Who can forget where they were and what they were doing in March 2020, when the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic? The stay-at-home orders wreaked havoc with some people restricted to their houses and others deemed essential workers who were told to go to work under any and all conditions, risking their lives in the face of an unknown pathogen. Then the orders changed constantly, sometimes becoming more strict, at other times more lax. No one was ever really sure about what to do.
Erica Johnson, Program Coordinator at YoloWorks!, a partnership of the Workforce Innovation Board and Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency in Northern California remembers those times quite well.
“In March 2020, YoloWorks! had to send our people home because we were unsure about what was going to happen,” says Johnson. “Due to COVID-19, everything changed for everybody. We were definitely impacted by no foot traffic coming into and out of our employment centers and not being able to fully connect with people.”
That impact was amplified by the sharp but brief recession that threw millions of fully employable people onto the unemployment rolls suddenly and without warning. Traditionally, connecting with these unemployed people in person is how YoloWorks! helps employers and provides services to job seekers who are either enrolled in their programs or from the public at large. Their four American Job Centers of California enable individuals to walk in and get career support, assistance with their resumes, and guidance on training.
YoloWorks! also offers services to employers and job seekers via phone, email, and videoconferencing. After the initial pandemic shock, however, YoloWorks! was inundated with calls when they reopened their telephone support operations. People were panicked and stressed by the conflicting messages from Washington D.C. and Sacramento. New programs were quickly rolled out to deal with all the chaos and economic strife, but the message of hope was not the problem. Delivering the message was the real issue because too many people tried to get help all at once.
“At the height of pandemic-related unemployment, April 2020, we set up a phone hotline and got over three thousand calls that month,” says Johnson. “Folks were asking questions like, ‘Where do I go to apply for unemployment insurance?’ and ‘How can I find help looking for a new job?’ That’s how we addressed needs initially. But we didn’t have a system dedicated to making individual appointments. Everything was done manually. Everyone was trying to figure it out.”
With the resources of their employment centers stretched thin on the phone during business hours and closed to in-person visits, YoloWorks! needed a solution that would help them answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) from dislocated workers and automate the scheduling of their appointments. It had to be a solution that was available 24/7.
Based on the experience of other Yolo County agencies, YoloWorks! decided to work with Google Cloud on a chatbot that can answer FAQs from job seekers. To solve the challenge of scheduling appointments for job seekers, Google Cloud told YoloWorks! that SADA, a Google Cloud Premier Partner and three-time Google Cloud Reseller Partner of the Year, had a Virtual Appointment Scheduling Tool (VAST) solution for managing and supporting virtual appointments. SADA was also engaged by YoloWorks! to implement the chatbot.
VAST is a virtual booking system that allows conference sessions to take place online. SADA built YoloWorks!’s VAST solution solely utilizing Google Cloud’s serverless technologies for the entire stack, including Firestore for data storage; Firebase components for identity and access management, storage, and file management; and Cloud Functions for API endpoints and Calendar integration.
SADA employed Google Workspace SDK to integrate VAST into service account management for accessing the Calendar API. This makes VAST a one-stop shop for scheduling, integrating directly with YoloWorks! calendars and video communications to allow job seekers and Employment Services Specialists to coordinate and communicate virtually using Google Meet.
As the next step, SADA integrated the chatbot with the VAST solution to enable job seekers to sign up for one-on-one virtual appointments with an Employment Services Specialist. Based on Google Cloud Contact Center AI (CCAI) Dialogflow technology, the chatbot can analyze user intent with keywords and serve up appropriate responses. For example, if a user asks, “How can I get help finding a job?,” the chatbot determines that the user intends to get personal assistance from an Employment Services Specialist. The chatbot will respond, “YoloWorks! Employment Services Specialists can connect to you virtually for a 1:1 appointment to assist you with your career needs,” and present a link to the VAST tool to set up an appointment.
SADA’s VAST tool works great; it works in real time. It provides YoloWorks! the information that we need to schedule appointments, and job seekers have been able to connect easily with the VAST tool through the chatbot.
Erica Johnson | Program Coordinator at YoloWorks!
As a result of working with Google Cloud and SADA, YoloWorks! has transformed their employment services operation. What was once a largely in-person function has now become a true hybrid public services agency with virtual and face-to-face interactions.
Before the pandemic, YoloWorks! was able to easily promote, sign up, and host group job-seeking-related virtual events such as social-networking workshops and layoff-assistance webinars. They found it harder to provide individualized online support. Now, after working with SADA on an integrated CCAI chatbot and VAST solution, YoloWorks! can serve dozens of job seekers simultaneously with resume reviews, job application assistance, mock interviews, and general inquiries. Generally, a job seeker can set up an appointment through the chatbot and VAST within ten minutes or less.
“It is much faster, on average, to set up an appointment with the chatbot and VAST compared to our old ways,” says Johnson. “Setting up an appointment via email takes longer because you’ve got to wait for folks to respond. It could even take longer by phone. Might be days before somebody responds. Then you’re going back and forth between the job seeker and the Employment Services Specialist to find a time that works for both of them, which causes more delay.”
With a database of 25+ FAQs in multiple variations, the SADA-programmed chatbot enables YoloWorks! to flexibly provide answers–even to questions with typos. Additionally, the chatbot can continue to evolve because YoloWorks! has the ability to program it as their needs change. “The chatbot definitely has the capacity to grow,” says Johnson. “We plan on adding additional phrases, intent statements, and associated keywords as we grow in this space–common phrases that folks come to us with such as, ‘I need a job,’ ‘school for free,’ or ‘I just got released from jail.’”
Although YoloWorks! launched their chatbot-VAST solution during the slow holiday period without any follow-up mechanism, they’ve still been able to achieve a high attendance rate for appointments. Currently, job seekers show up for their scheduled virtual appointments about 40% of the time. “But of course, we want our attendance to be 50% or more,” says Johnson.
We’re looking at options for automated reminders. Because we believe in the Google Cloud chatbot and SADA’s VAST solution, we want to achieve the optimum level of service possible.
Erica Johnson | Program Coordinator at YoloWorks!
Since the chatbot-VAST solutions went live in November, almost 25% of all new appointments taken by YoloWorks! have been made online. From business and employer appointments to training services and resume and job application assistance to mock interviews, all stakeholders in the local economy have found the chatbot-VAST solution to be a convenient alternative to just walking in from the street to begin taking advantage of YoloWorks! offerings.
While the immediate effects of the pandemic are ebbing, YoloWorks! has undergone a sustained digital transformation in how it delivers services to job seekers. No longer do job seekers always have to drive miles for employment assistance. Now they can receive it online at home, in cafes, or at any other place of their choosing.