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The Promises and Perils of Technology for Marginalized Job Seekers

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By Tawanna Dillahunt, Alex Jiahong Lu, and Afton Branche-Wilson


In November 2019, the United States enjoyed its lowest unemployment rate in almost 50 years—3.5%—yet the unemployed were disproportionately people with disabilities, Black and Latino adults, and people without a college degree. These unequal patterns persist as the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on the economy continue to unfold. After reaching a high of 14.7% in April 2020, the national unemployment rate declined to 6.7% in November 2020, yet the rate for Black and Latino adults remained at 10.3% and 8.4%, respectively.

In the age of technological advances, many U.S. workers rely on digital tools to find work and earn income, including online job boards, digital hiring event flyers, and downloadable résumé templates. At first glance, this digital employment market appears to offer wider access to job opportunities for the underemployed or unemployed. However, since people of color and low-income individuals are disproportionately offline, they are not equally able to access these critical tools. In Detroit, for example, Black households are twice as likely as white households to go without an internet subscription at home. Here, too, the pandemic exacerbates inequality, since job seekers face restricted access to public spaces to work on résumés or browse job opportunities online. For an inclusive economic recovery to work, we must continue to close the digital divide. But we must also understand how job seekers who are able to get online contend with technologically based employment processes.

In this brief, we explore how technology impacts the job search process for marginalized workers, defined as the disproportionately unemployed and underemployed. We describe the results of several studies conducted in Detroit to understand these job seekers’ barriers to employment; their use of technology in the employment process; and their views on how technology could better support employment goals. Further, we outline a set of recommendations to move toward a more inclusive digital job search market.

Key Findings

  • Underemployed and unemployed job seekers have limited access to social networks that provide: immediate job search feedback (i.e. from résumés and interviews); mentorship and information about employment opportunities; assistance to help underserved job seekers articulate the skills they have acquired from past jobs; and transportation to interviews or job training sites.
  • The digital collaborative economy, in the current form, offers infeasible solutions to mitigate marginalized job seekers’ barriers to employment (e.g., reliable transportation, education, and social networks).
  • Reliable transportation access is a barrier to employment, yet transportation innovations such as real-time ridesharing do not reach many marginalized job seekers. While real-time ridesharing services (e.g., Uber and Lyft) offer more reliable access to transportation, these services do not offer flexible modes of payments or non-digital access points, and so they exclude potential riders without bank account or smartphones.
  • Lower-income job seekers require low- to nocost education and training to obtain the skills desired for available jobs and clear pathways to acquire these skills. Low- to no-cost education and technological interventions like Massive Open Online Courses connect learners all over the world hoping to gain new skills. However, researchers found little tangible evidence that MOOCs actually help learners secure employment, while few learners on MOOC platforms are economically disadvantaged.
  • Rather than expecting all digital employment tools to serve all populations equally, designers and employment advocates should innovate to create applications to meet low-income workers’ needs in the job search process. Job seekers would value the creation of tech tools to provide application feedback and clarify what skills are needed to secure desired employment and where to obtain those skills. All of these attributes are currently lacking from digital job search technologies.

Policy Recommendations

  • Invest in innovative new applications or enhance existing ones, based on prototypes such as DreamGigs and Review-Me, to help connect job seekers with actionable information on transferrable skills and/or résumé feedback.
  • Employment platforms—operated by both public workforce agencies and private companies —could build in designs to encourage users to think about long-term career goals, identify skills gaps, and highlight where to get relevant training to address those gaps. Employment platforms could also incorporate ways for users to see anonymized application materials from users who applied to jobs and were asked to interview, thus enabling job seekers to gain insight into their performance compared to others.
  • Employment platforms could enable users to link social media accounts to highlight contacts with specific skills or contacts who could be useful to their job search.
  • Invest further in community-based programs that connect marginalized job seekers to life coaches or mentors who can offer information about jobs, assistance with résumés, and interview skills if needed.
  • In Detroit and elsewhere, nonprofit practitioners and policymakers should consider enhancing current workforce programs by developing services specifically designed to help job seekers connect with each other and build social networks, in addition to their traditional orientation toward connecting job seekers with job opportunities, training, and social services.
  • Installing public kiosks in intermediate locations such as third-party organizations, barbershops, and community businesses through which people could call real-time ridesharing services would eliminate the need for smartphones while accommodating multiple forms of payment including cash, gift vouchers, and credit/debit cards.
  • Conduct further research on why gig work sends negative signals to employers, and through job coaches and job centers, share findings with job seekers.
  • To better support employment searches, MOOCs could further support social capital by connecting learners offline. In order to help job seekers identify relevant career paths, platforms could also encourage learners to share their job titles and career paths. Last, MOOC platforms could share data with users about trends in courses taken or certificates earned, thus signaling to a new user what skills may be useful in the employment market.46
  • Invest in low- to no-cost training programs for reskilling or upskilling that are not solely dependent on reliable internet access.

Download PDF of full policy brief