Careers – with a little help from our friends

October 25, 2013 - 06:19

A solid education and an extensive network of contacts are no guarantees for landing a good job.

Easier to land a job when parents are well established in the job market. (Photo: iStockphoto)

It’s not uncommon to find work through an acquaintance – for instance by being tipped off about a vacancy, having access to and contacts with potential employers, or outright recommendations from friends. But how important is it to know the right people and comprehend how the system works?

Caroline Tovatt recently got her PhD at Linköping University with a dissertation that investigated the informal processes involved in job recruitments. She sought factors that make education, experience and contacts pan out in the form of a job.

She interviewed diverse groups of employees – young people who work in the fast-food industry, highly educated persons who were overqualified for their unskilled jobs in health care or who drove taxis. But she also talked with university graduates who had found qualified jobs as journalists and media professionals.

Tovatt discovered that what counted most was social capital – the people we know and get a boost from.

Various contacts in different stages of life

“The timing regarding when a contact functions as a resource in a job situation is contingent on stages of life,” says Tovatt.

“At a young age, family background plays a big role. If you live in an upscale part of town, attend the right schools and have parents working in high-status professions, it’s going to be easier for you to enter the job market.”

Typical examples are when young people are recommended by their parents, relatives or friends who, through their social networks, get wind of a job opportunity. That gives them a foot inside the door.

A deficit in social capital equates to problems

Those who lack such stable social networks – who for instance have less resourceful parents – have to work harder to enter the labour market.

“As a large share of job vacancies in Sweden get filled through social networks, those whose circles consist largely of the unemployed, chronically ill or persons who have been prematurely retired tend to have a deficit of access to social capital,” says Tovatt.

“The young people I interviewed who had parents, relatives or friends’ parents who were established in the job market found it much easier to get jobs than those who lacked these resources. The young people who had unemployed parents tended to approach friends in their own age group to find work informally.”

Caroline Tovatt of Linköping University. (Photo: Linköping Universitet)

Later in life the most important contacts are former college or school mates, friends and ex-colleagues. 

“Recommending someone amounts to giving them their first ‘recognition’. This involves maintain one’s ‘confidence capital’ with a boss. So a person who is asked to recommend someone will be selective and only tip off people they really trust,” adds Tovatt.

Valuable tips about unwritten rules

Substantial social capital is not only a matter getting a practical boost from friends and family, but also involves having valuable inside information about organisational culture and its unwritten rules.

“It’s partly a matter of concrete issues – being tipped off about job openings and having someone who will recommend you and confirm that you are apt, reliable and will fit in. But it’s also about what I would call informal knowledge – such as advice about how a workplace or type of job functions, and what demands and expectations apply,” explains Tovatt.

“Such informal knowledge would include advice about how to apply for a position – who to approach, what to emphasise in the application, whether it should be sent in the mail, as an e-mail or delivered in person, how to behave during an interview, etc.”

A degree is no guarantee

Relevant education is not a guarantee of work. One of the groups Caroline Tovatt interviewed was comprised of people who worked at a lower level than they were educated for. Many consisted of first-generation college graduates who had worked their way through school with menial jobs in health care, driving taxis and so on, with few opportunities to develop a relevant social network.

“Later they would encounter problems competing with fellow students who had been active in student organisations, built extensive networks, learned how the system worked and how to express themselves,” says Tovatt.

Lady luck favours the favoured

But if the right education and a wide network does not guarantee a good job, can’t finding employment be simply a matter of good fortune – being in the right place at the right time?

“I bring up the subject of luck several places in the doctoral dissertation. It often seems like luck when you land a job, but a deeper analysis reveals luck to be something more predictable,” asserts Tovatt, and refers to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He claimed that luck is linked to social and geographical backgrounds.

“In my material those who came from resourceful families had more luck than others. Those with less favoured backgrounds were more prone to encounter bad luck. The economic recession, divorces, chronic illnesses in the family were factors leading to employment problems,” says Caroline Tovatt.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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