AI-powered virtual job interview tool promotes Smart Decarceration

Video by Eric Shaw

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U-M researcher Matt Smith and his team at the School of Social Work have developed a virtual job interview tool to assist individuals returning to their communities after completing a prison sentence. These individuals often have critically low employment rates, which are associated with higher rates of recidivism. Smith and his team have partnered with the Michigan Department of Corrections in a study to help enhance the implementation of evidence-based practice within the justice system, promoting Smart Decarceration.

“Our mission is to help people get jobs and keep those jobs, so we’re just trying to develop and test different ways of doing that.”

Matthew J. Smith

Professor of Social Work, Director of the Level Up: Employment Skills Simulation Lab

Article by Kelsey Keeves

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Matthew J. Smith’s academic career was originally driven by his interest in how and why different neurological conditions affect the behavior and relationships of those affected. Initially, he planned to pursue a biology degree, but quickly realized he was passionate about implementing social programs that can have a direct, positive impact on people’s lives. This goal led to his transition from preparing for a career in medicine to the pursuit of psychology and social work degrees which have been guiding his research path since.

Smith received his Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Social Work, and then went on to complete a translational neuroscience postdoctoral fellowship at  Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.

In 2017, Smith joined the University of Michigan School of Social Work as an associate professor and connected with a group of social work faculty developing technology-based interventions. Smith’s focus was on evaluating a virtual reality interview skills training program that he helped develop in 2012 while an assistant professor at Northwestern University. The program simulates the job interview experience and provides a list of example responses, guiding the participants towards responses that are most favorable to employers.

The training tool initially aimed to help those with mental health issues that were affecting their ability to gain employment. Through Smith’s collaborations, the tool was applied to another group that could also benefit, young adults with autism.

“Autistic young adults find the job interview to be challenging to navigate and so I thought at the time, okay, we’re developing this tool, why don’t we also partner with young adults with autism to develop a version for the autism community.”

One of the most unique features of the interview skills project is that the research team is actively evaluating the program as they implement it. This means the team is soliciting feedback from the projects’ participants to optimize the experience for users over time. Smith believes that for these programs to be impactful, they need to be guided by those who they are designed for.

“We have to make adaptations to our process and try to improve the tools that we’ve developed if they aren’t effective so that they can hopefully one day help people get jobs.”

Smith is also passionate about using his work to suit a diversity of audience needs. This means evaluating how both the program itself and the delivery system impact the end-user experience among the different target audiences.

Smith’s team is now developing an additional tool aimed at training users how to interact with customers, coworkers and supervisors once employed, which can be a challenging area for autistic young adults.

The connections Smith has made throughout his time studying neuroscience and social work have made his research possible. Through a contact he made with a student while presenting his work at the U-M master of social work program, Smith was able to connect with administrators at the Michigan Department of Corrections. After receiving grant support from the National Institute of Justice (2019-MU-MU-004) and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research  (UL1TR002240), Smith applied the interview training program to another underserved community, those returning to society after incarceration in correctional facilities in Jackson and Ionia.

Creating partnerships is a crucial part of Smith’s research because he believes it improves the quality of outcomes and is a necessity in the practical work of implementing these tools through a network of committed, on-the-ground collaborators.

“The people you meet who are interested in implementing these types of programs are what makes them possible. They’re the staff and teachers working directly with clients and connecting them to research with real-world outcomes.”

To ensure these programs will continue to be as effective as possible, Smith installed a community advisory board and diversity advisory board, which are comprised of diverse groups of representatives from different communities. 

“Our mission is to help people get jobs and keep those jobs, so we’re just trying to develop and test different ways of doing that.”