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Who You Know Matters More than Ever in the COVID-19 Job Market

May 1, 2020

At a Glance

Low-income students were already at a disadvantage in getting good jobs because they lack the connections—the social capital. The COVID-19 outbreak has made that challenge even harder. Creative online solutions are needed.

Nancy Hoffman Senior Advisor
Practices & Centers

Radical changes call for radical challenges to business as usual. When my colleague Michael Collins and I put together a new book, Teaching Students About the World of Work, the nation had a full-employment economy. Nonetheless, we argued that both two- and four-year colleges need to make the topic of work a central element of the curriculum if low-income students are going to have a realistic chance for economic advancement.

With so many Americans out of work, how do low-income people access the networks and connections that make a difference in getting a family-supporting job?

Now, with the spread of the novel coronavirus, the economy is headed into a recession, and the economic disruption is striking us like a tidal wave, faster and more radically than anyone could have imagined. If connections and “knowing the right person” were key to finding good jobs before the COVID-19 outbreak, social capital—the umbrella term for such connections—is even more important now.

It’s All About the Network

What is social capital? Combining concepts from several scholars, social capital returns value through human, rather than capital or financial assets, mainly by connecting one person with another or with a network. Social capital is the goodwill that individuals or groups tap into by being part of a network. Its effects flow from the information, influence, and solidarity it makes available. A social network’s or individual’s stock of social capital can be thought of as a reservoir of social trust and support. While marginalized populations often have strong social capital that develops close-knit communities, those connections are often not valued by people outside of those communities. For people looking to move from a low-paying hourly wage job to a professional one, the greater wealth, power, and reputation of the helping individual or network makes a difference in the job search.

Students may know that networking is important, but most have not been taught how social capital works.

We are facing a labor market that’s shrinking so dramatically that no one can predict how long the unemployment lines will become. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits had climbed to more than 26 million as of April 18. This puts a central preoccupation of the book in full relief: With so many Americans out of work, how do low-income people access the networks and connections that make a difference in getting a family-supporting job? Even with full employment, many with newly minted degrees were unable to move from hourly wage jobs to start the professional careers they prepared for. They lacked the necessary social capital.

What Students Don’t Know but Need to Know

With Mary Gatta, a professor at Guttman Community College, I wrote a chapter on social capital as it pertains to the labor market.

The chapter argues that many college students make sacrifices for schooling with a blind faith that getting a degree will lead to a good job. They may know that networking is important, but most have not been taught how social capital works. They may not be aware of how people and employers evaluate and then include or exclude applicants based on what are most often unstated biases and assessments having to do with race, class, language, and gender. Thus, when hiring starts up again, to whom will employers reach out? Will community college students know people who can vouch for them as job candidates? Will they know how to get to the front of the hiring line with an online job application?

As the job market rebounds, those with the “right” kinds of social capital and access to broad professional networks will be at the front of the hiring queue. And those with the fewest connections will be at the very back, if in line at all.

While there are legitimate questions about whether “soft” or “professional” skills can be taught or are best learned in the context of a workplace, online is where professional life is lived right now.

Many are filling out online job applications right now. According to Burning Glass Technologies, there’s strong demand for health care professionals with certifications and special training—pharmacists, respiratory therapists, and registered nurses. Also on the Burning Glass list are jobs in cybersecurity, engineering, database management, software engineering, and the like.

These are not jobs for the low-skilled, and they aren’t for people with no home office or professional resume. So what’s left? Jobs for medical facility cleaners, housekeepers, laundry workers and dry cleaners, home health and nursing facility aides, and grocery store staff. Yes, the unemployed may take these low-wage jobs and continue to be called our heroes during the pandemic. But they will be putting their health at risk, and often these jobs come without benefits. With schools closed and kids at home, unemployment benefits may be the only option for many parents.

A New Approach

All of the above suggest a dark scenario and increased hardship and inequality. But there could be another scenario. While there are legitimate questions about whether “soft” or “professional” skills can be taught or are best learned in the context of a workplace, online is where professional life is lived right now.

What if a group of major employers and large government agencies that have laid off thousands of workers make a pact to hire both from the back of the line and the front, with a promise to enhance applicants’ soft skills once hired? What if those with the fewest means, who have lost the most because they had so little in the first place, were first in line for retraining, with their training paid for? What if community colleges were funded to support them and to provide each with a professional skill coach who would prepare them to succeed with online job applications and interviewing? What if the people who lined up for unemployment benefits were offered a voucher for a free laptop, internet connection, and an online coach? What if influencers, Ivy Leaguers, business owners, and executive staff members helped orient underserved populations to social capital?

Some community colleges already have innovative courses providing readings and company-based experience that contextualize professional skills and improve student self-confidence as job applicants. These and other college career services have gone online. The startup world is sprouting second-generation professional skills curricula targeted not at the those who already have a professional LinkedIn profile, but at workers who have had little opportunity to identify and then practice the business communication, leadership, and collaboration strategies that are so important to employers. These online professional skills, education, and training options could be made available for free or at low cost to those who have the space and bandwidth (real and metaphoric) to use this uncertain period to skill up.

These may all sound like impossible solutions, but nothing is impossible with the world turned upside down.

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