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Houston research: Strong connections go a long way in job hunting

Professionals are more likely to refer a friend, rather than an acquaintance, for a job. Photo via Getty Images

Job hunting can feel like prying open a succession of elaborately padlocked doors, and making it through all of them might seem to require a miracle. In reality, though, you could know someone who has the right keys – and is willing to use them for you.

As layoffs and furloughs continue to transform the workplace, commentators often discuss whether job hunters are better served by a team of close friends or a wider, less intimate army of acquaintances. This discussion is especially relevant when about 20 percent of high-income workers appear to get jobs via firm-driven referral practices.

For years, research pointed toward the less intimate army. Casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends, the types of relationships known as "weak ties," seemed preferable because they offered a greater number of and more diverse job tips. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and other networking sites thrived on the notion that loosely connected groups were more effective networks than the concentrated energies of a few friends.

But Rice Business professor Minjae Kim and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Roberto M. Fernandez have taken a fresh look at the matter, questioning whether weak ties are really that useful. In a recent paper, they analyzed when and why socially connected people share job opportunities they know about.

To gather their data, the team surveyed 196 first-year MBA students, asking half of them (randomly assigned) their willingness to help close friends and the other half about acquaintances. Both close friends and acquaintances were described as qualified for the opportunities.

Past research assumed that regardless of the strength of the ties, people would be equally likely to relay job information, thus focusing on the reach of weaker, more numerous ties. But in Kim and Fernandez' study, the participants, most of whom were former professionals, said they were more likely to help friends than people with distant, weaker connections.

This was true even when the students being surveyed were offered a hypothetical financial bonus. Offering money for referrals is a time-honored practice in many industries, and indeed, when a bonus was offered, participants in the study were more willing to give a job tip to an acquaintance.

But the study also revealed that money isn't always enough to make people pass along job information, which other recent research confirms. For some people, Kim and Fernandez found, helping a good friend is more important than gaining professional or social benefit by helping a mere acquaintance.

In fact, even when an acquaintance was known to be qualified for a job, and even with referral bonuses as an incentive, when it came to passing on job tips, most participants surveyed favored close friends over people with whom they only had weak ties.

Praising the weak tie is still de rigueur in many employment think pieces. But, the team concluded, landing a job requires more than simply knowing people who know about possible job opportunities. In many cases, someone needs to make an effort for you. We all have a range of motivations, only some of them financial, for sharing information. Friendship, Kim and Fernandez discovered, is a surpassingly strong motivator for relaying job information.

Having an intricate network can be a highly effective way to learn what's out there. But because individuals have such a strong bias toward friends, big networks should not be a job hunters' lone strategy. Keeping your friends close, it turns out, offers professional benefits. The person with the key to your next job may be standing nearer than you think.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Minjae Kim, an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

HCC is working on a new center focused on resiliency on its Northeast Campus. Image via HCC

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

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