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How Do You Find A Job? Ask The Algorithm

The state of New York is looking for ways to reduce the time the unemployed spend looking for jobs, and it's turning to a mathematical formula for help.

The state's Department of Labor is touting the new tool as a major leap forward in the search for jobs. The formula is designed to direct resumes to the employers most likely to make a hire.

So far, Minnesota is the only other state to use this kind of fancy math to try to connect workers with jobs. There are no hard data, but a spokesperson for the state says the program has been working well.

A New York State Of Mind

Lisa Berger is one of the very first New Yorkers to test what this computer program can do. She has a couple of decades of experience as a publishing executive and, more recently, as a nonprofit fundraiser.

Berger is self-assured, but she says being jobless for nearly a year has rattled her. So, she says, she's willing to try something new: "If there's something out there that can help, I think the environment out there is really bad. I have never in my entire life had trouble getting a job like this — ever."

So Berger went to a job center in Manhattan. After meeting with employment counselor Emily Aponte, she sends off her resume. Five minutes later, Aponte announces that a reply has come in by e-mail: 15 job matches were generated by Berger's resume.

Assistance From An Algorithm

The listings for Berger were selected from the state job bank by a computer running a complex mathematical formula, or algorithm. These kinds of equations are also the key element behind Google's Internet search results, and the movie recommendations made by Netflix.

Matt Sigelman, the chief executive officer of Burning Glass, a Boston company that developed the job search formula that Berger tested, says the beauty of algorithms is that they see patterns.

"It's actually studying how real people — by the tens of millions — get the jobs that they move into," Sigelman says. "The technology is designed to learn from past patterns of placement."

For the user, it's different from a keyword job search on Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com, because the algorithm actually registers whole sentences from resumes. Sigelman says this program mimics the human activity of reading and digesting information. Coca-Cola, Accenture, and Google are some of Burning Glass' clients — a list that now includes the state of New York.

But in the case of New York, the program is being used on behalf of job seekers — people like Berger.

Mixed Results

She isn't overly impressed with the jobs the algorithm recommends. Only one opportunity really interests her — the director of strategic planning at a sports public relations company. The description says this position is "nontraditional."

"Yeah, I like that because they might then consider a nontraditional candidate," she says.

"And it might be a little bit more interesting," Aponte responds.

Berger also likes the sound of the position because it reports to the managing partner. "It does what I like doing best in the corporate world, which is coming up with a strategic plan," she says.

Berger says she'll probably apply. And she did learn something: If she wants to work at a nonprofit organization, she needs to beef up that part of her resume.

"It's highlighting much more of what I used to do versus what I want to do," Berger says. "And that's the biggest thing I think I've learned."

New York is trying job-seeker algorithms as a one-year pilot program. If enough people say they got something out of it, the state labor department says it will make the program permanent.

Copyright 2014 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New York State is trying to make it easier and faster for unemployed people to find jobs. The state's Department of Labor has a new tool. It's calling it a major leap forward. It's a computer program designed to match job seekers with the employers most likely to hire them.

From member station WNYC in New York, Ilya Marritz explains.

ILYA MARRITZ: Lisa Berger is one of the very first New Yorkers to test what this computer program can do. She has a couple decades' experience as a publishing executive and more recently as a nonprofit fundraiser. Berger is self-assured, but she says being jobless for nearly a year has rattled her and she's willing to try something new.

Ms. LISA BERGER: If there's something out there that can help, I think the environment is really bad. I have never in my entire life had trouble getting a job like this � ever.

MARRITZ: And so Berger has come to a job center in Manhattan. After meeting with employment counselor Emily Aponte, she sends off her resume. Five minutes later, Aponte announces a reply has come in by email.

Ms. BERGER: What do we got?

Ms. EMILY APONTE (Employment Counselor): We have 15 job matches that were generated from your resume.

Ms. BERGER: Wow.

Ms. APONTE: And so this is an event planning - associate director of event planning.

MARRITZ: The listings Berger is looking at were selected from the state job bank by a computer running a complex mathematical formula, or algorithm. These kinds of equations are also the key element behind Google's Internet search results and the movie recommendations Netflix makes.

Matt Sigelman says the beauty of algorithms is that they see patterns. Sigelman is the CEO of Burning Glass, a Boston company that developed the job search algorithm Lisa Berger is now testing.

Mr. MATT SIGELMAN (CEO, Burning Glass): It's actually studying how real people � by the tens of millions � get the jobs that they move into. The technology is designed to learn from past patterns of placements.

MARRITZ: For the user, it's different from a keyword job search on Monster.com or CareerBuilder, because the algorithm actually registers whole sentences from resumes. Sigelman says this program mimics the human activity of reading and digesting information. Coca-Cola, Accenture, and Google are some of Burning Glass's clients. Now New York State is as well.

But there's a difference. The program is now being used on behalf of job seekers � people like Lisa Berger.

Ms. APONTE: Let's scan down.

Ms. BERGER: Okay.

Ms. APONTE: So vice president group manager.

Ms. BERGER: That's almost exactly what I did in the past.

MARRITZ: Berger isn't overly impressed with the jobs the algorithm recommends. Only one really interests her � director of strategic planning at a sports PR company. The description says this position is nontraditional.

Ms. BERGER: Yeah, I like that because they might then consider a nontraditional candidate.

Ms. APONTE: And it might be a little bit more interesting?

Ms. BERGER: And it will also reports to the CEO managing partner. It does what I like doing best in the corporate world, which is sort of coming up with a strategic plan.

MARRITZ: Berger says she'll probably apply. And she did learn something: If she wants to work at a nonprofit, she needs to beef up that part of her resume.

Ms. BERGER: It's highlighting much more of what I used to do versus what I want to do.

Ms. APONTE: Yeah.

Ms. BERGER: And that's the biggest thing that I think I've learned.

MARRITZ: Right now, Minnesota is the only other state to use this kind of fancy math to try to connect workers with jobs. There's no hard data, but a spokesperson for the state says the program has been working well.

New York is trying job-seeker algorithms as a one-year pilot program. If enough people say they got something out of it, the State Labor Department says it will make this program permanent.

For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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