for other applications, such as structured e-learning, as well as the coach.

With EZRO, someone who isn't HTML-savvy can log into the administrative site and enter content. Once it's approved, it's published to a public site.

"The beauty is that Web sites and these coaches can be maintained by subject matter experts who aren't technically savvy in coding pages," Gallagher said. "It's just like a standard Web-content management system."

EZRO runs on Zope, a Linux application server, and is written in Python.

One of the coach's most powerful features is that it runs independently of Web sites. This lets it work with any external Web sites, including portals and other disparate Web resources, tie them together and guide users to them. The coach doesn't do any of the work for users, it just gets them to the right resource and focuses them on their desired task by asking the right questions.

Labor Department officials are happy with the success of the technology and plan to expand its use.

"As the Employment and Training Administration addresses new economic challenges, it will be able to use the online coaches' blueprint to drive new audiences to easily constructed and tailored online assistance," DeRocco said. "For example, we recently added the Base Realignment and Closure Coach.

"We can foresee the online coaches providing online learning opportunities to workforce professionals throughout the country."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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