Our Daily Bleg: A Way to Show Employers What You Can Do Before You Get the Job

Here’s an interesting concept from blog reader Todd Palmer, who wants reader opinions as to whether his concept can work in the marketplace; and he also needs a good domain name.

Todd’s idea:

The site would function as a recruiting network, giving students and corporations an entirely new dimension of access to one another. Corporations would post tasks, real or simulated, for students to work on. These tasks would be organized by subject area or industry, such as computer science, mechanical engineering, journalism, marketing, web design, etc.

Already Been Blegged

75 ThumbnailHere’s what Freakonomics readers have been blegging for lately.

Students would create individual or team profiles and work on selected tasks, submitting their completed work in the form of text, images, videos, power point, audio, or any other format that can be uploaded. Companies will have the ability to rate submitted work, allowing students to accumulate a “work score.”

The benefit for the corporation would be their new outlet to recruit students who have a proven ability to excel at the type of assignment they will be faced with on the job.

They will also find that they have a large audience of well-educated students who are quite motivated to impress them with their submissions. This will give them the power to bleg. They will be able to post tasks that they are unable or unwilling to pay a single individual to do, and they will get at least a few surprisingly high-quality submissions due to the nature and size of their audience. They will be able to tap into the creative minds of the masses at their will.

The students will be able to showcase their skills while still in school full time, and they will also be able to build a work portfolio that can be integrated into their resume. Each top-notch project that they complete for a corporation will get them noticed, and make them more likely to be hired upon graduation. This format could even allow for students to go pro early, meaning they could get recruited while still in school and get a jump on their careers while their new employers pay for the remainder of their education.

This new site could be to summer internships what online education has become to on-campus education. It would give students exposure to real-world scenarios and assignments without the face-to-face interaction of an internship.

Todd asks the following questions:

— Would corporations and students spend the time and effort to participate in such a site?

— If all parties participated in the site as hoped, would it create a win/win situation for companies and students?

— Could it have a large enough impact to alter the traditional college curriculum by encouraging the teaching of material more relevant to the real world?

— What could be added to make the site more useful to all parties?

— What would a good domain name be?

Moral Panicker

– Would corporations and students spend the time and effort to participate in such a site?

Students (I don't see why it has to be just students. Maybe a separate version for the mature unemployed) would. I think businesses are less likely to participate in this, as the judging of detailed projects (as opposed to the general business sense human resources personnel and managers could evaluate) would require the specialized knowledge of people who would probably resent that their work (either hypothetical projects or actual projects) is being done for free by resume padding little thugs. The businesses may also be very cagey about confidentiality while outsourcing their work, real or hypothetical, in this way.

– If all parties participated in the site as hoped, would it create a win/win situation for companies and students?

For the students, yes in a prisoner's dilemma sense. The students will join a more and more sorry whiz-bang interactive 110% dignity-free innovationriffic workforce by participating or they can be out of the work-force by not participating (I am exaggerating.) The businesses will face more difficulties in getting their system running, but they may get their intelligent, motivated workers if they do it just right.

– Could it have a large enough impact to alter the traditional college curriculum by encouraging the teaching of material more relevant to the real world?

hahahaha No. The actual tasks are way too diverse. Colleges may say they are adapting by making more and more computerized learning of material that could probably be learned more effectively from a person, but this would actually have very little to do with the actual tasks of the businesses.

– What could be added to make the site more useful to all parties?
You should have some good features for making the portfolios.

– What would a good domain name be?

On a related not, I don't think this is a good idea, and I don't generally approve of the posturing of economists, especially when it is separated from actual questions about the use and distribution of scarce issues as in this blog. That being said, the economists whose work is presented on this blog are important and serious voices, do good work, and deserve special respect.



I like the idea a lot. I work for a consulting company that I think would find it an interesting way to find candidates. I think the key concerns would be:

a.) how can you confirm that the work done is the student's original work?
b.) what would pricing be?


To avoid the "slave labor" connotations, what if each work assignment was framed as a contest for the best submission?

Like micro-versions of JungleSmash ( http://freakonomics.com/2008/10/07/is-junglesmash-the-new-madison-avenue/ )

The companies could choose a winning submission (given they received submissions that meet their basic requirements) for each assignment and pay the winners a nominal amount (disclosed up front). This would be in addition to improving a student's "workscore" for consideration for employment.


