Why you should care

Because if Brazil can find a way to mobilize its poorest unemployed citizens, why can’t other emerging economies?

When Maria Angélica de Souza Santos found herself without work in Taboão da Serra, Brazil, the 26-year-old did what many unemployed locals do: She registered on job site after job site. But when you don’t own a smartphone, all the detailed listings in the world aren’t going to help you. Santos needed a site that sent only simple text messages to her cellphone.

Which is exactly what one site — Emprego Ligado — did, asking for simple one-digit replies. Within a couple of weeks, she had locked down an interview and an offer to be a shelf-stocker at a supermarket perfume counter. “I didn’t want to pass it up,” she says.

It doesn’t take much to trip up the most earnest of job hunters these days, especially in a part of the world not nearly as rich or text-savvy as others. In Brazil, surveys say 44 percent of the population are completely disengaged from the labor market – meaning neither employed nor job-seeking, hanging out in hammocks and often simply dependent on the welfare state. But for the part of the population that is looking, the answer appears to be the most simple of solutions: text messaging. That’s crucial for those who can’t afford expensive cell data plans — and who don’t frequent Internet cafes.*

We saw a huge demand in urban centers for people trying to find jobs.

Derek Fears, co-founder of job site

How does it work? You could almost text the answer. Job candidates text their skills, interests and where they live to Emprego Ligado, which then responds with a text message whenever a company wants to share job details or set up an interview. Candidates even get a text reminder so that they won’t miss their appointment. So far this year, more than 2 million job opportunities have passed through the system in the São Paulo region, according to the company. About 30 percent of job seekers have received an offer within their first week of using the program, while 60 percent secured an offer within a month, the company says. “We saw a huge demand in urban centers for people trying to find jobs,” Derek Fears, Emprego Ligado’s co-founder, tells OZY.

That is, of course, in just one part of the country, but outside investors have shown some interest. Although Emprego Ligado doesn’t disclose its revenues or the total number of businesses that have registered with its service, the company says it recently secured a $7 million Series A investment . Over the next year, Fears plans to develop new features and expand the service to other big cities in Brazil, as well as across Latin America. He also has his sights set on more far-flung markets. “We are confident that this idea can work in lots of places: India, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa,” Fears says.

But competitors within some of those markets already have a good head start. In India, for example, some groups are already experimenting with job boards using “interactive voice response,” where job hunters don’t even have to bother with text messaging — they just dial through a phone tree. These systems may be even better for developing countries, because text messaging still requires that job seekers be able to read, says Michael Best, director of the Technologies and International Development Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Woman using tablet computer at desk

Using its matchmaking program, job candidates text their skills, interests and where they live to Emprego Ligado.

Source Benedict Johnson/Gallery Stock

Indeed, even in Brazil, Emprego Ligado can’t reach everyone: Between 8 and 10 percent of Brazilians are illiterate, and about 27 percent cannot understand what they read beyond the most basic level, according to the Paulo Montenegro Institute . Also, the jobs that Emprego Ligado finds aren’t always better than what job seekers can get on their own. For example, before Santos lost her previous job as a nanny, she worked just on the weekends and earned about $600 per month. She’s now busy six days a week and makes just $415 per month. Even though she has received a couple of subsequent job offers, she feels devoted to her current employer and won’t leave. “Since I’m already here, I don’t want [offers] anymore,” she says.

For now, Fears’ immediate challenge boils down to an area that you’d think Emprego Ligado would be great at: finding its own good employees. Yet the startup community in Brazil is still forming, and many locals prefer working for bigger, more established companies. “For us, it can be very difficult to find top-tier talent in the local market,” says Fears.

*Due to an editing error a previous version of this story misstated the statistic about labor market engagement. It is 44 percent of the population disengaged, not 56 percent seeking a new job.

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