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An Equity-Based Job Search Site with Heart Creates a Quiet Revolution in Public Problem Solving

Greg, an IT professional with a background in accounting, business intelligence and data analytics, left his job because he wanted to quit traveling and work closer to home. Four years later, he was still looking for work when he stumbled upon the New Jersey Career Network online.

He had a strong resume and he’d already identified his career goals but his periodic internet searches were not yielding positive results. “I would spend time looking everywhere,” he said in an interview, “but not really having any documentation of what I did, who I spoke to, how many resumes I sent out.”

The New Jersey Career Network was in early development, so he began to use it and simultaneously provide feedback to the designers. “It helped give me structure and discipline toward my job search, and it offered encouragement, because sometimes you really get down,” he said. About a month after he began using the platform, Greg, 65, snagged an offer. He started his new job in mid-January.

And the broad-based team that designed and supported the platform celebrated along with him.

A Dynamic Partnership

The New Jersey Career Network is designed to take the best of in-person job search support and deliver it online and on-demand, providing manageable, sequential and tailored tasks to steer job seekers undertaking the arduous process of searching and applying for meaningful work.

“The model we’ve pursued is a quiet revolution in public problem solving,” says Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, Executive Director of New America’s Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) which, with the support of The Rockefeller Foundation, is developing the next generation of technology platforms to transform the way governments deliver value for citizens.

A great solution for New Jersey is, by itself, a good story,” Tillemann says. “But this is more than that. This solution can be used to serve communities all over the world.

Tillemann was attending a convening at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in northern Italy in the spring of 2018 when thinking began to crystalize around the idea of forging a broad-based alliance to support the creation of exceptional, replicable digital solutions to help government help its citizens.

Separately that summer in Trenton and New Brunswick, New Jersey, the New Jersey Office of Innovation, the New Jersey Department of Labor, Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development quietly began work on the first version of the New Jersey Career Network. Early funding came from the Lumina Foundation and the New Jersey Department of Labor.

By the following summer, a dynamic collaboration emerged. With a prototype in place, The Rockefeller Foundation and Tillemann’s New America team joined forces with the New Jersey-based team to accelerate the work, bringing on board the Brooklyn-based tech firm Two Bulls. Their goals were the same with a slight difference in focus: the Office of Innovation wanted to build a great open-source and replicable solution for its residents, and the New America/Rockefeller team wanted to be able to share that solution globally.

“This is a great example of what public-private partnerships should look like: government bringing in top expertise from academia, think tanks, and technology to offer a powerful new solution,” says Kevin O’Neil, Director of Data and Technology at The Rockefeller Foundation.

“The partnership is very unique,” says Dr. Beth Simone Noveck, New Jersey’s first Chief Innovation Officer and a member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s cabinet who was named in one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government in 2018 by Apolitical.

  • We didn’t outsource this to someone else, instead, we effected a very special collaboration to have the resources to create the career network and at the same time broaden our own thinking about how to scale this beyond New Jersey.
    Dr. Beth Simone Noveck
    Chief Innovation Officer, State of New Jersey

The Team’s Blueprint for Creating Government-to-Citizen Platforms

  1. They prioritized a collaborative and inclusive approach, creating unusual and dynamic partnerships that braided technical, topical and tactical mastery to solve a complex civic challenge.
  2. Leveraging existing research, they identified a very clear community need, and they embedded academic and behavioral learning into the platform’s design.
  3. They put the user experience at the forefront of the solution, seeking customer input from very early in the process.
  4. They created open-source solutions so that the platform could be scaled and individualized, community-by-community.
  5. They adopted the philosophy that they are never fully finished. They have stayed nimble and flexible, ready to pivot as needed so that the program can better serve current and evolving needs.

What makes this platform so important right now?

A sense of urgency is driving the dual goals of creating a topnotch system for New Jersey that could be replicated nationally. The current rate of U.S. unemployment, significantly worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, is above 10 percent. People of color, already burdened by a racial wealth gap, are disproportionately affected, with the unemployment rate for Blacks at about 15 percent. Whites are at about 9 percent, Latinx are 13 percent and Asians are 12 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

NJ Jobs partners look at white board of information

Millions of these out-of-work Americans are facing the stresses of long-term unemployment, which economists define as joblessness that lasts longer than six months, and which has numerous well-documented damaging effects on individuals, families and communities.

At the same time, the job market as a whole is experiencing an unprecedented evolution, with some industries shrinking significantly or even disappearing as events and travel contracts and work-at-home becomes more prevalent. Up to 42 percent of the Covid-19-induced layoffs will result in permanent job loss, estimates the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute.

