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Job-matching start-up in Redondo Beach may help solve U.S. labor-market puzzle

Job-matching start-up in Redondo Beach may help solve U.S. labor-market puzzle
People fill out job application forms in 2013. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Patrick Jones, founder of start-up Vocatio, wants millennials and teens to get jobs. In trying to make this a reality, he's also addressing a broader issue that's vexed economists and companies: how to match available positions with the right people.

His company, currently in a testing stage, acts as a middleman, teaming up with colleges to tap a pool of largely liberal arts students — who traditionally find it harder to connect their degree with a real-world position. An online test, which prioritizes soft skills such as creativity and problem-solving, places them on a talent index, provides specific job titles and access to firms hiring for those roles.

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"The big hypothesis we're testing is: If I can give you, as an employer, a quantitative reason why Manuel, Jamal, Tom should be considered for this job role regardless of all the other factors, can we improve the likelihood that those types of candidates get opportunities?" said Jones, 49. "Can our approach assist this population by making them more visible to companies who are otherwise starving for high-potential talent?"

Vocatio, which Jones has been working on for several years and runs from his Redondo Beach home, says that of the 275 students who have applied for a job using the service, 150 were hired at companies, including information provider LexisNexis, wet-wipes maker Goodwipes and accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Hiring the youngest Americans in the labor force would help extend the job market's solid gains, with an unemployment rate at the lowest level since 2000. U.S. factories and service firms complain they can't find the particular mix of skills for open jobs. In a survey of small-business owners for February, about a third reported openings they couldn't fill, close to the highest since 2000.

Of the 6.7 million unemployed people nationwide in February, more than a quarter were 16 to 24 years old. That figure doesn't even include those who became discouraged and stopped looking or who haven't searched in the last month.

"If you look at business surveys, they say one of the biggest problems they have is finding qualified workers," said David Berson, chief economist of Nationwide Insurance, who has personal experience with being a job-seeking, liberal arts graduate after double-majoring in history and economics at Williams College in the 1970s. "Matching up smart kids, but maybe with fewer technical skills, with businesses that need those skills makes a lot of sense."

In January, there were about 1.2 unemployed job seekers for each available job, down from 6.6 after the last recession ended in mid-2009, according to Labor Department data compiled by Bloomberg. Employers added a greater-than-anticipated 313,000 workers to payrolls in February, according to government figures, above the 182,000 monthly average for 2017.

Take your pick of reasons why jobs are staying stubbornly open: people unable or unwilling to move for opportunities, a lack of certain skills, a demographic shift, the cost of higher education, health problems, opioid addiction or an inefficient system of hiring.

Solutions proposed by the U.S. and regional governments include job retraining, wider protections for the unemployed and increased funding of educational assistance programs such as tutors and after-school programs.

But these aren't working on their own, according to Robert Brusca, an economist and founder of Fact & Opinion Economics. Brusca grew up in Detroit, a city that was hit hard by the declines in the auto industry, and he has seen firsthand the failure of certain policies to bring jobs back.

"You're not going to bring them back with retraining. It is not going to help that community," he said. "It's a complicated problem, and you have to bite away with solutions bit by bit."

Next month, Vocatio is expanding in Los Angeles to target "opportunity youth," people 16 to 24 who are not in school and unemployed. Jones and his family have some experience with adversity: His father was one of the first four black students at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta after desegregation.

"I can only imagine the challenges. But all he ever communicated to me was hustle," Jones said. "If you talk about access in the frame of, 'This is our economy, we want everyone to participate because everybody needs to carry their weight, nobody should be artificially restricted or should be a burden on the state' — then hopefully that gets through."

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