Strawman fallacies, Internet fetishes, and employability (of course)

Maybe the speed of the blogosphere makes people tell stories with underdeveloped angles. Or maybe, the “underdeveloped angle” provides a glimpse into the assumptions (correct or incorrect) that structure our thinking. It’s not misdirection, it’s revelatory.

An example is this Atlantic piece, which asks “Why Isn’t the Internet Helping the Unemployed?” The premise is that the Internet has given job searchers an unparalleled advantage over previously unemployed generations–they can search widely for jobs. However, the Internet is not much help because people are not mobile and cannot (or will not) move for work, for lots of reasons. (Including, significantly, that there aren’t LOTS of jobs anywhere.) There are a number of interesting points in this piece. It’s a strange thesis though: Internet helps employment by helping people find jobs in faraway places, but people can’t/won’t go to faraway places, therefore the Internet doesn’t help the unemployed.

My question is with the frame. Just because people don’t/won’t move for opportunities (where unemployment is only 8% instead of 12%) is this a problem with the Internet? Do we expect the Internet to help the unemployed?

We do expect computer skills and training to help the unemployed. Our research for the last five years has focussed on the connection between computer training and employability. There is ample evidence of the benefits of training: improved skills, social connections, self-esteem, reduced isolation while unemployed, improved resumes, improved job search (even in the local area). Plus, organizations that offer training typically offer a package of services (or partnerships with organizations that deliver complementary services) that promote employability. Organizations that provide Internet access as a stand alone, isolated service flop. (The distinction between employment and employability is important and deserves more attention in a future post.)

There are two other themes which this frame of “the Internet helping the unemployed” brings to light:

People networks are key. People help themselves, people help people. The “strength of weak ties” literature is compelling. People find jobs through their contacts. Employers prefer to hire people via trusted recommendations. Organizations that provide computer training often vouch for their trainees through job placement programs. They also function as a community hub where the unemployed leave the isolation of their homes and interact with others. This is reported to be energizing and uplifting. This is not “the Internet,” however the Internet plays an important role.

We began our employability investigations working with grantees of Microsoft Community Affairs from around the world. The organizations that we studied are committed to broad social missions, of which employment is one element. The way that Internet access, training, and technology generally fit into this mission is sophisticated and holistic. For a different answer to how does “the Internet” helps the unemployed, one might ask European immigrants what role the Internet (and the associated services of organizaitons that make that access effective and possible) plays in promoting employment, connecting them with friends and family back home, and new connections in their new homes. We did this. We came up with a different answer, which also casts the “mobility” issues in a different light.

The Atlantic piece is an excellent story about how the financial crisis limited mobility in the United States. However, the rap against the Internet is a little misplaced. Computer training and Internet access helps the unemployed in significant ways. Expecting “the Internet” to solve our unemployment problems diverts attention from the deeper structural issues related to job creation, availability, wages, and the competitiveness of the labor market generally.