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Black Holes and Purple Squirrels: A Tale of Two Online Labor Markets

Work and Labor in the Digital Age

ISBN: 978-1-78973-586-4, eISBN: 978-1-78973-585-7

Publication date: 4 July 2019


The Internet and social media have fundamentally transformed the ways in which individuals find jobs. Relatively little is known about how demand-side market actors use online information and the implications for social stratification and mobility. This study provides an in-depth exploration of the online recruitment strategies pursued by human resource (HR) professionals. Qualitative interviews with 61 HR recruiters in two southern US metro areas reveal two distinct patterns in how they use Internet resources to fill jobs. For low and general skill work, they post advertisements to online job boards (e.g., Monster and CareerBuilder) with massive audiences of job seekers. By contrast, for high-skill or supervisory positions, they use LinkedIn to target passive candidates – employed individuals who are not looking for work but might be willing to change jobs. Although there are some intermediate practices, the overall picture is one of an increasingly bifurcated “winner-take-all” labor market in which recruiters focus their efforts on poaching specialized superstar talent (“purple squirrels”) from the ranks of the currently employed, while active job seekers are relegated to the hyper-competitive and impersonal “black hole” of the online job boards.




Data collection was supported by a grant from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University and from the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline. We thank Steve Vallas and Ofer Sharone for their detailed commentary and advice on earlier drafts of this chapter. We also thank our many interviewees who made this research possible by sharing their thoughts and experiences with us.


McDonald, S., Damarin, A.K., Lawhorne, J. and Wilcox, A. (2019), "Black Holes and Purple Squirrels: A Tale of Two Online Labor Markets", Vallas, S.P. and Kovalainen, A. (Ed.) Work and Labor in the Digital Age (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 33), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 93-120.



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