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Finding a job—in either a familiar or new sector—is a significant challenge. Many online solutions present copious information about everything from what to wear to interviews to the best websites for listings, and the New Jersey Career Network hopes to coordinate with some of them. Job seekers don’t lack access to information; rather, they often find the amount of information—and identifying a personalized path through it—crushing.

Job seekers are overwhelmed. They get discouraged because they have too much information and not the right information,

said Dr. Carl Van Horn, Founding Director of the Heldrich Center and a recognized expert in employment policy issues. “Plus, the ratio right now is an average of about ten job seekers for every available job so it’s an experience of frequent rejection, even for the most qualified.”

In-person support has proven successful in helping job seekers navigate this terrain. But it is not a scalable solution, and harder even on a small scale during a pandemic. At the same time, underfunded government services are stretched thin. There aren’t many tools created for public good that have been tested and validated by a collaborative team with this much expertise in policy, tech and innovation.

What makes this platform different?

The New Jersey Career Network site aims to help its users focus on overarching career goals and then break into bite-sized pieces the process needed to get there, and to accomplish this, the design team has prioritized user experience, actively sought feedback from jobseekers and embedded behavioral research within its features.

“The idea is to help you get in the mental place to get a job, and we are going to walk you through a few steps every day with a bit of psychology and love,” says Allison Price, a DIGI senior advisor.

Recommended steps include thinking deeply about goals, writing a 30-second networking pitch, and tracking job applications. Jobseekers can choose how many activities they’d like to complete each week as they head toward their goal and are guided by consistently written, plain-language instructions. The site includes estimates of how long each activity should take.

Recognizing that applying for jobs can be grueling and lonely, the team has created what they call “moments of delight” that pop up and offer inspirational and encouraging words as particular tasks are completed.

Motivated by a philosophy of “we don’t build for, we build with,” the Office of Innovation and the team has put equity goals at the forefront of the platform by fostering ongoing relationships with community-based organizations serving the most vulnerable populations. Their members played a pivotal role in generating valuable insights into, feedback about and awareness of the New Jersey Career Network.

Understanding that searching for a job is just one of many challenges the unemployed face, the platform also addresses related needs. “We also ask about wraparound services, like whether they need help with health care, food assistance, energy assistance, or transportation. Then they get an email with links to resources,” says Emilia Ndely, the project lead and a Fellow with New Jersey’s Office of Innovation.

The service is also free. “This is important. We don’t want someone already struggling with finances to go down the rabbit hole of endless paid services,” says Van Horn. “There is a lot of bad stuff that is sold during a crisis. Individuals get fleeced during times like this. We are committed to making these services available as quickly as possible.”

Designed to be flexible and responsive, the site will continue to evolve as human-centric needs are uncovered, and is intentionally built in such a way that those iterations are easily accommodated.

Why New Jersey?

Governor Murphy has consistently identified helping all New Jersey residents find secure and meaningful work as a key priority. In 2015, before becoming a gubernatorial candidate, Murphy and his wife Tammy Murphy funded the New Start Career Network at the Heldrich Center to offer digital and one-on-one coaching to long-term unemployed older workers. The lessons learned from serving nearly 6,000 New Jersey residents in that program were essential in the development of the New Jersey Career Network.

“Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, our administration’s key focus was building a stronger and fairer New Jersey,” Governor Murphy said. “In our new reality, this goal has become even more critical. The New Jersey Career Network is a core component of our effort to expand access to career coaching and ensure that all New Jersey residents are equipped with modern tools and services to assist them in finding the next step in their career pathway.”

Chronic unemployment, pre-Covid-19, was disproportionately high; the state has the second highest unemployment rate of any state in the nation, behind only Massachusetts. New Jersey is also the fourth most diverse state in the U.S. With a population of 8.9 million people, New Jersey is about 68 percent white, 13.5 percent Black and 9.4 percent Asian.

Additionally, the state has the technical and human-design capacity to creatively develop a humanistic and high-quality digital solution.

Tillemann’s biggest hope is that the New Jersey Career Network can become a model at a time of great need for the millions of people having to redefine their work lives and income sources. “We can benchmark a model of what good looks like,” he said, mentioning Estonia among other countries.

  • We can assemble pieces for a model of how to create value for citizens. And with this, we wanted to make a world-class 80 percent solution that makes it easy for any community to customize the other 20 percent.
    Dr. Tomicah Tillemann
    Executive Director of New America’s Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI)

New Jersey Career Network

The New Jersey Career Network is a free resource to help find meaningful work. Our interactive tool is designed to help you land the job you want.

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