A powerful tool for curbing the growing worldwide problem of youth unemployment could be the ubiquitous mobile phone found in most teens’ pockets, finds new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Researchers used a mobile app to connect youth aged 15 to 24 looking for jobs to motivate each other to keep up the search until they landed a job. The success was staggering.
Compared to traditional career counseling alone, turning to a peer group on a social network improved the chances that youths took an apprentice position, pursued higher secondary school or participated in a yearlong volunteer program by a remarkable 98%, find the researchers.
Ritu Agarwal, an information systems professor and interim dean of Maryland Smith, worked with three researchers in Germany: Julia Klier and Lea Thiel at the University of Regensburg, and Mathias Klier, at the University of Ulm. They point to the huge problem of more than 70 million unemployed young people worldwide. In some countries, like Spain and Greece, nearly half of youth are out of work. Young people who aren’t gaining work experience or skills have fewer job prospects and often lower salaries later, which is bad for economies on the whole. And frustrated unemployed youth can stir political unrest, instability and radicalization, as we’ve seen in some parts of the world, say the researchers.
Usually governments and organizations try to help young people find jobs with face-to-face career counseling sessions. But Agarwal and her co-researchers thought the process would benefit from a 21st-century update, networking with young job-seekers online where they already convene on social media and apps. They developed a peer career counseling intervention on the WhatsApp platform that was then tested as a field experiment for the German Federal Employment Agency. They compared the intervention with traditional face-to-face career counseling sessions. The young people who connected through the mobile peer group had significantly increased chances of finding employment and much better attitudes toward career choice, career maturity and career search intensity than those who just participated in the traditional counseling sessions.
Why do mobile peer support groups work so well? For one, they are accessible, any time, any place from a mobile device or computer, right when users need the advice or extra encouragement most, say the researchers. Plus, they eliminate the limitations of geography, providing the opportunity for people from anywhere to connect with peers they can identify with. There is also the anonymity and freedom of posting online or reading others’ messages without fear of embarrassment or judgment, write the researchers.
The researchers set up small groups they called “Career Communities” in the mobile app of 10-15 members with similar ages and career goals. Participants created anonymous user names and could post messages, links, photos, videos, or attach documents and use emoticons to communicate on group conversation threads.
The researchers were surprised to see the mobile peer group support didn’t increase the youths’ level of information and knowledge about the career search. Instead, the real benefit is in helping users support each other and understand, interpret and use information to find a job.
The online communities offer immediate support, information and encouragement when a member needs it most.
Modernizing traditional career counseling approaches with new online emotional support communities can have a big impact without having to enact major policy changes or make large financial investments, say the researchers. Youth unemployment isn’t a challenge the world will see resolved any time soon, they write, so having more tools to combat it is critical.
“Considering the European refugee crisis and the inevitable challenge of integrating thousands of new citizens into society and the labor market, we believe that new approaches to career counseling, such as our mobile peer-group-based method, are worthy of further investigation,” they write. “That’s one way to leverage the power of information and communication technologies for social good.”
Read more: Power of Mobile Peer Groups: A Design-Oriented Approach to Address Youth Unemployment is featured in the Journal of Management Information Systems.
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