Cash for Jobs: Job Seekers Open Their Wallets

Out of work? A new site encourages you to offer cash to anyone who helps you land a job

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Illustration by Erin Schell for TIME

The out-of-work engineering grad figured, What the hell. He had been searching for a full-time job ever since he got his M.B.A. from UCLA in 2009. After 18 months of networking and sending out résumés, the 28-year-old Los Angeles resident spotted an ad on Craigslist in November for a job-hunting site called Career Element, which encourages people to offer cash bounties to anyone who helps them find work. He signed up, described his ideal gig — a business-development role at a venture-backed start-up — and promised to pay $10,000 for a referral resulting in employment.

The strategy, while extreme, is not unprecedented. Forty-two percent of unemployed workers in the U.S. have been jobless for at least 27 weeks, and many of them are willing to try anything, including hiring someone else, to start getting a paycheck again. While some job seekers offer rewards on their own — like the laid-off financial analyst in Texas who placed a classified ad on the Fort Worth Weekly's website last summer, offering $1,000 to anyone who helped her land full-time employment — others are flashing cash incentives in a new breed of online job marketplace. Career Element, based in Palo Alto, Calif., launched in October to connect job-seeking clients with agents, who could be professional recruiters or just regular Joes with knowledge about job openings, perhaps within their companies. If an agent helps a client get hired, the agent collects 87.5% of the bounty, and Career Element keeps the rest.

Whereas Career Element lets members join for free, another site, two-year-old charges $15 per listing per month. But that hasn't deterred more than 2,000 seekers from signing up. The site facilitates sales introductions as well as job referrals. It offers to hold reward money in escrow for six weeks — in case the introduction doesn't happen — but charges a 20% fee for this option.

Until recently, referral fees like headhunters' were always paid by the employer, not the newly hired employee. "For a long time, companies have shown a willingness to pay for referrals of good candidates, so it's not a big surprise when the reverse happens in a tight labor market," says Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources. "The concept of people paying for information is only going to grow."

In a way, waving a cash reward or paying a fee for special networking privileges is not unlike bribing a bouncer to get into a nightclub. But once you get past the velvet rope, it's up to you to charm the people inside.

So far, Career Element has signed up just 89 clients and landed only one of them a job. As for the unemployed M.B.A. in Los Angeles, who asked not to be identified by name, his phone started ringing within days of posting a $10,000 reward, but none of Career Element's agents have been able to help him score an interview yet. So on Jan. 10 he started an internship, which he found through contacts on LinkedIn. "It's unpaid," he says. "Hopefully, it leads to something with an actual salary."