It’s pretty much accepted that most good jobs aren’t found through job boards, newspaper ads or the Internet - approximately 40–80 percent of jobs are discovered in a less obvious place - the “hidden job market.” You can’t apply for jobs that you don’t know exist. You can’t dream of a career that you can’t even see. The key to opening the door to the hidden job market, especially for marginalized youth and young adults, lies in helping them increase the quality and quantity of their social capital.
Social Capital refers to the value of relationships between people. Having lots of it can be a determining factor in not only getting a job but also in keeping one. High degrees of social capital can mean greater promotional opportunities, increased job satisfaction, and better pay. It helps to pry open the doors to tightly held labor market information and acts as that proverbial slap on the back from the good ole boy network. Moreover, social capital is the key to informal career development support - an essential ingredient for long term labor market success.
Beyond these discernible benefits, social capital provides pay-offs that may be less obvious. A high degree of social capital provides youth with a lot more than job leads, it serves as legitimization for participation and completion of workforce development programs and services. It’s so much easier to get a credential when you know someone on the other side of the workforce who wants to help you put that credential to work. However muted, this silent workforce reality makes the timely study of social capital a moral imperative for both the educational and workforce development systems.
More than twenty years ago, as part of a research project for the Sar Levitan Center Youth Policy Network at Johns Hopkins University, I interviewed formerly disconnected youth about the factors that led to their job hunt success. The number one answer - connections to supportive, gainfully employed adults. Subsequently, I started to echo this message to audiences across the United States through the MAKiN’ iT books’ second Universal Survival Law “it’s not only what you know or who you know; it’s who knows and likes you that gets you the job.”
The truth is that every time we promote credentialing and education as the keys to workforce success without helping youth develop the necessary social capital to enhance their achievements, we are selling youth short and further promoting the social inequality that many of us are fighting against. Social capital is the automatic parachute that inflates every time an affluent young person falls. It is their workforce development program that delivers placement, earnings and retention gains that we can only dream about.
Fifteen years ago, I started studying the impact of social capital on low-income youth. The overwhelming amount of data that pointed away from credentials and education and towards social capital as the catalyst for success was undeniable. It occurred to me that there is no such thing as disconnected youth, there are only disconnected adults. The question I came to ponder (and still do to this day) is how do we get more people in the workforce to share their social capital with youth, especially those who live in “low-income” communities in which the very definition implies that the majority of people in these communities are either unemployed or underemployed.
The key to unlocking the door to the hidden labor market does not rest only on developing young people’s interpersonal abilities, credentials and education; it rests on helping adults build their compassion for youth.
We much connect youth with the vast civic, community and economic agents that are essential to their lives and futures. We must teach others to tap into their social capital privilege and spend it on the 4.6 million disconnected youth that could probably use some social capital in their lives.
Workforce development professionals have a lot to gain by developing a better understanding of social capital and the strategies that can help build it. For too long, workforce development policies have shied away from the complexity of this issue. If doctors want to treat cancer, biologists must first understand the mechanics of the cell and develop an understanding of the forces that affect it. Similarly, if workforce development professionals want to better serve disconnected youth and adults, understanding the science of connections must and should be the focus.