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Hiring platform aims to do away with biases, focus on skills


Artificial intelligence is commonly used in automated recruitment programs to narrow down a large pool of applicants, using algorithms to match job seekers to open positions.

But there are growing concerns this technology is disproportionately excluding certain groups, like women, people of color or those who don’t have college degrees, even when they’re qualified for a job. Now there are efforts to build new hiring tools to reverse that bias.

It’s sometimes called the “paper ceiling” — an invisible barrier to upwardly mobile jobs that excludes people who didn’t go to college — which is about two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, and an even greater share of Black and Latino adults.

An increasing number of employers have vowed to do away with degree requirements, but the bias is often embedded in the software companies use to screen applicants, said Shad Ahmed with the nonprofit Opportunity@Work.

“How do you create a job description that’s truly skills based, that doesn’t fall back on degree requirements?” Ahmed said. “Our systems haven’t caught up with that.”

The artificial intelligence typically used to filter resumes doesn’t just look for degrees, it often zeroes in on specific schools, previous employers and titles — which likely had degree requirements — or key words, like “collaborative synergies,” that only someone who went to business school would know to use.

“It’s not necessarily the algorithms’ fault that they’re biased,” Ahmed said. “Those algorithms are trained based on history and trained by humans. And unfortunately, our labor market historically has used degree requirements as a proxy for skills.”

That was the experience of Ciare Primus. Growing up in Michigan with a dad who spent four decades working for General Motors, she had a clear vision of what a career meant: “You can advance in a company that’s going to invest in you.”

But, she said, for most of her working life, all she had were jobs: “You don’t really go further in the position that you’re in, so you’re just there to do that job, go home, do it all over again.”

Or in Primus’ case, go to another job. She’d made it to manager, sometimes in two or three different jobs at once: at a car dealership, a fast-food restaurant and a clothing store. But she never made it to the next level up because she didn’t have a four-year degree, she said.

“I was passed up for promotions because of that,” Primus said.

Until she found the hiring platform created by Opportunity@Work called Stellarworx, which aims to do away with biased proxies and hone in on actual skills. 

“So a job is a collection of skills. A person is a collection of skills,” said Mohan Reddy, the co-founder of SkyHive, which built the algorithms that power the Stellarworx platform.

SkyHive uses artificial intelligence, tested constantly for bias, to find patterns in those skills in a more objective way than humans can.

“When people write jobs, the job descriptions, they’re very biased,” Reddy said.

They often include coded language that ends up being exclusionary and wish lists of “nice-to-have” but unnecessary skills, some of which could easily be learned on the job.

Meanwhile, nontraditional candidates often overlook the valuable and transferable skills they’ve gained in seemingly unrelated jobs.

Stellarworx uses SkyHive to assess the skill needs of jobs and better match applicants who have them.

“That opens up new career pathways, new opportunities,” Reddy said.

For instance, the opportunity for someone with lots of retail and customer service experience to use her communication and team leadership skills as a supervisor at an automaker.

About 10 months ago, Ciare Primus used Stellarworx to get a full-time position as a group leader for power train manufacturing at General Motors. It’s one of more than a hundred companies using the platform to fill jobs that otherwise might have required degrees.

“Now I have a career, not just a job,” Primus said. “I went home one day and I went in my room and I actually kind of cried because, you know, my dad passed away, and I was able to say, and look up in the heavens and tell my dad, ‘I have a career, Dad. I did it.’”

Now that she’s no longer working three jobs to get by, Primus is using her free time to pursue a college degree in business.

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