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Breaking the Job Bank

June 4, 2007
Related Topics: Staffing and the Law, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article, Staffing Management
Less than a month before America’s Job Bank disappears, employers, states and other organizations are scrambling to prepare for life without the free government job site.

    The U.S. Department of Labor announced in early 2006 that the 12-year-old site, the first national job board on the Internet and still one of the country’s biggest, would close June 30.

    Even with the lead time and a number of would-be substitute services, employers large and small aren’t yet sure how to fill AJB’s shoes. Of particular concern is the way the site has helped federal contractors comply with a job-posting rule. In addition, services from groups that aid job seekers may suffer, at least in the short run, once AJB goes away. And state officials have yet to work out all the kinks related to AJB’s closing.

    Bonnie Elsey, director of workforce services in Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, says her state plans to join forces with JobCentral National Labor Exchange, one of the major private-sector efforts to replace AJB. But, she says, it’s not clear the shift to a new system for swapping jobs with other states will go smoothly.

    "Nobody’s up, nobody’s running, and we don’t know what sorts of bugs we’ll face," she says.

    In written responses to questions posed by Workforce Management, the Labor Department said it has worked to help states and other groups cope with the shutdown of AJB.

    "The closure of AJB has not been secret and organizations have had 18 months to prepare," the department stated.

Controversial decision
    Concerns about a rocky phase-out add to controversy that has dogged the decision to close AJB from the get-go. In a memo to state officials last year, the Labor Department argued that the cost of maintaining and improving the site no longer made sense "given that AJB duplicates what is already available in the private sector." The cost of operating AJB has been as high as $27 million per year, the department said in the memo, "with a current operating budget for maintenance-only of $12 million per year." In a separate memo, department officials predicted a "negligible" impact on workers and businesses.

    The department’s reasoning, though, has been called into question. A Minnesota study last year found that just 37 percent of AJB users in that state said the site’s phase-out would have a "negligible" impact on them, while 16 percent said it would have "great impact." Critics also argue that AJB has played a unique role for employers, job seekers and states.

    Bolstering their claims is the fact that the two services seen as most closely standing in for AJB did not exist at the time the Labor Department said it would shutter the site. These are JobCentral National Labor Exchange from nonprofit group the DirectEmployers Association and America’s Job Exchange from NaviSite, a for-profit technology services firm that has managed AJB for years as a contractor.

    There’s little disagreement, however, that AJB played a pioneering role in the history of online recruiting. AJB also served as the first Internet presence for "labor exchange" for states—that is, it helps states swap information about jobs posted in their employment services systems.

    AJB holds some 2.2 million jobs, along with more than 600,000 résumés. By contrast, major commercial site CareerBuilder claims to have more than 1.5 million jobs. There are about 450,000 registered employers at AJB. Thirty-nine states submit jobs to the site.

    AJB both lists jobs on its site and sends jobs back to state workforce agencies. For example, states can arrange to get a list of the jobs posted directly to AJB that are located in their state. Thirty-three states have signed up to receive job listings from AJB.

    A major use of AJB has related to compliance with a rule for federal contractors. For years, companies doing business with the federal government have been able to use AJB to meet a job-listing requirement under the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act. AJB has allowed employers to avoid having to manually distribute new job listings to potentially hundreds of local public employment centers around the country—a costly burden for large firms with widely dispersed offices or shops. The Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs enforces the job-posting regulation.

Dueling replacements
    Both NaviSite’s America’s Job Exchange and DirectEmployers’ JobCentral National Labor Exchange are designed to be free to job seekers and states wishing to share their job listing data with other states. And both organizations intend for their new services to help employers meet OFCCP requirements.

    But their efforts to market themselves have at times added to the uncertainty surrounding AJB’s departure.

    The conflict stems in part from a press release NaviSite quietly posted on its Web site last fall in which it said it "will continue to operate the America’s Job Bank." Bill Warren, executive director of DirectEmployers, later cited this wording in a series of questions and answers designed to clear up confusion. Denis Martin, NaviSite executive vice president, concedes the wording was misleading, given that AJB officially will cease to exist beyond June 30. "It was a mistake and it has been corrected over and over again," he says.

    Even if employers have gotten the vendors’ messages straight, some companies are still not sure how to adjust to AJB’s departure. Of particular concern is how federal contractors will meet job-posting requirements in the absence of the government site. That question is complicated by the fact that the OFCCP is in the midst of updating veteran job-posting rules thanks to a change in the law a few years ago. The agency expects to publish a new ruling this month.

    Kansas-based telecommunications company Embarq has joined the DirectEmployers Association and hopes to use the JobCentral exchange to satisfy OFCCP obligations. But Anne Marconi, Embarq’s manager for recruiting strategy, process and analysis, is uneasy about substituting JobCentral for AJB. Marconi hasn’t been convinced that JobCentral’s plan to comply with OFCCP rules will pass muster.

    "It didn’t seem to me that it was all tied up in a bow yet," she says. "… I don’t think that anybody’s feeling that confident."

    JobCentral’s strategy for ensuring OFCCP compliance centers on sending job listings—by e-mail or fax—to hundreds of local officials around the country who serve as "Disabled Veterans Outreach Program" specialists and "Local Veterans Employment Representatives." Warren said testing the software to accomplish this goal was not completed by April, as expected. But he says the testing is almost finished.

