By Andy Oram — Research Fellow, New Jersey State Office of Innovation
It seemed in Spring 2020 that the whole world had shattered. In the United States, during a single week in mid-March, three and a half million workers lost their jobs. New Jerseyans from low income communities — particularly immigrants and people of color — felt the blow intensely.
Although a huge number of employers had to lay off or furlough workers in restaurants, retail stores, performance venues, and other industries, a corresponding set of employers — newly-designated as essential businesses — had to instantly ramp up activity. Online retailers, grocery stores, health care facilities, delivery services, warehouses, and many other companies experienced a spike in demand, without enough workers to meet it.
During a hectic time, with information changing by the hour, the team at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) identified an opportunity to link growing employer demand within select industries with workers that had been displaced from jobs in industries negatively impacted by the pandemic.
On March 18th, NJEDA approached the Office of Innovation with a project concept. Working together, to take advantage of the State’s role as a reliable source of information, a group of collaborating agencies — the Office of Innovation, NJEDA, and the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development (NJDOL) — along with the State’s technology partner, Yext, launched the State of New Jersey’s COVID-19 Jobs and Hiring Portal on March 23, just five days after the project was initially conceived.
Although the project team believed that the site would be useful, they didn’t at first know the scale at which the site would be noticed or used. But the team’s initiative showed its value on the very first day: at launch, 8,000 jobs were posted, and another 4,000 were added by the second day. Eventually, 57,000 jobs appeared on the site, from more than 1,200 employers. Because of the urgent need to hire, many companies offered more than minimum wage. Some jobs were temporary, whereas others offered long-term career pathways, such as in health care.
Governor Phil Murphy mentioned the site regularly for the first few days of its existence, in daily briefings widely covered by the media. These briefings drew up to 40,000 viewers on TV and online, so the new site had a powerful opportunity to reach employers and job hunters. The State of New Jersey also had a strong social media presence, which it used to promote the job site, coordinating promotion efforts with the NJEDA and NJDOL.
The Jobs Portal was also featured prominently on the New Jersey COVID-19 Information Hub, the State’s centralized information portal for pandemic-related information. The Information Hub, which had also launched just days earlier, was garnering hundreds of thousands of weekly visitors, and drove significant traffic to the Jobs Portal.
These coordinated efforts drove more than 150,000 users to the Jobs Portal in the first week of its existence.
The initial design of the site was intentionally simple so that it could be navigated easily by both employers and workers. The team identified a handful of sectors with urgent hiring needs — such as grocery stores, health care providers, and essential retail outlets — and accepted postings from those industries.
Employers could submit basic information about available jobs via a webform or an Excel template. NJEDA team members vetted submissions to ensure that the companies were allowed to operate under the State’s pandemic-related restrictions, and then rapidly posted the jobs to the site.
Initially, the site functioned as a simple list of employers with job openings. Employer listings were sorted by volume in ascending order — listings with the most jobs appeared first. As the number of listings grew, filtering functionality was introduced, allowing job seekers to select jobs by industry and region.
Users could then drill down to learn more about each company. The site also started limiting the number of employers shown on each page, to avoid endless scrolling.
Many other trade-offs were made in order to get off the ground quickly as well as to preserve privacy. The team made a conscious choice to build the site essentially as a virtual bulletin board. Neither job seekers nor employers created accounts. Job seekers were intentionally not asked to create an account, because eliminating that step made it easier to access the site. But as a result, the state couldn’t track the progress of each applicant or offer time-saving features like allowing the applicant to save results of a search and pick up from the same place on a return visit.
Instead of acting as a broker between the job applicants and the employers, the web site simply helped the job applicants find the job openings and sent the applicants to the employers’ web sites. The State learned from informal reports from employers that the site had yielded hundreds of qualified candidates for their companies.
But the state did perform important functions to ensure high-quality listings. In addition to making sure that the businesses were permitted to operate during the pandemic-related closures, the site provided fields in the web form where employers could record safety measures they were taking for their workers, like the provision of PPE and mandated sanitization procedures.
Some may wonder why job applicants couldn’t rely on existing job sites. Amidst great uncertainty, the job vetting within the State-sponsored portal afforded the State a level of trust at an urgent time of need. As economic activity becomes more predictable, the state will continually evaluate the need for, and impact of, the Jobs Portal.
There is no doubt, however, that the speedy launch of the site served a vital role. More than 57,000 jobs have been posted by 1,200 companies. Many employees are expected to turn the new jobs into new career paths.
The cross-agency team developing the site knew that, in addition to helping people put food on the table, this service would be an important statement at a time of widespread despair — a bit of positive action in the midst of all the headlines about death, panic, and economic turmoil.
Another sign of the job site’s importance is that its design and structure were copied by the other states. One state even reused the source code. This sharing shows the power of government collaboration and the potential for governments to pool resources for mutual benefit.
The New Jersey team is looking for ways to build on the success of the job site. In any case, tomorrow’s challenges will be different from today’s. Even if a project lasts only a few months, the lessons it offers can prepare us to act creatively during the next urgent need.