The Equity Factor

This Startup Competition Winner Is Gamifying Entry-Level Job Training

Cognotion is interactive learning software that’s trying to revolutionize how workers get and keep jobs.

(John Konstantaras/AP Images for Kmart)

Could an emotionally savvy computer game help keep young people employed?

The Washington, D.C.-based startup incubator and seed fund 1776 thinks so.

Late last month, the incubator joined forces with New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering for the New York edition of its Challenge Cup 2015. The competition is devoted to identifying the world’s most promising civic-minded startups, and one of the NYC Cup’s four winners, Cognotion, has big plans to use gaming technology to change the way young people are trained for entry-level jobs.

Cognotion is a software designed to reduce employee turnover through interactive games and simulation tools “optimized for the unique needs of young adults.” The programs are designed not only to teach hard job skills, but also the soft skills, like how to convey empathy to a frustrated customer or read context clues to know the best way to handle a situation.

The software applies principles of cognitive science in complex learning simulations designed to improve memory retention and recall — bringing cutting-edge theory to a corner of workforce development that’s been done the same way for decades.

Co-founders Jonathan Dariyanani and Joanna Schneier came up with the idea to create the interactive learning software after spending more than a decade in the educational tech industry. “We really felt that after waiting for 10 years for disruption to the system, that a lot of the human potential which could be unlocked through the use of educational technology hadn’t yet [been invented],” says Dariyanani.

Youth unemployment is a growing problem around the world with an estimated 73 million young unemployed people around the globe in 2013, according to the International Labor Organization. In July, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 14 percent youth unemployment rate while the overall unemployment rate has fallen to 6.3 percent. In some cities, such as Chicago, the problem has reached crisis proportions. There, 92 percent of black male teens were unemployed in 2014, according to a study by the Urban League.

After seeing mobile devices become ubiquitous and tablet prices near the $50 mark, the Cognotion team decided to launch their startup in 2013. They market their software as an alternative to dry, ineffective training manuals and a solution for corporations struggling with how to prepare young workers who have graduated into the workforce without marketable skills.

“We find that when we present the same industry-specific, job-specific information that’s contained in a training manual to somebody in the form of a game or with a mentor, it increases absorption, comprehension and retention,” says Dariyanani.

The Cognotion team believes that entry-level workers are more likely to bring their emotional intelligence and empathy to a job after using their apps because the simulation tools help workers better identify the various perspectives at play in real-world scenarios.

That’s critical, as Dariyanani points out, because there is a large contingent of people for which the educational system is failing to provide these skills.

“We believe these sorts of products provide trackable, actionable and immediate educational benefits, so you’re meeting the learner where they are,” says Dariyanani.

There are variations of Cognotion’s software for hotel clerks, government workers, retail cashiers and customer service representatives. They recently provided a medical game to train more than 20,000 doctors and nurses for the Ebola virus. In the future, there might be a way for workers to bring their Cognotion results to potential employees to show their aptitude.

There are 11 other regional Challenge Cup competitions leading up to the global Challenge Festival next May. Cognotion will be competing with 63 other winning startups for $650,000 in prizes, in addition to the opportunity to connect with mentors, corporate partners, policymakers and potential investors. The prize money isn’t exactly small change to Cognotion, but Dariyanani mentions that the company is already selling around $1 million of solutions to companies a month.

“We think that’s only the beginning of where we can go,” he says.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: jobsyouth unemployment

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