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Using the Internet may harm, not help, people find a job


Contrary to popular belief, using the Internet may not improve a person’s chances of finding a job.

That surprising finding will be presented Tuesday (Aug. 18) during a session on economic sociology at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta by Christine Fountain, a University of Washington doctoral student.

"The punch line is everyone thinks the Internet is a great new way to help people find a job. But it really is not," said Fountain, who used a sample of monthly U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data of 50,000 American households to track two groups of unemployed workers. Supplemental surveys by the bureau collected information on computer ownership and usage, access to and usage of the Internet and the methods people used to find jobs.

The differences between people who used the Internet as part of their job search strategy and those who didn’t were small, but statistically significant among a sample of more than 650 people who were unemployed and looking for work, according to Fountain. In the first group who reported being unemployed in August 1998, those who utilized the Internet were 3 percent more likely to have found a job within three months than those who did not use it.

However, among the second group who reported being out of work in December 2000, those individuals who used the Internet were 4 percent less likely to have found a job in three months than non-users.

Fountain said the prime reasons for this were the quality of job information available on the Internet, the surge of people using the Internet as a job search tool and the flood of resumes that has made it more difficult and time-consuming for employers to sort through job applicants.

"There is a distinction between having a lot of information from the Internet and the quality of that information," she said. "There is a lot of information on the Internet that is very useful, but not necessarily about jobs. Sites such as don’t tell you which jobs you are suited for and those where you have a real chance of being hired."

Fountain found that the Internet became less valuable in finding a job as more Americans began using it to search for work. Just 13 percent used the Internet as part of their job search in August 1998, but that number virtually doubled to 25 percent in December 2000. Whites and well-educated individuals were the primary users of the Internet in the earlier group of job searchers. But that changed by late 2000.

"As Internet use increased, people from all walks of life began using it in job searches," she said. "It has become a standard part of how people look for a job, even as it appears to have lost the advantage it may have once offered."

Early use of the Internet may have helped applicants for certain types of jobs, Fountain said, because it could have signaled employers that an applicant was a savvy, skilled worker. However, as Internet usage jumped, that advantage disappeared, creating a problem for employers – too many applicants.

"While the Internet makes it very easy to find job postings, employers are becoming overwhelmed by a glut of resumes from applicants. They have to balance the ease of applications against the cost of screening all the applicants. And as the number of applications increase, the more employers may need to rely on recommendations from people who know applicants," she said.

Although the Census Bureau does not collect data on this, Fountain speculated that people increasingly may be using the Internet to get more valuable employment information from acquaintances.

"Social contacts are really important in finding jobs. People are joining online communities, and acquaintances, such as professional contacts or people they went to school with, can be sources of good information on what is going on in the job market. And as employers continue to get huge stacks of job applicants, personal recommendations become more important as a way to distinguish between potential employees," she said.

According to Fountain, anecdotal information suggests that many of the jobs found through the Internet were either entry level or temporary positions. Overall, 52 percent of people in the study who were looking for jobs in August 1998 found employment within three months. In December 2000, 61 percent found jobs. At both times, the unemployment rate was under 4 percent, considerably lower than the current rate.

"People have the idea that the Internet is changing everything," she said. "To a certain extent it has, but when it comes to finding a job it still matters who you know. Just because you know about more jobs does not necessarily mean that you will get any of those jobs."

For more information, contact Fountain at or leave a message at 206-543-5882.
She will be in Atlanta Aug. 17-19 and can reached by cell phone at 206-355-6690.

Joel Schwarz | EurekAlert!
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