Utilizing networks to find employment?

Utilizing networks to find employment?

Social networks as a labour market integration tool for unemployed and disadvantaged people

Author(s): Nicolas Turtschi

Key messages:
  • Individual characteristics related to gender, nationality, age and education must be taken into account when unemployed people consider using their network to find employment.
  • Network effects may lead to greater inequalities. The more an unemployed person possesses characteristics putting them at a disadvantage, the less likely it is that his or her network will be a helpful resource in a successful job search.
  • Creating spaces and events that foster social connections may counteract the unequal effects of networks, notably if these events favour social mixing and help overcome social isolation.

The importance of using networks is currently emphasized among recruiters and job seekers. Information about an open position or a recommendation through a person from one’s network are known to be among the best means to land a job. However, based on our research using data from over 4000 individuals, a word of caution is in order: though of crucial importance, networks do not benefit all people in the same way. Indeed, networks increase inequality. The successful use of networks greatly depends on certain characteristics upon which one has little to no influence, such as gender, nationality, age and education. While for some people, calling upon personal relations may empower their network and possibly lead to a job, for others the use of networks does not increase their opportunities on the labour market. Networks follow the logic of homophilia, frequently linking people who share the same interests and have similar social profiles. Individuals with “desirable” characteristics on the labour market are therefore more likely to affiliate with people who hold a certain level of social capital, whereas those at a disadvantage are more likely to connect with similarly disadvantaged individuals, and are thus less able to improve their standing on the labour market. Consequently, in order to reduce the inequitable effects of networks, this logic must be dismantled by creating, for example, spaces and events that a) favour social mixing by generating contacts and relationships beyond one’s usual social circle and b) allow people to overcome social isolation.

The ambivalent importance of networks

We frequently consider networks fostered throughout one’s lifetime as “informal recruitment channels”. Indeed, a large proportion of the jobs that unemployed people are able to find are linked to the use of social networks; certain studies suggest that they are responsible for up to 80% of job placements. Recruitment and labour market specialists also widely accept the pivotal role of networks. Their importance differs depending on regional and/or national context, the occupational sector and its composition. Networks act as a source of information, recommendation and support. Moreover, they bestow a certain degree of social competence upon those who are seeking employment.

However, the ability to create networks does not only depend upon initiative and personal endeavour, but largely rests upon characteristics that are beyond one’s control. Gender, nationality, age and education have an important impact on the type of network that one develops. Whatever degree of initiative one shows, with equal motivation and attitude, certain people will be at a disadvantage due to their education level, gender, age or nationality.

Inequality and networks

This disadvantage affects certain categories of people in particular. Individuals with advantageous characteristics on the labour market (i.e. male, Swiss nationality, university education, etc.) are equally likely to develop a social network with more resources in terms of labour market integration. Conversely, those with less advantageous characteristics have networks that, for the unemployed, present fewer resources for a successful job search. Consequently, the concept of “utilizing one’s network” favours those people who already possess an advantage due to the “desirable” characteristics they exhibit on the labour market. Networks therefore play a role in amplifying social inequalities.

In addition, our study shows that nearly half the people who were unemployed obtained the initial information about their previous employment through a network. This clearly highlights the crucial importance of the network as one of the most important tools for labour market integration, thereby emphasizing its unequal impact upon those who benefit from a resourceful network and those who do not.

Individuals who either did not complete or progress beyond compulsory schooling systematically develop less resourceful networks. Moreover, they are less likely both to use online networks and to turn to their contacts even if they need them. This lack of knowledge about job hunting and the role of networks further increase inequality. For instance, according to our research, people with the least education are systematically less likely to have relationships with people who are in managerial roles – which are known to be particularly useful in successful job hunting.

Our research also suggests that the networks of the least-educated unemployed population rely more heavily upon relationships with family members. However, this presents only a slight advantage, since our data also shows that this type of relationship is of little use for labour market integration. As a result, networks containing primarily family links are less resourceful than those based primarily on friendships.

Diversifying Networks

Networks follow the logic of “homophilia,” or the “love of similarity”. The more two individuals are alike, the more probable it is that they will develop a relationship. This means that individuals with valued profiles are more likely to meet other individuals with valued profiles. Networks of individuals with advantageous characteristics for labour market integration therefore include few disadvantaged people. These individuals tend to group themselves with equally disadvantaged people and thus form networks that present fewer opportunities in terms of labour market integration.

It is possible to act upon these conditions. As our research suggests, by favouring a greater social mix (in terms of nationality, gender, generation, etc.) and by creating opportunities to foster social connections (such as neighbourhood festivals, meeting centres, etc.), there are ways to link individuals from different social backgrounds and generate more varied networks. This greater variety should provide disadvantaged people with an opportunity to develop relationships that potentially present greater resources and which may compensate for, at least partially, their disadvantage.

Last but not least, the series of interviews conducted during our research also clearly shows that many people suffer from the shame associated with unemployment. Such feelings increase isolation and weaken the network and its pivotal role in finding employment. A source of emotional support could have an impact upon the ability of unemployed people to communicate with their networks and thus increase their chance of finding employment. Other means may also be envisioned, notably the implementation of measures that target those populations particularly affected by a lack of relationships conducive to employment. For disadvantaged people, the focus on self-confidence may offer a route. As another LIVES study suggests, bonding identities foster self-confidence which in turn may be developed through group activities such as, for example, team sports.

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Dr Nicolas Turtschi, Scientific Officer at the Haute Ecole de Santé Vaud. The content of this policy brief is based on his doctoral thesis and reflects his personal views. Nicolas Turtschi defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Lausanne as part of the NCCR LIVES doctoral programme.