    "We wrote the software so that whatever the new rule is, we can comply," he says. "We’re not guessing."

    Still, federal contractors may be wise to take a wait-and-see attitude toward both DirectEmployers and NaviSite, suggests Joe Lakis, senior counsel with the Equal Employment Advisory Council, a group of about 320 companies focused on nondiscrimination and affirmative action compliance issues. The final rule may allow employers to comply on their own in a cost-effective way, he says, and it’s possible other compliance methods may still emerge, such as a service from a big private-sector job board.

    "Until federal contractors know exactly what OFCCP will require of them to satisfy the mandatory job listing requirement, it may be premature for some of them to commit to any particular service," Lakis says.

Large and small businesses affected
    Small businesses also face a quandary with the end of America’s Job Bank, says Cyndy Geier, CEO of Job Applicants Direct, a Southern California-based firm that helps small and midsize employers improve their online recruiting efforts. Key to Geier’s strategy over the past few years has been posting client job openings on America’s Job Bank. She says free listings at America’s Job Bank save clients the hundreds of dollars they can pay for a single job posting at major commercial job boards like Monster, and that AJB has outperformed those better-known boards in producing good candidates.

    Geier worries that her clients will have to pay for a replacement service to AJB. NaviSite intends for its job exchange to remain free for small employers, and employers of any size can sign up by July 4 for a year of free service—part of an effort to build an ad-based revenue stream. But NaviSite eventually may charge large employers for job postings at America’s Job Exchange.

    Employers who post listings with state job banks that join forces with NaviSite’s new site will be able to broadcast those jobs on for free. The DirectEmployers Association makes a similar pitch regarding jobs posted through state workforce agencies that link up with its JobCentral National Labor Exchange.

    DirectEmployers also says employers can post jobs to its JobCentral site at no charge and have them distributed for OFCCP compliance. For a fee, employers can use the JobCentral site for broader distribution. Nonmembers pay $25 per month to have a job opening published to Internet search engines such as Google and and to more than 1,000 other Internet sites. That service is free for association members, who also benefit from having all the job listings on their career sites automatically included in the JobCentral system. Membership in the DirectEmployers Association costs $15,000 per year, which includes the OFCCP-compliance service.

    JobCentral’s $25-per-month fee for a widely distributed job listing, although much less than the $67.50 per month one can spend for bulk job postings at Monster, could mean online recruiting fees that amount to tens of thousands of dollars annually for a small firm, Geier says.

    "If you’re a staffing agency, you’re talking over 100 jobs a month," she says.

Ripple effects
    Employers aren’t alone in struggling with the departure of America’s Job Bank. Career information services that rely on AJB to give displaced workers quick access to job postings stand to go without that feature at least temporarily. The National Federation of the Blind’s JobLine—a service that allows blind job seekers to find and apply for jobs over the phone—will cease July 1, and it’s unclear when, if ever, a replacement might begin.

    States also are wrestling with AJB’s closure. A major state goal is the continued ability to collect job postings from neighboring states, which can help residents find work across state borders. How easy it is for states to live without America’s Job Bank therefore depends to a large degree on how many sign on with one or both of the would-be AJB replacements. So far, NaviSite has signed deals with about a half-dozen states, including New Jersey, New York and Maine. Martin says another 20 or so states are sitting on the fence.

    DirectEmployers has forged more partnerships, with 25 states signing on. Bolstering DirectEmployers’ case to states is an endorsement it won this year from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, a group of state administrators of programs and services provided through publicly funded state workforce systems.

    Minnesota’s Elsey wants to make sure she can gather into her state job bank openings from neighboring states. She also wants to be able to capture the Minnesota-based jobs that employers have been posting directly to AJB. Currently, about half the jobs in Minnesota’s system come from listings placed on AJB.

    "We want to make sure all the Minnesota openings come back to Minnesota," she says.

    One way to get those AJB-listed jobs back to Minnesota and other states is to persuade employers who posted to America’s Job Bank to start listing jobs with one of the new replacement services, and for those services to work with the states. NaviSite’s Martin argues that this scenario would have been easier to achieve if the Labor Department had agreed to give away or sell the assets of AJB, including its URLs. By doing so, Martin says, the government would have allowed the America’s Job Bank brand to continue, thereby preserving hard-to-achieve Internet traffic that would woo employers.

    In a statement, the Labor Department said it "cannot give or sell the assets to the private sector unless there is an express public purpose."

    Martin also says the New York state Department of Labor, which operates AJB through a grant from the U.S. Labor Department, is erring by not giving state officials user name and password data for employers with job openings in their states. Such information would make it simpler for states to persuade employers to switch to a new job listing service, he says, because the employers could preserve the same user name and password. A spokeswoman from the New York Department of Labor said it is reviewing its policy on disseminating log-in password sets.

    Martin concedes that NaviSite stands to benefit more than other job listing services should New York adopt his position—because employers may already have user names and passwords at other sites. But he says any NaviSite gain is more than outweighed by the public benefit of a more effective replacement to AJB.

    NaviSite has come up with a workaround for states to transfer AJB user name and password data into America’s Job Exchange, but it requires employers to sign on to the new site.

    "It’s an enormous pain," Martin says. "States are not getting their data fast enough."

    For states, employers and other organizations, the imminent death of America’s Job Bank is proving to be far from painless.

    "We can survive," says Geier, speaking of the impact on her small-business clients. "But it’s such a great service to have."

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