Study finds that job search planning produces better results for job seekers

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It is well-known that South Africa has a high rate of unemployment, especially amongst the youth. Many people are in the job seekers market, but how many of them are searching for jobs effectively? This is a question that SALDRU research associate, Patrizio Piraino and colleagues (Martin Abel, Rulof Burger, and Eliana Carranza) put to the test in a study that examined how young people search for work. The study was funded by a project within The Presidency in South Africa, the Programme to Support Pro-poor Policy Development (PSPPD).

Specifically, this study measured “intention behaviour gap”. This is defined as, “The imperfect relationship between the intentions to perform a particular behaviour and the actual enactment of the behaviour”. The idea behind it is that people often say that they would like to do something, but then do not follow up on their intentions. Typical examples are following a healthy diet, studying, exercising, vaccinating and voting.

There is a significant amount of research, mostly in the public health domain, about how to facilitate “follow through” on intentions. There is evidence in the literature that one can create implementation intentions or action plans, and that these plans encourage people to follow up on their intentions. Evidence is available on vaccinations, dental check-ups, and so on.

One attractive feature of these interventions is that they are very low cost, as they simply help people to make a plan. The second main advantage is that they don’t invade people’s personal freedom, as they facilitate an individual’s pre-existing intention.

The main contribution of the study is to take these insights from other literatures and apply them to the domain of job search. The main intervention is an action plan.

The study examined the behaviour of people who go to labour centres, which Piraino argues is a very important policy relevant target group. The labour centres were largely in urban areas in Greater Johannesburg, such as Soweto and Sandton (which serves Alexandra Township) with 68% of the participants based in Soweto. This study was done in collaboration with the Department of Labour and their labour centres, using their councillors. The study took place at the end of 2015.

As part of the study, people go to a Labour Centre and are then randomly allocated to different groups. There are three main groups. One group gets the standard counselling that labour centres give. Another group gets the counselling plus the action plan. A third group gets neither. They simply come to the labour centre and update their information.

The action plan template contains days of the week, time of day, the activities that people want to perform, and space for other details. Participants also record their goals, including weekly goals, on their action plans.

The researchers first observed the gap between what people said they wanted to do and what they actually did in a week. This is a measure of the intention-behaviour gap.

In this sample of job seekers, there was no gap in the amount of time that people spent searching, while there was a gap in the number of applications that they submitted. For example, participants may say that they wanted to submit eight job applications in a week, but only sent three applications.

The three groups were compared in a follow up survey that was done three months later. The researchers found that people who search for work with the aid of an action plan do not search for more hours compared to people who were not exposed to the plan. However, they do submit more applications. On average, people with action plans were submitting 15% more applications than people who did not have one. This translates into more job offers. Ultimately, people in the action plan group were 5% more likely to be employed three months later.

Why is this case? The researchers find that each application in the action plan group is more effective. This is as a result of people diversifying their search. For example, a person could be spending 10 hours a week searching mostly by calling family and friends or browsing online. However, people in the action plan group changed the way that they searched and became more formal in their search. These people were more likely to go to an employment agency, drop CV’s off at places and answer formal advertisements. The search moved from a more passive search to a more “costly” search that resulted in more applications.

Thus, the study found that planning those tasks makes people more efficient in their searches. They submit more applications and each of those applications is also more likely to result in a job offer.

Piraino says that this is an important result because it speaks to one specific type of unemployment. This is called frictional unemployment. There are many reasons why unemployment is high in South Africa, and the existence of labour market frictions is one of them. If people are searching either too little or inefficiently, then they are losing opportunities for themselves. This is not only bad for job seekers, but also for the labour market as a whole, as more and better job searches can result in higher-quality matches between job seekers and employers. If there is enough improvement on this margin, this can generate some job creation.