By Edward DeJesus
The nation’s workforce development and social service systems are ill equipped to address the unemployment crisis in the United States. Their efforts consistently fall flat because too much attention has been placed on short sighted workforce development strategies and practices. By focusing attention and funding on programs that simply provide skills training and work readiness preparation; they fail to address a critical component that millions of jobseekers need just as much, if not more. Research indicates that up to 85% of available jobs are not listed in the newspapers or on-line. These employment opportunities exist in what economist call “the hidden labor market.” For in the hidden labor market, success is achieved by not only about what you know, or who you know; it’s more about who knows you and likes you.
This unspoken reality holds true in the realm of education. The parent who is waiting for the overworked high school counselor to provide their child with information will be waiting a long time. With caseload of up to 500 to 1, high school careers counselors don’t have the time, not to mention the training or access to information, to help student uncover the myriad of educational scholarships and training opportunities available. Educational opportunity is also based on being in the know, and surrounded by people who know, too.
If the unemployment problem is to be effectively addressed, jobseekers must receive assistance in the area of establishing and cultivating opportunity networks, and then drawing from the resources that these networks provide. Without sustained access to these “opportunity networks”, a major part of the workforce development equation is missing.
An informal survey of program directors for youth summer jobs across the country revealed a glaring problem when it comes to providing youth the proper tools to build opportunity networks and the skills to sustain them. When asked how many students sent thank you letters to their summer work supervisors or were even prompted to do so, an overwhelming majority answered “none.”
This example is indicative of a workforce system still deeply entrenched in old school workforce development strategies that honestly, have never met any high degree of success. By staunchly sticking with old school methodologies simply because they exist is a testament to the lack of resolve and commitment among our nation’s policymakers and funding communities to change the nature of opportunity for low-income Americans.
Taking this disservice to jobseekers as a personal challenge, I developed a new program strategy: “Opportuneurship.” Opportuneurship is a system wide set of principles and practices that gives jobseekers the tools, skills and opportunities to access the hidden employment and educational networks. Opportuneurship is not entrepreneurship. While a very small percentage of job seekers become entrepreneurs, they all must become opportuneurs - their future labor market success depends on it.
By equipping jobseekers with the tools that open the gateway to the 85% of jobs that are never advertised in the newspapers, their success percentage increases by significant levels.
The fact that the majority of unemployed are from low income communities only means they are from areas where the majority of people are unemployed and or underemployed. In such an environment, how is one to ascertain good labor market information, especially when everyone else is in the same boat? Though we’ve all heard of the “good ol’ boy” network, mainstream society refuses to openly acknowledge its existence, often promoting the façade of equal opportunity employment in public, while opening back room doors for their chosen candidates. This hidden labor market snatches employment opportunities away from low income job seekers that most times they were never even made aware of in the first place. The existence of this exclusionary network forces these poor job seekers to fend for themselves in an already diminished job pool.
What this workforce system needs is an infusion of resources that will allow local workforce boards and community based programs to build strong connections between jobseekers and the opportunities that so elusively remain hidden in the backroom good ol’ boy networks and associations. It requires a system with the willingness to invest in not only preparing people for jobs, but one that will give them access to the highway of information that allows them to drive their own futures, taking any off-ramp they choose.
In the current state of the job market only a select few are aware of these necessary strategies and are taking advantage of them. This gross oversight is one of the major reasons that the employment outlook seems so bleak to many jobseekers. A review of the national work readiness credential showed that there have been no measurements taken to determine the degree to which networking and helping participants sustain that network is essential to labor market success. The fact that the concept of Opportuneurship is an overlooked and underfunded strategy while major corporations utilize networking on a daily basis, places a spotlight on this broken system that can no longer be ignored. I challenge the leaders of the nation’s workforce system and the policymakers that created it, to look beyond traditional approaches and immediately incorporate Opportuneurship as an essential program component. We must demand the incorporation of Opportuneurship programs and strategies if our youth and dislocated jobseekers are to have a fighting chance.
It is pointless to profess concern and perpetrate vigorous strides towards resolving unemployment when the critical vehicles necessary to propel jobseekers onto the path of success is being omitted from the programs funded to help them. Why would a jobseeker take their time and energy to complete a program where the end result will not put them in any better of a position than when they started? What we don’t do for people tells them more about us than what we do for them. Subjecting millions of low-income job seekers to antiquated methods is doing nothing but showing how much you don’t care.
Edward DeJesus is a national expert of workforce and youth development. Reprint of article allowed as long as author is properly referenced. For more information on Opportuneurship or to get involved with the Opportuneurship Movement, please visit www.edwarddejesus.com or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org