Providing Advice to Job Seekers at Low Cost: An Experimental Study on Online Advice

Job search assistance is a key component of employment supports offered to job seekers. However, little is known about how one might advise job seekers in the process and what advice should be delivered. This research study is focused on addressing the question of how effective one type of job search assistance — online job search — may be. It makes two important contributions to knowledge in this area:

  1. It proposes an innovative low-cost way of providing tailored, online advice to job seekers. It is the first to re-design (and test) the job search process based on the expanding area of online search. The main benefit of the internet is its ability to disseminate information at low cost, thus making wider occupational exploration easier and cheaper. Past studies have examined job search delivery of untargeted job advice or relatively high-cost provision of targeted advice by in-person counsellors, often along with the threat of benefits sanctions.
  2. It evaluates how web-based job search tools actually affect job search, i.e., the “inputs” and “intermediate outputs”. Most past studies have focused merely on final outputs such as “job found”. The research objective of this study sought to determine if and how the suggestions that jobseekers received altered their job search and application behaviour and the number of job interviews and offers received.

The researchers first designed a web-based search tool that would suggest relevant occupations to jobseekers, based on their profile and preferred occupation as well as representative labour market data. Then, to measure the effectiveness of the tool, the researchers recruited 300 job seekers in Edinburgh, Scotland from local Job Centres into an experimental job search facility and asked them to search for jobs once a week for 12 weeks, randomly assigning them to one of two groups. Half were assigned to the “control” group and relied on their own search criteria to look for jobs; the other half were assigned to the “treatment” group and used the new search tool which provided them with readily available labour market data and displayed relevant alternative occupations and associated jobs.

This evaluation had two advantages over traditional studies. First, it enabled the researchers to obtain a complete picture of job seekers’ job search process: the criteria used to search for jobs and the vacancies that were considered; the jobs they applied for and whether or they got job interviews and offers; and other search activities they undertook outside the platform to determine if using a web-based tool induced shifts away from other channels (“displacement”). Second, as a randomized field trial, whereby the behaviour and outcomes of participants in the intervention (the treatment group) were compared to that of those participating in “typical” online job search (the control group), the study enabled the researchers to provide an empirical estimate of the “true” impact, by controlling for the influence of non-program factors on differences in outcomes and behaviours between treatment and control groups.

The study’s results indicate, first, that online tailored job advice significantly increases the overall occupational breadth of job search. Specifically, the tool helped narrow job searchers (in the treatment group) consider a wider set of options (than those in the control group). This effect was driven by participants with above-median unemployment duration. This may be due to the fact that those who lose their jobs will initially concentrate their search efforts on occupations where they have the most hope finding a job, but over time if this does not lead to success, their confidence in these occupations declines and they become more open to new ideas.

Second, the results suggest the tool increases the number of job interviews by 44%. This result was driven predominantly by jobseekers who initially searched narrowly: they applied closer to home and experienced a 75% increase in job interviews (compared to similarly narrow searchers in the control group). Among these, the effects were driven by mostly those with above-median unemployment duration (more than 80 days), for whom the effects on interviews were significantly larger and were associated with a significant rise in the number of job applications to fill vacancies.

Third, the intervention did not induce crowding out of other job search channels. To the contrary, participants in the treatment group (i.e., participating in the intervention in question) obtained job interviews from a larger number of sources (than those in the control group), thus indicating that this tool positively affected search through other channels.

Overall, these findings suggest that targeted web-based advice might be a helpful complement to job search tools offered to job seekers. This is particularly interesting because interventions such as the one the evaluated have essentially zero marginal costs, and could be rolled out on large scale without much burden on the unemployment assistance system.

This research paper would be of great interest to practitioners and policy makers interested in gaining a better understanding of the role that web-based job search tools can play in supporting unemployed job seekers find suitable jobs.