​The Cost of Cutting in Line: Students Can Now Buy Their Way to a Job...

Student Success

​The Cost of Cutting in Line: Students Can Now Buy Their Way to a Job Interview

By Sydney Johnson     Jun 28, 2017

​The Cost of Cutting in Line: Students Can Now Buy Their Way to a Job Interview

This article is part of the collection: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

How much would you pay to score a job interview? $10? $950? In desperate times, that's apparently the price range in the market for these services, which involve commodifying age-old job seeking practices: networking and mentoring.

“Nearly 70 percent of college graduates don’t have a job at graduation,” says Kushal Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of TalentWorks, a San Francisco- and Seattle-based startup that promises to land students a job interview for $10 per week. Among those who graduated in the class of 2016, for example, the Economic Policy Institute found that the underemployment rate—when workers take on jobs lower than their skill sets or training—was 12.6 percent, compared to 9.6 percent during the Great Recession in 2007.

There are tools like Entelo and GapJumpers that aim to streamline the hiring and recruiting pipeline. But these systems, according to Chakrabarti, do not always serve new graduates well. He says these data-driven methods sometimes overlook qualified applicants who do not know the system or for whom algorithms might hold biases against.

To help job seekers “cut through the information overload” as Chakrabarti calls it, TalentWorks offers different services including ResumeScore, which allows applicants to upload their resume for free to receive feedback from an automated machine algorithm.

Not for free, however, is the ApplicationAssistant feature, which performs automated job searches and sends an applicant’s resume directly to employers, and access to TalentAdvocates, the company’s team of hiring professionals who meet regularly with paying customers via video chat or other messaging platforms to coach them on interviewing and other hiring tips.

The company says it has yielded positive results for its users so far, claiming that 71 percent of graduates in May landed an interview after two weeks. It did not say, however, how many actually got the job.

Whatever the success rate is, the service raises an ethical question: should applicants (perhaps those who can’t afford $10 per week on career coaching) be concerned about other candidates paying to boost their odds?

It turns out TalentWorks isn’t the first company to promise young job seekers a spot in the interview chair. Paragon One, a New York City-based startup, charges students $950 per month—for a minimum of three months—for career coaching. It works mostly with more affluent students from China, and claims all of its students have walked away with a job or internship.

Matt Wilkerson, who co-founded the company in 2015, says he started Paragon One after a friend who started a test-prep company working mostly with students in Shanghai began sending his clients to Wilkerson for job seeking advice. (Wilkerson also started an alumni mentoring organization while studying at MIT.)

He explains the students coming to him felt “lost,” and needed help with skills like resume writing and cover letters. “It was obvious that colleges weren’t getting better at helping students learn this,” he says.

Wilkerson’s solution was not to improve the college counseling experience, but instead to help connect students with professionals in the fields they are interested in, match them with appropriate internship opportunities, and offer online coaching to help get to a final offer. “This is something we think colleges are missing,” he says.

Niki Dickerson von Lockette, an associate professor of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University, sees both companies as trying to “formalize” networking and career connections for those who don’t have that access. “My department has been studying this, and anywhere from 65 to 95 percent of all jobs are obtained from informal needs or ‘who you know,’” says Dickerson von Lockette. “People are investing to increase their odds of getting a job.”

While their end-goal may be similar, however, Cat Goddard, a senior recruiter at recruiting company HireEducation, says the price points and accessibility between the two models make them quite different.

“My gut reaction when I heard about [TalentWorks] was ‘where were they when I went to college?’” says Goddard. “But $950 per month is really where people are paying to cut in line, paying to get interviews.”

Goddard believes $10 per week is more widely affordable, and could help someone “who isn’t well-networked.” She still has reservations, though. “Who are they landing an interview with?” she asks. “Will it be a job that you want and have a degree in, or is it just a random job that you aren’t all that interested in but fulfills their promise?”

The coaching element for both companies is what stands out to Goddard the most, rather the internship or interview promise. “A big part of our job as recruiters is to make sure candidates are prepared to answer questions. That’s the piece that speaks the loudest to me as a recruiter.”

Jim Doyle, head of research at HireEducation, echoes Goddard and adds that there are always other ways one could build networks, from online communities to in-person meet-up events to old-fashioned emailing. “If I were a hiring manager, being able to show that you are resourceful would be more impressive than showing you can pay to put your foot in the door,” he says.

But Dickerson von Lockette isn’t convinced either model will completely gravitate towards only affluent job seekers. “I don’t think that there is a lot to suggest it’s the well-to-do that will take advantage of this. It’s probably to get the masses,” she says. “These companies are pulling at two different ends of the market, and international students may not have as many connections in the U.S. markets.”

She also sees the trend as part of a larger puzzle around how “desperate” people are to get a financial footing after graduating. “My students’ desperation [to get hired] has really changed over the years, and I see this fitting in with that rather than privilege,” she says. “To me, it’s just people who need connections. If we’re thinking in terms of competitive advantage, well that sort of inequality goes back a long way.”

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