Harnessing the Power of "Weak Links"

Vic Napier

December 2010

There are about 30,000 or so people in Tucson who hold college degrees but cannot find suitable work. These are generally the same people who are reflected in the U-6 unemployment numbers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Tucson about 12% of the people who are officially impoverished have a college degree; about 4% hold graduate degrees (Napier 2009).


The people face very different challenges from the archetypical jobseeker. Instead of not having minimum skills, for example, these people are often “overqualified”. In other words, they are well qualified for many jobs, but employers avoid them for a number of reasons – the perception that better paying employment opportunities abound or that highly skilled employees undermine the authority and expertise of the employer.


Because the jobs they aspire to are so different from that of others these people require job search strategies quite different from the typical unemployed job seeker. Typical online resume posting services do little for these people, for example. Instead they need to make personal contact with potential employers, establish a social connection, and only then use their resumes as documentation of technical skills and experience. These social connections are based on the work of Mark Granovetter (1973) that has sparked an entire new discipline of social network theory. One of the things we have learned is that the old advice about telling people you know that you want to find a job is worthless. Empirical evidence shows beyond a doubt that one’s social cohort is a poor source of new information. To get information on career and jobs one must access networks in which one is not closely affiliated. (Anyone interested in learning about social network theory can email me for some great introductory books and papers, as well as [free!] software once you get the hang of SNA, [Social Network Analysis].)


Here is the process:


I suggest two internet sources for hard to place professionals. First, I urge them to go to Assessment.com and take the MAPP survey. This is a personality survey that is geared towards matching traits with job types and organizational settings. The value of this assessment is that it does a great job of communicating traits, abilities and preferences that are so fundamental to personality that they are often unnoticed. For example, when I took the MAPP years ago I found out that I have a very low tolerance for repetitive work, particularly if it involved details. As soon as I read that portion of the report I knew it was correct, and I realized that I had been mistaken about being poor at math. It turns out that I really like math, (and completed Advanced Multivariate Statistical Analysis with confidence). What I hated was the pages full of addition problems that Miss Marler demanded I do in third grade. It was boring, pointless and frustrating for me, and convinced me at an early age that I hated math.


The MAPP assessment also reveals optimal ways in which people work. For example, some people need close supervision and very specific instructions. Others, (like me and probably most other well educated entrepreneurial people), find that kind of setting offensive and degrading. They do much better if given a problem or situation to solve and are then largely left to address it in the way that best meets the needs of all parties.


After the MAPP assessment is done and insights about personality traits and unique abilities have been gained the next step is to establish social connections with people who are in a position to connect the jobseeker to people with the authority to hire.


However, before moving on to that step one small task is required. I urge people to register a business name with the Secretary of State and print up some business cards. This creates a degree of flexibility because it opens the door to professional consulting opportunities and legitimizes casual, (but professional), contact. Traditional jobs are going away, and consulting jobs are becoming more popular. According to Speizer (2009 December 1) possibly as much as fifty percent of future jobs will be either part time time or short term contract/consulting positions. Having business cards and an understanding of basic consulting relationships people can move onto the next step.


I urge the people to become active on Meetup.com, and LinkedIn.com, as well as some of the local business networking sites. These sources provide notices about physical meetings aimed at a range of professional (and recreational) groups. I urge jobseekers to choose groups that that seem to be a good fit given the results of the MAPP assessment and their personal preferences, and to go on at least three occasions. All the client has to do is show up at these events, sit quietly, and introduce themselves when necessary. The idea is not to produce immediate results, but rather to build affiliation with the group and individuals in it. Affiliation is built upon three principles – establishing repeated physical proximity, maintaining a positive affect, and highlighting similar values, attitudes and beliefs one has with others (Baron, Byrne and Branscombe 2006).


Putting all these steps together, here’s how it works. The MAPP assessment helps the client get a better idea of how others see him, as well as revealing hidden traits, abilities and preferences. Next, he (the educated unemployed are overwhelmingly male), uses this information to find people with similar professional interests and personal attributes that are in career field the client has targeted. Then, the client goes to Meetup and LinkedIn to find out where these people assemble, RSVPs to a meeting and goes there, business cards in hand.


Once physically present with people outside his network, but inside other networks, the client doesn’t have to do much. Because he is going to be there at least three times there is little pressure to meet and greet or shove business cards into people’s hands. All he needs to do is look for people who seem approachable, introduce himself and casually chat about anything except the need for a job. The topic will come up, but it should not be the focus of long conversations. In fact the conversation should be light and superficial, very positive and focused on the other person. This fills the need to maintain positive affect and highlight similarities. The goal is to establish a social connection, not get a job lead.


The goal of the jobseeker should be to establish social connections with three people during their three visits. They know when a social connection is made when they feel as if they “click” with the other person. That is when the business card comes out and a request to “Let’s continue this conversion sometime. Please send me your email address.” This will usually prompt the other person to produce a business card as well. There you go – affinity, affiliation, social contact, and the exchange of tangible symbols of professional identity and contact information. After the meeting the client goes home and finds this person in LinkedIn; sees who they are connected with and where they have worked and what their interests are. (A Google search tuning the person’s name in quotes is also helpful.) A few days later he can make a phone call and ask a question within this person’s professional expertise or tacit knowledge, but initiate no further contact until the next meeting. This establishes the contact as the expert in the relationship – something everyone likes to be. (The business card identifying a consulting venture creates the opportunity to present this as “project” or “basic” research, which it really is. The information gleaned can be included in the jobseekers blogs, online essays or incorporated into academic papers. In any event, it gives the jobseeker useful information that can be applied to something specific at a future date.)     


This process is repeated in other groups with other individuals. This process builds a “weak links” network of people who will know him well enough to connect him to jobs and contract opportunities, but not so well that familiarity overcomes intrigue about professional possibilities.


It works!


Vic Napier




Baron, R. A., Byrne, D. E., & Branscombe, N. R. (2006). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.


Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.


Napier, V. (2009). One Fifth of Tucson’s Educated Unemployed “Not in Labor Force”. Retrieved from: http://www.joblesseconomy.net/Files/one_fifth_of_tucsons_unemployed.html


Speizer, I. (2009 December 1). Special Report on Contingent Staffing. Workforce Management. Available at:  http://www.workforce.com/section/06/feature/26/84/06/index_printer.html



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