How an email nudge helped unemployed workers jump-start their job hunt

Can something as simple as a personable, friendly email better entice displaced workers to seek job search assistance than an intimidating letter from the state Unemployment Insurance agency? 

Recently, Michigan Works! Southwest set out to see if it could increase the participation rates of displaced workers in the State Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment (REA) program. The program has been shown to help the unemployed get back to work. But last year, for the first three months of Michigan’s pilot REA program, 43 percent of unemployed workers told to participate never responded to the state’s letter mandating them to enroll in the program. Even though that letter told them their unemployment benefits would be suspended if they didn’t schedule an appointment, they still didn’t respond. Another 19 percent made of first appointment but didn’t bother to show up for it. 

But a friendly email ahead of that letter, plus more friendly follow-ups, increased the chances a jobseeker would schedule an appointment for state employment assistance by 16 percentage points and increased the likelihood of completing the program by 14 percentage points. (See figure below.)

To understand why, a team of researchers from the W.E. Upjohn Institute and its partners in the project—Mathematica, Ideas42, and the U.S. Department of Labor—talked with those on the front lines helping unemployed workers find new jobs. They identified a number of likely "behavioral bottlenecks"—points in the process where unemployed workers might tune out or give up on working with the state.

Government agency letters "basically look like a jury summons," notes Eric Stewart, One-Stop administrator for Michigan Works! Southwest. "They’re very cold, impersonal. That doesn’t inspire someone to go deeper into the services available."

For example, here's the key sentence from the state's letter to participants in the pilot REA project: "You must contact a Michigan Works! Agency (MWA) Service Center to schedule your mandatory appointment for an initial REA within 14 calendar days of the mail date of this letter; otherwise, your UI benefits may be stopped."

Stewart notes that the impersonal yet demanding tone can inspire some people to "ignore the letter altogether and throw it in the trash." Also, since the letter provides few details about the benefits of REA, unemployed workers might not understand the value of its job-search assistance.

Armed with this information, the research team designed a set of seven emails to overcome the bottlenecks and offer a positive behavioral "nudge" that would encourage taking part in REA. The introductory email arrived before the state letter itself. Written in a friendly tone, that email let the newly unemployed know what to expect and spelled out the concrete next steps they should take. Reminder emails were intended to keep them on-track with their appointments and offered planning prompts to organize their job search.

Workers newly unemployed in southwest Michigan between mid-March and late September of last year were randomly assigned to receive the emails. The jobseekers who received emails were more likely to make their first appointment with REA and more likely to complete the REA program. Further research, expected in early 2017, will analyze whether the "nudge" emails increased reemployment rates and earnings for the jobseekers who received them.

But the agencies aren’t waiting for that research before finding more ways to support their clients. "This is one area where a little bit of real human interaction might inspire some people to take advantage of these services. Sure enough, that’s what happened," says Stewart. "Now, we’re infusing it in other aspects of our work."

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