NCOC Featured Discussion

Civic Engagement as a Buffer to Structural Unemployment

By Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Lead Researcher at CIRCLE

December 6, 2012

Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds, a recent report released by NCoC in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, CIRCLE, Civic Enterprises and the Harvard Saguaro Seminar, found that communities with stronger civic engagement have suffered less from unemployment in the recent hard economic years. At the 67th Annual National Conference on Citizenship, held on September 14th, Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin joined a panel to discuss this research. In her remarks, she made an important distinction between cyclical unemployment and structural unemployment, pointing out that civic engagement may in fact be "a buffer to structural unemployment."

Structural unemployment, according to Governor Raskin and other sources, is unemployment caused by a mismatch between what the labor market needs and what workers offer. This is a significant problem in the U.S. economy. As of August 2012, 3.6 million jobs were unfilled and over half of U.S. employers said that they have difficulty filling jobs in general, but especially high-skill jobs.1, 2 For instance, a study by Brookings Institute shows that companies are unable to fill available positions in industries that require high skills and are increasingly attempting to fill these positions with highly-skilled foreign workers.3 Put another way, one of the major problems of structural unemployment is that good job openings can go wasted.

The notion that civic engagement may act as a safeguard against structural unemployment is particularly important because it means that communities can work to create opportunities for individuals to become engaged as a key strategy for boosting employment.

Why would civic engagement reduce structural unemployment? Governor Raskin pointed to some important areas for further exploration. They included:

1. People develop relevant, necessary work-place skills, such as writing, negotiation, and the ability to understand technology and computer skills through volunteer work.

Employers are looking for people-skills and technical skills. Both can be enhanced by engaging in civil society. John Wilson asserted that volunteering is an important means of building civic and literacy skills such as organizing a meeting, writing, and working with others.4 National service program participants have been found to boost their work skills such as "gathering and analyzing information, motivating coworkers and managing time."5 Research further shows that the acquisition of these people-skills and technical skills predicts young people's wages in adulthood, and that the market demand for these skills has rapidly increased in the last few decades.6 In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that employers name the "ability to work in a team structure" and "ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization" as the two most desired qualities in candidates.7

Further research should address whether and what types of nonpaid work are most likely to boost the kind of skills that lead to jobs. A careful study of the match between the employer-desired skills and the skills that nonpaid workers actually acquire over a period of time could shed light on the connection between civic engagement and jobs, and move the finding of correlation toward causation.

2. Governor Raskin also pointed out that civic engagement can enhance social cohesion. Again, this notion is supported by a large body of research. In his seminal work, Mark Granovetter8 found that people find jobs through networks of people that they know, and more recent studies have replicated this finding in various settings and with diverse populations.9, 10 Another study found that network ties predict quicker and successful job searches, and a better fit with employee's skills.11

Human capital also matters for a community as a whole. For example, residents in communities where people trust one another and communicate frequently should have good access to information about various opportunities, including job openings and skill-building opportunities. Granovetter argued that network ties help people get jobs because a network spreads information well.12 In fact, a study found that frequent interactions within neighborhoods did spread the information about job openings.13 These findings are relevant for addressing structural unemployment because in a well-networked community, a well-connected information network facilitates the all-important skill-to-job matching. The benefit should be two-fold. Workers find out about jobs that utilize their skills quickly, and employers may avoid spending too much time waiting for the right employees or conducting numerous, fruitless interviews, which can reduce the productivity of the workplace.

Furthermore, communities can and should provide places and opportunities where people can connect, work together, build skills and nurture trust. As the findings from the Soul of the Community study by Knight Foundation suggest, people's attachment to the community predicts economic growth. The Case Builds also showed that communities with a strong nonprofit sector fared better during the recession. Additionally, availability of civically committed religious congregations and places where people can gather and get to know each other has been found to boost people's attachment to the community.14 Recent works by authors like Robert Sampson15 and Daniel Aldrich16 document how neighborhood and city capital, and what neighbors offer for each other, have a powerful influence on both individual economic well-being and the community's resilience against disasters, both natural and economic.

While further research is certainly needed to understand the mechanisms that drive the link between civic engagement and jobs, research, including ours, strongly suggests that cities and towns will be well-served by providing an abundance of meaningful opportunities for civic engagement, including, but not limited to volunteering, particularly focused on community-building and skill-learning. Our research found that certain types of nonprofits seem to have a greater effective on employment than others. These were nonprofits that most likely encourage bonding and skill building, such as amateur sports leagues, labor unions, veterans organizations, social services, and mutual support and skill-building programs. These formal and informal opportunities to connect, such as fairs, festivals, or parks are important and are reinforced by the Soul of the Community research, and other studies.

Mayor and community leaders need not wait for more research before taking action. People need connection, and they thrive when they are given opportunities to grow, both as individuals, and also as citizens contributing to a larger community.

  1. Bloomberg News (2012, August, 31). U.S. Job Openings by Industry Total SA. The Bloomberg, Retrieved at
  2. ManpowerGroup (2012). The talent shortage survey. Retrieved from Manpowergroup website:
  3. Ruiz, N.G., Wilson, J.H., & Choudhury, S. (2012). The Search for Skills: Demand for H-1B immigrant workers in the U.S. metropolitan areas. Retrieved from Brookings Institute website:
  4. Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, pp. 215-240.
  5. Abt. Associates (2007). Serving country and community: A longitudinal study of service in Americorps. Retrieved October 15, 2012, at Evaluation of national and community service programs.
  6. Borghans, L., ter Weel, B., & Weinberg, B. A. (2006). People people: Social capital and the labor-market outcomes of underrepresented groups (NBER Working paper No. 11985). Retrieved from National Bureau of Economic Research website:
  7. National Association for Colleges and Employers (2011, October 26). Job Outlook: The Candidate Skills/Qualities Employers Want [web log post]. Retrieved from
  8. Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.
  9. Xiu, L. Social capital and labour market outcomes of recent immigrants to Canada: Employment entry, wages and duration of access to the first job in intended occupation. Unpublished manuscript (MSTAR_56994074; 1075384).
  10. Stone, W., Gray, M., & Hughes, J. (2003). Social capital at work: How family, friends and civic ties relate to labour market outcomes No. Research Paper no. 31)Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  11. Franzen, A., & Hangartner, D. (2006). Social networks and labour market outcomes: The non-monetary benefits of social capital. European Sociological Review, 22(4), 353-353.
  12. Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.
  13. Topa, G. (2001). Social interactions, local spillovers and unemployment. Review of Economic Studies, 68(2)(235), 261-295.
  14. Tolbert, C. M., Irwin, M. D., Lyson, T. A., & Nucci, A. R. (2002). Civic community in small-town America: How civic welfare is influenced by local capitalism and civic engagement. Rural Sociology, 67(1), 90-113
  15. Sampson, R. J. (2012). Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  16. Aldrich, D. (2012, August 28). How to weather a disaster. The New York Times. Retrieved from
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