Want a Job Lead? It Helps If You Work With White People

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | January 21, 2016

Image via flickr/Alan Cleaver.

Image via flickr/Alan Cleaver.

Everyone knows that when you’re on the hunt for a job, you’re going to have an easier time if you can rely on your professional network to give you a heads up about a position instead of job websites.

But it turns out, that system has a major problem: the racial composition of your job market is likely to affect the likelihood you’ll hear about that job lead. Here’s the really interesting part: the impact exists regardless of your own race.

The findings were made by researchers at Rice University and North Carolina State University in a new study published this month in the journal Social Currents.

The impact is sizable. In a labor force that’s 20 percent white, there’s a 25 percent chance that a worker said he received an unsolicited job lead over the last year. But in a labor force that’s 80 percent white, the odds increase to 60 percent. Highly concentrated black and Latino job markets offer few opportunities for their workers to hear informally about job openings.

In other words, your likelihood of getting a job lead has a lot to do with the race of people who do similar work. If the people working in your field in your city tend to be white — regardless of whether you’re white yourself — that tends to help your chances of hearing about a position.

The implications of those effects has a real impact on the labor market. “We know from sociological research that most jobs are acquired with the benefit of some informal connection,” says James Elliott, a Rice assistant sociology professor who co-authored the report.

He says the study casts light on a fundamental difference between the way economists and sociologist view the world. Economists would argue labor markets are regulated by supply and demand. But sociologists point out that all markets, including labor markets, are run by people and are therefore affected by their biases.

The trend revealed in the new study, the authors surmise, is likely due to a preference — either subconscious or conscious — for white workers.

The study is based on a survey of 642 workers, in the 23 largest U.S. cities, who work in 11 occupational groups. The researchers asked them about unsolicited job leads, then used census data to learn about the racial makeup of their labor market, which entails the occupational group within their city.

Here’s an example of how, exactly, the findings play out. About 80 percent of the people who work in the professional sector in Chicago are white, and about 60 percent of that city’s professional sector workers had received job leads in the last year. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the service sector is less than half white. Only about 40 percent of its workers received job leads.

But the trend isn’t just a function of the different statuses of different sectors.

 

The service sector in Boston, for example, offers greater access to job leads than the professional sector in New York. That may seem counterintuitive, but Boston’s service sector has a heavy concentration of white workers relative to New York’s professional sector.

The findings likely exist because of the tendency of individuals to associate with those who are similar to them. That’s what gives rise to so-called “old boy networks.”

Elliott said there’s not a clear explanation of the trend, but the researchers believe employers are encouraged to go seek out workers in occupations that tend to have lots of whites; meanwhile, they’re less likely to actively recruit in fields where there are fewer whites. For those fields dominated by minorities, the job hunt becomes a more formalized process, with listings placed on jobs boards and other similar venues, rather than circulated by word of mouth.

The researchers say it underscores the need for managers who are in a position to hire people to look beyond their own professional networks if they want to attract a diverse pool of candidates.

“It’s not simply discrimination,” Elliott says. “It’s about informal job networks and who we know.”

 

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