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commentary

How to help Americans still stuck on the sidelines get good jobs

This year's graduation season is a best-of-times/worst-of-times story. With unemployment now at 3.9 percent the college class of 2018 has the good fortune to be entering one of the tightest labor markets in decades.

But hold the champagne: Those low unemployment rates mask a different story for those who are not quite so young or lack the right skills or don't live in the right place. Even in today's economy, roughly 11 percent of 16-24 year-olds are neither working nor in school. And labor force participation rates, particularly among middle-aged men, are at record lows.

Online talent marketplaces are a solution the U.S. should embrace to help those on the economic sidelines. Increasingly common overseas, such online websites – sometimes called career navigators – allow job seekers of all ages to explore their career interests and job-relevant aptitudes and skills by taking valid and reliable tests online for free.

What distinguishes these career navigator sites from traditional job boards like Career Builder? Mainly, the opportunity for job seekers to validate their skills and aptitudes for potential employers through their test scores. Typical job boards run off resume keywords. It's easy to claim that one is a fast learner or a good multi-tasker. Actually having the test score to prove it is more convincing.

One example of such a site is the Future Jobs Finder, which the global telecommunications company Vodafone launched in March. It did so to help up to 10 million young people in 18 countries find digital jobs with Vodafone or other employers.

Site visitors can take psychometrically valid tests of their aptitudes and interests. They are then matched to relevant digital job opportunities in their area, based on their results. They also receive information on available education and training courses, many of which are free. In its first month alone, 2.3 million people visited the site.

Let's face it: most of us hate to take tests. So why would anyone do this?

First, the best sites help individuals explore their interests and existing skills – and how those match actual jobs in today's rapidly morphing labor market. The tests tend to be short and relatively fun, as tests go.

They provide results to users about their strengths. And users may learn of fields they're suited for that they were unaware of – or jobs that they could get with a relatively small bit of additional training. Moreover, site visitors can opt to give employers permission to view their test results, thereby creating the chance to be recruited for jobs they might have otherwise missed.

Employers benefit because they can focus on whether an individual has the needed skills – not how or where the job seeker gained them. Validated skills and aptitudes, not educational pedigree, are what count in a talent marketplace.

The Future Jobs Finder website is clearly geared to young people and to digital jobs, primarily at one company. It also doesn't serve Americans. But it's easy to imagine a similar site aimed at a larger age range and broader set of jobs serving a US state or metropolitan area, such as Buffalo or Las Vegas.

Setting up such a state-of-the-art, user-friendly talent marketplace that feels more like the best commercial websites (rather than an underfinanced government relief office) costs only about $500,000. Successful sites that become the de facto job hub for the region could likely cover or offset ongoing operational costs by selling employers premium access and branded portals on the site.

Half-a-million dollars isn't that much for something that boosts economic growth, better matches workers to jobs, and helps those still experiencing the worst of economic times to join today's red-hot job market. State and local governments, foundations, or others aiming to promote economic growth should step up to the plate to finance a high-quality online talent marketplace in their region.

We have the technology to build modern talent marketplaces that emphasize skills over educational pedigrees. Let's build it. They will come.

Commentary by Monica Herk, vice president for education research at the Committee for Economic Development, where she works on the changes occurring in education after high school and the world of work. Follow her @MonicaHerk.