In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated immigrants made up 17.4% of the total labor force. In addition, the Brookings Institute estimated in 2014 that almost 10% of working-age U.S. adults were “limited English proficient.” These workers earned 25% to 40% less than workers with English proficiency, despite the fact that most held a high school diploma and 15% held a college degree. Limited English proficiency is a barrier to employment, especially secure, well-paying employment. Unfortunately, only 4% of U.S. adults with limited English proficiency have access to English language education, according to Dr. Katharine Nielson.
Voxy EnGen, a public benefit corporation that Nielson created and incubated at Voxy Inc. while she served as its chief education officer, is working to change these statistics. Its platform aims to provide skills-based virtual English language education to workers with limited English proficiency. Earlier this year, it announced its Series A funding, valued at $6.75 million, from Rethink Education, The Social Entrepreneurs’ Fund, the University System of Maryland Momentum Fund, Juvo Ventures, and The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.
Real-world, Personalized Content
Nielson believes that one of the reasons Voxy EnGen’s platform is so effective is because it teaches workers the language they need to perform and advance in their career. She says that, within months, learners develop “meaningful language skills” they can apply at work. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to personalize content based on the learner’s proficiency and needs, making it more relevant and useful. Nielson believes this personalized learning is a significant advantage over traditional language education, which takes a one-size-fits-all approach.
Creating Career Pathways
Nielson says her two big goals for 2021 are to grow Voxy EnGen’s footprint across the U.S. and to “help create more career pathways in different sectors to get people into meaningful jobs.” To that end, she hopes to increase the number of learners using the platform from 7,000 to 40,000.
Those meaningful career pathways are key to making employment more equitable. Learning a new language is a daunting prospect for the employee (and the employer). Nielson hopes to make English education more accessible and applicable by “start[ing] with real English.” Her content helps workers learn how to read safety training manuals, employee benefits information, help desk support messages and other materials they need on the job. Then, the platform “adapts to their needs in real time” to help them advance and grow their skills.
An “Equitable and Inclusive Economic Recovery”
Voxy EnGen is launching its platform at a pivotal time for the immigrant labor force. According to a report by the U.S. Joint Economic Committee, about 20% of workers born outside the U.S. lost their job between February and April last year. Many of the industries that were hit the hardest by the economic fallout of the pandemic, such as the hospitality and restaurant industries, have disproportionately high numbers of immigrant workers. In addition, Nielson says, immigrants “tend to be the first ones to lose jobs when something like this happens.”
“We should take this opportunity to try to help these underserved populations get the job skills they need for careers with economic mobility.” Improving their English language skills, she says, gives them more opportunity for advancement and enables them to shift into new career paths.
As the conversation around diversity and inclusion evolves, and we continue to see the ripple effects of the pandemic affect people in different ways, it’s more important than ever to make sure that employment access and economic mobility are equitable. Fortunately, learning and development professionals are in a great position to help do just that.