Uploading a resume is a barrier to employment for some job seekers, even during a labor shortage
During the current labor shortage in Massachusetts and elsewhere, businesses who rely exclusively on online job applications are missing out on a group of people who want to work.
Almost all businesses — including those paying minimum wage — require people to apply online. But not all job seekers have a computer, internet access or the digital know-how to submit an application.
At a job fair at Greenfield Community College last month, 29 employers perched, ready, seated behind tables. One has five positions to fill. Another 50. One has 69 openings.
With a labor shortage, people applying for jobs should be in the driver’s seat. But that hasn’t been the case for Jesse Morrison of Vernon, Vermont.
"It’s a challenge. That’s all I can say, doing the stuff online," Morrison said. "Doesn’t always go smooth."
Morrison spent more than half of his 51 years driving a propane truck. He wants to work. He has a computer and internet, but got stuck — at first — uploading a job application.
"One said it had to be PDF form, when you tried to upload it. And you’re like, 'What is that? What kind of paper is that?' But it kept saying it wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t one," he said.
Pershing Reid from Orange also has a computer and internet — and also has trouble applying online. The 72-year-old's work experience includes driving an MBTA bus in Boston. He is looking for a job driving a van or a bus.
“I tried to [apply online] but I didn’t get very far,” Reid said. "I went to the site ... of the company, but it just didn’t tell me how to get on. Because it didn’t tell how to get on, I could not apply."
Reid even visited the company in person, but they just sent him back to their website.
Another company, Mativ, a plastics manufacturer in Greenfield, has 15 open positions. According to online job postings, some include a $3,000 signing bonus. HR Business Partner Crystal Fish said if an applicant is having problems submitting an application, she’d be happy to help them out.
"We haven’t had anybody that’s had problems applying to our website or at least not that we’ve been made aware of," Fish said.
In fact, most recruiters at the Greenfield job fair said they haven’t even heard of the problem.
But Maura Geary, who organized the fair, knows it well. Geary is the executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center.
"Some people truly can't access the online application itself. So, they need to be walked through the online application," she said.
The career center staff includes a digital navigator who offers job seekers three one-hour lessons on basics like setting up an email account and uploading a resume. The center also offers workshops.
"A lot of first interviews are virtual," Geary said. "We do trainings to get them up to speed on all of the different workforce tools that are necessary to get a job."
In the last couple of years, the career center has given away 592 Chromebooks. According to Geary, the state has given away 10,131 since December 2020.
And if a job seeker can’t afford internet access, the center will help them apply for the Federal Communication Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps pay for the service. The program will also help pay for a computer or tablet for eligible households.
Compared to the rest of the state, Geary said Franklin and Hampshire Counties have more job seekers with disabilities, and slightly more who are 55 or over — some of whom face digital challenges.
"We definitely work with mature workers who face technology barriers and also some ageism, frankly, in their search for new careers." Geary said.
Melanie Gelaznik, executive director of the MassHire Berkshire Career Center, said people come in every day looking for help applying for online jobs.
"People with a lower income and perhaps a lower education struggle more," Gelaznik said.
Besides older adults and people with lower incomes, the digital divide disproportionately affects people with mental, developmental and intellectual disabilities or those with limited English, along with people who live in a place that lacks internet infrastructure.
In western Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Census, Hampden County has the largest percentage of households without a computer.
These digital barriers came to a head about three years ago, when a new verb entered the national lexicon: to Zoom.
"We were locked-in, locked-down," recalled Frank Robinson, vice president for public health at Baystate Health. "If I'm having trouble connecting, what about our consumers, residents, patients? How are they connecting to services?"
Even getting a vaccine, at first, required fluency with online systems.
But Robinson's concern wasn’t just about patients needing medical appointments.
"How do you get food? How do you get, in those days, protective equipment? All that stuff was online. And if people weren't connected online, they were just outside any kind of protections," he said.
He said the people most affected had experienced disparities before the pandemic.
"Black, brown [people], folks living with disabilities, older adults would be also having problems because they already experienced significant inequities," Robinson said.
Being connected and literate in digital tools is what Robinson calls a civil right and a human right.
"If you don’t have that level of proficiency, you can’t fully participate in society," he said.
In the summer of 2020, Robinson convened a meeting of concerned groups in western Massachusetts. Now 30 organizations strong, the coalition is called the Alliance for Digital Equity. It includes libraries, schools and at least one affordable housing provider.
On a Tuesday night, about 10 students sit with laptops open, attending their second computer course offered by Way Finders in Holyoke. The topic that night was finances and digital tools that help people budget.
Before Joseangel Hernandez took the first course, the 58-year-old tried to submit job applications using his phone.
"First of all, I didn't have a computer," Hernandez said, in Spanish. "I tried to do it on my cell phone, but it was impossible because I can’t see."
That's a common problem for job seekers whose only device is a phone. As part of the course, Way Finders gave each student a Chromebook. Hernandez is practically hugging his.
"This is mine," he said. "Once they gifted it to me I was able to fill out the application and send my resume."
After taking his first computer course last summer, Hernandez submitted a job application online and was hired by November.
"I love this job. I like to help. I love it," he said.
He works at an office for the WIC program for Women, Infants and Children.
Plus, he can shop, pay his bills, check his bank account online and have tele-health appointments with his mother’s doctor. And now — he has email.
Hernandez said using a computer has helped him discover the world.
"When I started to work on the computer, I realized how important it was for me. Because this opens your mind, it opens your eyes, you know, you discover the world using the computer," he said.
His classmate, 59-year-old Grisel Monserrate, said she didn’t know much about computers before taking the courses. And now?
"It makes me feel sure of myself that I can achieve many of the things that I want to," she said, in Spanish.
Monserrate takes care of her mother, who has Alzheimers. And she started and runs a support group for other Spanish-speaking caregivers, called Cuidadores Unidos. She said her new computer skills allow her to do so much more for the group.
"It makes me happy to be able to help other people," Monserrate said.
Way Finders is about to offer computer classes for another 80 students this year with help from the Boston-based group Tech Goes Home. The first class for older adults in Springfield starts in May.
Tech Goes Home teams up with organizations like Way Finders that have already built trust in their communities and trains them to teach people, some of whom have never used a computer before.
Last year, Tech Goes Home had 4,000 graduates from their training workshops, all from eastern Massachusetts.
Tech Goes Home CEO Dan Noyes said age, language, income and disabilities all contribute to the digital divide.
"But what is even more nefarious is that the digital divide is a racial justice issue across almost every data point you look at," he said. "There is a massive racial divide between those that have access and those that don't."
Noyes said the need for these skills is even more critical than it was before the pandemic, because so much of life has moved online — including in the job market.
"The barriers to not only getting a job but keeping and succeeding that job are dependent a lot ways on having digital skills," Noyes said.
In Holyoke, Monserrate said when she first came from Puerto Rico, someone told her she wouldn’t achieve anything without speaking English.
"And all of this has made me feel like, 'Yes, I can. Yes, I will achieve it.' And that makes me feel happy," she said.
Her goal: start an in-home day care for children.