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Results on personal networks presented to the Regional Employment Offices

Forty ORP advisors from the Canton of Vaud came to the University of Lausanne on November 14, 2013 to hear the first analysis of a study involving 4,648 unemployed persons, conducted by a team from NCCR LIVES. Researchers found the advisors’ input of great interest, which will enable them to formulate new hypotheses on the importance of social contacts in finding work.

"After two minutes of discussion, you have already given us several very interesting ideas to follow up," said Professor Giuliano Bonoli, when the first questions were asked during a presentation prepared by members of IP4 at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES for advisors from the Regional Employment Offices (ORP) of the Canton of Vaud. The purpose of the meeting was to share the initial results of a study launched at the beginning of 2012 involving 4,648 persons looking for work, in order to determine the usefulness of a person's social contacts in finding a job.

In a first stage, Nicolas Turtschi showed that even if personal contacts are by far the main source of information for finding work, as demonstrated by the earlier careers of the unemployed people surveyed in the study, these same people give top priority to the Internet, the press and unsolicited applications for finding a new job. People with few qualifications make the least use of their network, even though contacts have the most influence in their job areas, much more so than among white-collar workers, contrary to common beliefs.

The most effective contacts

Anna von Ow and Professor Daniel Oesch then explained this paradox: a more advanced level of education increases the chance of getting a job and reduces the probability of finding one through your connections. Thus, the use of a network partly offsets the disadvantages due to education and nationality. The most effective contacts are former colleagues who are in the labor market, working in the same industry and enjoying a more senior position in the hierarchy. Their network is therefore crucial for foreign unemployed workers with little education, who work in construction, agriculture or catering, where hiring processes are less formal.

By this point, many ORP advisors already had feedback: "Have you compared the length of unemployment between graduates of top schools and unskilled workers?"; "Perhaps European Union citizens are more motivated to find work to keep their residence permit!"; "Maybe employers prefer foreigners because they accept lower wages..."; "The questionnaires were mostly filled out during the winter months, when the number of unemployed construction workers is strongly over-represented." "We know that certain cultures have a strong sense of solidarity and that bosses will more easily hire someone with the same roots."

Assessment of an experiment

After this initial discussion, Professor Rafael Lalive moved on to talk about the team’s experiment with study participants. Of the 4,648 persons registered as unemployed between February and April 2012, one-half were specifically made aware of the importance of using their social network, which added fifteen minutes to the normal group information session on unemployment insurance.

Before delivering the results of the comparison, the researcher asked the ORP advisors if they thought this measure had had any impact on subsequently finding a job. The verdict was mixed: some advisors responded by saying that they discussed the issue of networks in their usual presentation anyway. Moreover, it is well known that people only retain 10 to 25% of the information presented in a session.

Actually, the experiment showed that the measure did not have a very noticeable effect on finding work. Only women, people with high employability and those benefitting from a tertiary education show any difference in results between those who received the awareness training and those who only attended the regular session. This equates to a positive impact on the more cooperative profiles, the measure being inadequate for those profiles less in tune with the labor market – exactly those people who already make little use of their network and for whom it is proven that contacts play the most important role.

Reactions of the ORP advisors

Again, the discussion that followed was rather intense. "Men already recognize the importance of networking, they have more contacts and more nerve in asking them," stated one ORP advisor, contradicting the researchers who thought instead that men would be more likely to hide their unemployed status so as not to tarnish their image as the family breadwinner.

Another ORP advisor raised another problem, that of seniors who have a hard time finding a job, and for whom relying on a personal network has the negative connotation of “pulling strings.” "Everything also depends on the region," said yet another. "If the job market is tight, personal contacts count for less!"

In conclusion, the researchers showed that for certain sectors of the population, simply providing information is likely not enough and that it would definitely be necessary to develop measures appropriate to the groups involved, taking into account the specific features of different segments of the job market.

Professor Bonoli announced that a second line of research would begin in 2015, this time focusing on employers. Until then, the evaluation of the initial data will continue. "When we present the data to our colleagues in Europe, we can see how much interest it raises," he said, warmly thanking the ORP advisors for their crucial cooperation in this study.