Tom Friedman’s Magical Job Application Program


I know I really shouldn’t do this. Tom Friedman is a font of questionable ideas, and 1000 people already fact-check his column on blogs every week, but this latest one is really a problem.

It’s called “How to Get a Job” and it takes on the new economy and the disconnect between what colleges teach and what employers want.

Underneath the huge drop in demand that drove unemployment up to 9 percent during the recession, there’s been an important shift in the education-to-work model in America. Anyone who’s been looking for a job knows what I mean. It is best summed up by the mantra from the Harvard education expert Tony Wagner that the world doesn’t care anymore what you know; all it cares “is what you can do with what you know.” And since jobs are evolving so quickly, with so many new tools, a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job — and, therefore, be hired. So, more employers are designing their own tests to measure applicants’ skills.

So far so good. And then we get to this magical solution:

One of the best ways to understand the changing labor market is to talk to the co-founders of HireArt ( Eleonora Sharef, 27, a veteran of McKinsey; and Nick Sedlet, 28, a math whiz who left Goldman Sachs. Their start-up was designed to bridge the divide between job-seekers and job-creators.

The way HireArt works, explained Sharef (who was my daughter’s college roommate), is that clients — from big companies, like Cisco, Safeway and Airbnb, to small family firms — come with a job description and then HireArt designs online written and video tests relevant for that job. Then HireArt culls through the results and offers up the most promising applicants to the company, which chooses among them.

Let us ignore for a moment that Sharef was Friedman’s daughter’s roommate at Yale. Let us also ignore that fact that after working at McKinsey Sharef then went to the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, another one of those “we promise, this will get you a great job” scams perpetuated on the American public.

No, this is one of those archetypal Friedman pieces; it’s interesting, and details are sort of correct, but it’s all wrong.

The dark truth behind programs like HireArt is that it is actually not at all how to get a job. It’s true that employers don’t see the mere possession of a college degree as a proxy for the ability to perform effectively at any job, and their unwillingness to train workers does result in the proliferation of demand for specific, and quickly outdated, skills in using technical programs like Excel, but that does not mean that job filtering computer programs are actually any good at allowing companies to easily find the right candidates who can perform effectively at their jobs.

The Internet makes it really easy for job seekers to apply to lots of jobs. And companies are inundated with applications, 500 or so for one job opening, in some cases. Mostly what HireArt seems to do is give human resource managers a way to quickly reject candidates. That is useful, but it’s not at all about how to get a job.

We tried this already, with, a computer program through which no one actually gets jobs. The service is simply too big, and too impersonal, to result in employment. The Sage of Bethesda writes that

Sharef pointed to one applicant, a Detroit woman who had worked as a cashier at Borders. She realized that that had no future, so she taught herself Excel. “We gave her a very rigorous test, and she outscored people who had gone to Stanford and Harvard. She ended up as a top applicant for a job that, on paper, she was completely unqualified for.”

And did she get the job? Was she awesome at it?

What really happened was probably that the Detroit woman was “a top applicant for a job” that the company then gave to someone else, someone whose college roommate was related to someone who worked at the company or something.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer