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Disability and employment: considering the importance of social capital.

Knowledge from one field may often be of use in other fields once that knowledge permeates between disciplines. The time seems ripe for the concept off social capital and what is known about its relationship to employment chances to make the jump from sociology to the field off vocational rehabilitation and counseling for persons with disability. This paper is intended as a vehicle for beginning to bring social capital into the field of vocational rehabilitation.

The Problem of Employment for Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities typically face extraordinary obstacles in finding employment. This is evident in their significantly higher levels off unemployment and underemployment than the general population. Employment levels vary by type of disability, but the Harris Survey of 2004 reported that 35% of persons with severe disabilities are employed, up slightly from the 31% employment rate found by the same survey in 2000, but very low compared to the employment rate of about 78% or 80% of the general population (Harris Survey, 2004, 2000: U.S. Census Bureau (SIPP), 1997).

Employment involves matching potential employees with job opportunities. To the extent that employment does not occur, the root of the problem may lie with the employee, with the job opportunities, or with the mechanisms that match the two sides together. The strategies that vocational programs for persons with disability typically use to address the problem off unemployment among persons with disabilities already, recognize many of the causes that contribute to a high rate of unemployment, but there is one major cause they overlook.

On the job opportunity side of the relationship (i.e. labor "demand") employment programs offer solutions to address specific problems that deny persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to get the job. These may include education programs to counter negative employer or coworker stereotypes, workplace assessments to identify accessibility concerns in the physical layout and organization of the workplace, workplace supports to encourage employee integration with coworkers, and financial incentives and legal initiatives to counter externalities (e.g. insurance costs) that would give employers a disincentive to hire an employee with a disability.

On the employee end of the relationship (i.e. labor "supply"), job training, teaching off specific work skills, and technological assistance (e.g. motorized wheelchairs) are mainstays of many disability vocational programs. These solutions address perceived deficits in the skills and talents of the potential employees who these programs serve, based on the assumption that consumers would be employed if they had stronger marketable skills. These factors are what some sociologists and labor market economists refer to as human capital.

In matching employees with employers, existing programs often teach consumers how to write a resume, improve interview skills, teach people bow to find a job, and assist in locating job opportunities. Some programs also try to teach typical office "culture" (e.g. attire, business etiquette). While they may not be directly relevant to the job function, these elements make employment more likely and, in the case of office culture, can improve success at the job. These factors are what some sociologists call cultural capital. One major factor in the matching aspect of employment that very few, if any, vocational programs for persons with disabilities seem to include is what sociologists call social capital. Social capital is the set or network of social relationships by which most people find employment.

Human, Cultural, and Social Capital

The term "capital" refers to resources that may be used to gain benefit, advantage, or profit. Originally capital meant physical or economic resources like land, machinery, or labor power that produced new goods or could be the basis of profit. Later, social theorists broadened the term. They saw that an individual gained advantage in the labor market by virtue of the desirability and scarcity of the skills that the person had to offer. Education, expertise, skills and abilities are a form of capital which resided in the bodies and minds of the individuals. Thus it is called human capital (Becker, 1964). Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1990) argued that cultural and subcultural knowledge is a form of capital in that it is a basis for social inclusion or exclusion. This is cultural capital. A common example in the workplace is a prospective employee doing the right things (e.g. speaking the right jargon, wearing appropriate attire, having desirable demeanor) to make the employer feel that the employee would fit well in the workplace. A growing awareness of the use of social relationships to "get ahead" led to the formal recognition of such relations as another form of capital, social capital (Bourdieu, 1983; Coleman, 1988), that has been popularized by Bowling Alone (Putnam, 2000). Social capital captures the idea in the adage "It's not what you know but who you know." Study of the importance of social capital in the workplace is a rapidly growing field of scholarly inquiry (c.f. Baron, Field, and Schuller, 2000; Lesser, 2000; Lin, 2001: Lin, Cook, and Burt, 2001). From the perspective of the employee, getting a desirable job may be viewed as a return accruing to the person based on their human, cultural, and social capital. All three types are important to the employment process.

Of the three, human capital has perhaps the most obvious impact on employment. The link between human capital and employment is widely recognized in our culture, and supported by both casual and scientific observation that who occupies a position in our society is based in large part on education and skills. Lack of human capital is likely to be the first explanation we consider when we encounter a person who has been repeatedly unsuccessful finding a job. Discussions of who should be hired often boil down to the question of "Who is best qualified in terms of skills and abilities?" It is interesting to note that the term dis-ability, literally "lacking ability," suggests an implicit human capital perspective on the nature of the problems facing persons with a disability.

It is also widely recognized that cultural capital can be important in getting a job. Subtle cultural practices (e.g. language, humor, conversation styles, fashion, sports) are the basis for rapport in a job interview: in successfully interacting with a boss, coworkers, or a client; building trust; and in fitting into workplace culture generally. Presentation of self via interviews or resumes is a key place where cultural capital bears on the employment process, in part because it provides a basis for employers to assess the social capital employees will bring to the position.

Following the seminal Getting a Job (Granovetter, 1974) a growing body of academic and job counseling literature followed showing how important social capital is for getting a job. One way social capital can help is in improving the qualifications of a job candidate. The relations employees have with other employees, with people in other firms (e.g. buyers, suppliers), with politicians, and with various identity groups in the general population (e.g. subcultures, ethnicities, communities, nations) can all be assets to an employer. However, the primary way in which social capital impacts employment chances is that social relationships are a very common channel liar the flow of information about job opportunities and job candidates, a key part of the process by which prospective employees are matched with job opportunities.

The Importance of Social Networks in Finding Employment

Research has shown that social relationships are fundamental to finding jobs, and to finding better jobs (Granovetter, 1974, 1994; Silliker, 1993; Corcoran, Datcher & Duncan, 1978). Though percentages vary by type of work, from 40% to 70% of persons find their jobs through contact persons in their social network. In studying hiring by a bank Fernandez and Weinberg (1997) found applicants with a referral were more than twice as likely to get an interview and, conditional on getting an interview, over three times as likely to get a job offer, ultimately making them ten times as likely (30% vs. 3% success) to get a job compared with those who had no such link. Recognition of the power of social capital has given rise to a wave of books advising people on how to tap their social networks (e.g. Baker, 2000; Hansel, 2000).

Granovetter's (1974) key contribution concerning the job-finding process lay in recognizing the impact of scarce and trustworthy information in the labor market and showing how that information is channeled by social networks that link employers with employees. Employers prefer to have trustworthy information about prospective employees, which leads them to rely on contacts who can serve as references for prospective employees, especially for white-collar jobs (Granovetter, 1974). Job seekers prefer to find jobs through contacts for several reasons: (1) they get information about more job opportunities, (2) networks are the only viable source of information for the "hidden job market" of unannounced opportunities, (3) job contacts often have an "in" with the employer, (4) networks are more effective than other job search methods in getting a job, and (5) networks often yield a more desirable and higher-paying job (Granovetter, 1974; Hansen, 2000).

Characteristics of Effective Job Contact Networks

The characteristics that tend to make social networks more effective in finding employment are: (1) being larger. (2) having contacts who are well-connected, (3) having low redundancy, (4) having a high proportion of "weak" ties, (5) including employers ill desired places of employment, (6) having a network that will think of you when a job opportunity presents itself, and possibly (7) having prestigious contacts. The successful job seeker typically receives job information via a short chain of one or two intermediary contacts, who pass information about the job opportunity to them and who serve as references to pass trustworthy information about the potential employee to the employer (Granovetter, 1974). The more job opportunities a person has access to the more likely they are to find employment. The more chains a person can tap into the more job opportunities they are likely to be able to access. Thus persons with larger networks are usually at an advantage in finding employment.

Each additional direct contact may tap into hundreds of additional chains. The job seeker may know several dozen to a few hundred job contacts personally. In network terms these are at a distance of one step. Each of those contacts may in turn know hundreds of other contacts who might be part of the job seeker's network at a distance of two steps (i.e. indirect contacts). Thus having a network of more well-connected contacts also makes the job seeker's network more effective. A smaller network of better-connected contacts can be more effective than a large network of less well-connected contacts. A network of ten direct contacts who each know 100 people reaches 1010 people while a network of fifteen contacts who each know fifty people only reaches 765 within two chain "links" or steps.

This math assumes that there is no overlap in the people known by each contact. But if the contacts all tend to know the same people, then the number of people reached by network may be much smaller. Some contacts might not provide links to any new people, if the only people they connect with are already in the network via links with other contacts. In social network terms, the extent to which people in the network repeat or overlap is known as redundancy. If a network of ten contacts each know 100 people but they are the other nine contacts and the same 91 other people in each case then the total network is only 100 people, a traction of the 1010 people who would be in the network if there were no redundancy. Having a bit of redundancy can be a good thing. If one connection to a job opportunity fails to relay the message, a second chain may succeed. So a bit of redundancy indicates a network with some backup connections, but baying a lot of redundancy makes a network less effective.

Granovetter (1974) distinguishes so-called "weak" ties, links to "distant" persons known from work or other social contexts, from strong ties to family, friends, or relatives. He shows that the so-called "weak" ties are often better at linking persons to jobs. Any one strong tie may be more likely to provide what information they have, but "weak" ties tend to be less redundant, reach people farther away--both geographically and socially--and are--more prevalent, thus offer access to more job opportunities. This is the strength of weak ties.

Intuitively it is preferable to have job contacts with connections to job opportunities in the lines of work that one seeks. Researchers also suggest that contacts with more prestige may provide better access to higher prestige jobs (Lai, Lin & Leung, 1998: Beggs & Hurlbert, 1997: Boxman, De Graaf & Flap, 1991; De Graaf & Flap, 1988; Lin & Dumin, 1986; Lin, Ensel & Vaughn, 1981), although this effect does not appear to generalize to other job attributes, such as income, autonomy, or firm size (Marsden & Hurlbert, 1988).

Though it can be done, actively contacting one's network in search of a job opportunity can be time consuming, may give the undesirable impression that the person is desperate for work, and may put off job contacts who in some instances may feel being asked is an imposition or inappropriate. The ideal network is one where job contacts will think of the job seeker when they bear of a suitable opportunity without being asked. Granovetter found that persons who got jobs via networks were often not actively seeking work at the time. The job found them through the network rather than them finding the job. For white collar jobs like those in Granovetter's study, it is often employers who initiate contact with the potential employee rather than the employee who initiates contact (Granovetter 1974).

Social Networks and Disability

Surprisingly, the research on social capital and employment seems to have received little attention among those concerned with the employment of persons with disabilities. There is a tradition of identifying family, friends, and coworkers as potential sources of "natural" social support for workers with a disability (e.g. Hagner, Butterworth & Keith, 1995), or less often as potential employment contacts, but the concept of social capital as a key to employment has been largely ignored by those assisting persons with disabilities to find employment.

Social capital could be a significant factor in explaining the employment problems of persons with disabilities if (1) differences in job contact networks affect the chances of employment for persons with a disability in the same way they do for persons without a disability, and (2) the job contact networks of persons with a disability tend to be at a disadvantage relative to those of the general population. That job contacts should affect access to employment opportunities for persons with disability in the same way that they do for the general population seems quite plausible though it could be that some disabilities might pose such substantial obstacles to employment that social networks matter little, or not at all. It is also possible that networks might be more important for persons with a disability than for the general population. If disability narrows the set of jobs one is qualified to fill, then having the right channels of job contacts to get access to that smaller set of job opportunities may be even more crucial to employment success.

Potts, Carey, Bryen, and Cohen (under review) found that job contact networks did impact employment among persons with serious speech disability who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technology. In describing their experiences finding employment, 34 of the 38 AAC risers in that study indicated that network contacts played a major role in their success in finding a job (Carey, Potts, Bryen and Shankar, 2004). A focus group of employed AAC users with Cerebral Palsy "identified social networks ... as critical resources when seeking employment" (McNaughton, Light, and Arnold, 2002).

Roy, Dimigen, and Taylor (1998) studied the social networks and employment of visually impaired college graduates. They found those who were employed were more likely to spend time socially outside of home in bars, in social clubs, or informally with friends, did so more frequently and with a greater number of persons than the unemployed, and had a larger number of persons "who regularly helped [them] look for employment" (M 3.18 vs. 1.79) (Roy, Dimigen & Taylor, 1998). Curiously and contrary to a model based on human capital, the authors found no association between degree of visual impairment and employment status.

These studies are suggestive that social capital does impact the employment of persons with a disability as with the general population, but lack replication and represent only two types of disability. Still, the findings are consistent with the extensive body of research on the general population. Lacking evidence to suggest that persons with a disability differ in this regard, we are probably safe assuming that networks impact the employment of persons with a disability in much the same way that they do for everyone else.

Could the networks of persons with a disability be less effective (e.g. smaller, more redundant) that those of persons without disabilities? It seems plausible that they might be, although there is little research to confirm this. Building and maintaining social relationships requires interaction with people. Some disabilities may adversely impact on social interaction. In particular persons with severe cognitive disability, severe communication disability, very limited mobility, or major facial or physical disfigurement might be at highest risk for having limited social networks, because these disabilities seem most likely to impact personal interactions. Potts, Carey, Bryen, and Cohen (tinder review) found that persons with serious speech disability who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technology tended to have smaller job contact networks than otherwise similar persons who did not have an apparent disability. However, a study of European women with fibromyalgia (Bolwijn et al., 1996) found that women with fibromyalgia had equal or possibly better social networks than did a matched control group. Until more research is conducted, we can only speculate about the exact relationship between various types of disability and social networks.

If persons with certain types of disability are at a disadvantage with respect to their job networks and networks impact employment for persons with these disabilities as they do the general population then it is likely that a non-trivial portion of the unemployment experienced by persons with those disabilities is due to this lack of social capital. If so a marked increase in employment level might be achieved for this population via programs that improved their social capital. Even if disability has no impact on job contact networks but networks have an impact on employment for persons who have a disability as they do with the general population, it is still important for employment counselors to consider the implications of the relationship between social capital and employment when advising consumers and in designing program services.

Bringing Social Capital into Vocational Rehabilitation

In an employment model that takes into consideration job opportunities and prospective employees but assumes that the process of matching employees and job opportunities is trivial or automatic, high unemployment among persons with a disability is explained either by a scarcity of job opportunities, by the group being at a competitive disadvantage versus the general population, or by a skills mismatch between what the jobs expect and what the employees offer. If such a model were sufficient, solving the unemployment problem would reduce to "How do we get people qualified for available jobs?" or "How do we make jobs accessible to available people?" Existing employment programs for persons with a disability already address these questions. However this model is not sufficient for the general population and probably not sufficient for persons with disabilities because matching employees and job opportunities is not trivial or automatic. There is another possible explanation for unemployment: employees may fail to fill job opportunities for which they are qualified because they are unaware of the job opportunity and/or the employer is unaware of them as a prospective employee. To the questions that vocational rehabilitation already addresses we should add a third: "How do we connect accessible jobs to qualified people?" The answer is by building prospective employee's social capital.

Vocational rehabilitators need to understand why social capital helps people find jobs, what makes social networks more effective at finding jobs, and how to help people build their social networks. Programs to aid persons with a disability in finding employment should include elements on the importance of social capital, including how to build, maintain, and benefit from your social network. Employment advisors might wish to familiarize themselves with network analytic conceptual tools to aid them in thinking and talking about networks. Readers interested in a brief introduction to network concepts are invited to read Social Network Analysis (Scott, 1991) or Introducing Social Networks (Degenne and Forse, 1994).

A person's social capital may be assessed using a social capital inventory, which is essentially a list of who one knows and how one knows them. An easy to use example of a social capital inventory may be found in the first two chapters of Achieving Success Through Social Capital (Baker, 2000). This gives a person a sense of whether their network may be relatively small or redundant, and provides baseline on which to build. More sophis versions of a social capital inventory might try to trace the chains of intermediary contacts to potential employers.

Counselors want to help consumers build larger networks, but in a smart way, not just haphazardly. The number of redundant contacts should be minimized. Diversity and network range should be increased by growing the portion of "weak" ties in the network. People should avoid networks built largely on a very limited number of social contexts (e.g. family, coworkers) and steer instead toward networks drawn from diverse social contexts. If consumers have interest in specific occupations, industries, or employers, have them work on developing a few good contacts in those occupations, industries, or employers. Having prestigious contacts may be a plus, but ideally a network should have contacts who will think of the prospective employee when they hear of a job opportunity.

There is a danger in over-designing a social network or building a lot of "artificial" relationships. In the everyday course of our lives we come into contact with lots of other people. Developing these "natural" contacts often makes more sense than trying to create a contact out of thin air. If the "'natural" contacts one meets tend to be redundant, it is a sign that the social circles in which one lives are too narrow; get out of a rut and broaden one's life.

Job contact networks can be built through participating in clubs, civic and religious groups, and other social activities. Past work and educational experience are rich sources. Keep in touch periodically with old bosses, coworkers, teachers, professors, and fellow students. Volunteering is an excellent way to meet people, particularly if one volunteers in the field one wishes to be employed in. It can also provide work experience. However, if the goal is employment, one needs to keep that goal in mind and avoid becoming trapped in only volunteer work for long durations (Carey, Potts, Bryen, & Shankar, 2004). For those with communication or mobility impairment, the internet can provide an alternative context for meeting some people. It is good advice not to overlook anyone. People a person already knows but may not think of as job contacts are sometimes the ones who know of a job opportunity. Anyone may be a "weak" tie that could be a job reference, but they need to think of the prospective employee when the job opportunity presents itself: For this reason, it can be a good idea for a person to mention their employment situation and current employment goals from time to time in the course of conversations with people they know.

People wishing to build their social capital should work on meeting new people. Set realistic goals about how many people to meet and target contexts in which to meet people. Track success in meeting those goals. Advice on how and where to meet people, most of which is appropriate for persons with disabilities, is available in numerous books on "networking" (e.g. Hansen, 2000). To the extent that the experiences of a group with any particular disability in building social capital may differ from those of persons without disabilities or persons with other disabilities, sharing those experiences with other persons who have the same type of disability can be very helpful to members of that community. Existing strategies that build job contact networks, including job shadowing and internships, should be encouraged. Sponsoring of lectures or educational sessions on social "networking" may be helpful to people who have not previously considered the importance of social networks or have trouble developing or maintaining social relationships. Use of a social network mentor who advises consumers on an individualized social capital building program, and tracks progress may be beneficial.

When an organization serves an entire population that lacks connections to desired employers--a situation known as a structural hole (Burt, 1992)--a program might try to bridge the structural hole by itself serving as an intermediary between the population it serves and various employers. Interested readers may wish to see Melendez and Harrison (1998) for an overview of one program that improved the employment rate of their service population in this way.

It is not essential that counselors use all these strategies. What is essential is that vocational rehabilitators begin to consider the importance of social capital on the employment prospects of the people they serve and select or develop programs that they believe will be effective in building the social capital of this population. We believe that even incremental steps in this direction will yield some improvement in the employment rates experienced by persons with a disability.

A Research Agenda

Finally, for those who do research on employment and disability, the concept of social capital opens a much needed research agenda. Additional research is needed concerning various disabilities to confirm that social capital impacts employment for persons with a disability as it does with the general population, or if not, then to determine how it differs. Further research is also needed to determine the impact various types of disability have on the size and structure of social networks, and to determine the overall impact these two factors have on the employment rates of people with various disabilities. Finally, as vocational rehabilitation programs implement programs designed to address social capital deficiencies, it is important that organizations have research to assess the effect these programs have in improving employment.


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Blyden Potts, 28 Diller Drive, Shippensburg, PA 17257. Email:
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Author:Potts, Blyden
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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