Into year four of my doctoral program I think the most important thing I have learned is humility. This smacks of the opposite- hubris- that a student with little to no background in the details of an assignment can produce something of value. It is incredibly difficult to acquire the necessary background and even then Rummy's uknown unknowns require you to reevaluate your opinions and work all the time. Our current methods of allocating labor have worked good enough. Enough with the tinkering.

Did This In College

I can see it being helpful, but I can also see companies a bit reticent to give up confidential information, which would be needed in most cases.

Some colleges have programs like this, not for try before you buy, but as real life experience for students. Such as the GM program for marketing students. They build an on campus event to bring brand awareness and learn a lot in the process. It is how GM got their "pontiac extreme" ad campaign. It was the winner one year.

Getting over the challenges is going to be an effort in itself, as will validating that the unemployed are actually unemployed and not industry moles.



I like that this is kind of a blind interview. I also like that it would give internship access to students in rural areas who might not be able to afford to move to a city and work for free. A student might even be able to hold down a paid job and spend some time accumulating a work score. Another outlet for overacheivers!


I'm curious about the IP and unpaid internship questions, but I have another issue to add. For computer science students and other kinds of engineers entering the workforce, being able to write code or draft a bridge plan, etc. are not tantamount to being a good employee. College students do not (usually) have experience working on enterprise development teams or any project that lasts longer than 16 weeks. The problem isn't that they don't know how to program in C or to do the appropriate calculations on a bridge design. Often the problem is that they don't have experiences or skills to work in teams or larger organizations. While such a site may make it easier for students to demonstrate proficiency in some content domain, I'm not sure it would help employers identify people who can coordinate their work with others and contribute to large projects.

I recommend better student portfolios for addressing the kinds of work that could be feasibly accomplished on such a site - help students get credit and recognition for work they've already done rather than asking them to do even more work for no immediate reward. Of course, that system demands that students do academic work that they can show off to potential employers, so we're still not off the hook in academia. A site that lets student post their portfolios in a useful way may be more appropriate.



Something similar here for the design industry, a competition where the winners are chosen by the company submitting the project....


As an architecture student who is graduating this May, this seems like an intriguing way to make some money, but really, I think that this type of setup devalues the profession and those who are not chosen and end up doing work for free.

Trish M

Thanks, Gabriel, for pointing out Northeastern University.
I'm currently an undergrad student there and get paid pretty well for 3, 6 month co-ops in jobs where I get substantial corporate experience and can make an impact in a company that I get recognized for. The idea sounds good, but realistically it would only exploit intelligent students without giving them the credit or compensation they deserve.
If anything, the implementation of co-ops in more colleges should be a topic of discussion.


I can see a potential problem with students abusing the system as well. It could be hard to ensure or enforce that the work is truly the student's.

Daniel W Carroll

Interesting idea - assuming companies are interested in the work produced by students. Most of the time, an employee's work is too specialized that a student wouldn't be able to do it without training. And most employers are too busy to put together special projects for students.

However, it would be a good idea for students to figure out what they want to do and put together a portfolio of work around their preferred subject or subjects. It won't usually be read, but it will usually impress as long as the work is thoughtful, relevant, and well put together.

Unfortunately, even though the face-to-face interview is known to be completely ineffective (even counter-productive), most hiring managers prefer to rely on it for decision-making. Anything that alters that dynamic would be useful for both student and employer alike.


I think that this could be a good idea if it had a few changes. First if it was more like a careerbuilder or monster site where companies looking to hire could meet with the unemployed (ie students, jobless, others with job looking for a new one) which would be when it is a win/win situation. This would give companies a very useful tool to figure out who is and who isnt qualified for the position (some "beef" up their resumes more than others) and who they should interview. For students its a way to stand out and hopefully get a job.

One of my college teachers told my class that google did something simular to what I (and perhaps Mr. Palmer) are suggesting. They had a billboard with a math problem on it and words that said Call this number with the answer (math problem solved was a 10 digit number). This allowed google to find people who could do the math they wanted and also people who are motivated to solve that type of problem.

Would corporations and students spend the time and effort to participate in such a site?

I think so.

– If all parties participated in the site as hoped, would it create a win/win situation for companies and students?

If it was set up as a job finding site I belive so.

– Could it have a large enough impact to alter the traditional college curriculum by encouraging the teaching of material more relevant to the real world?

No. My experiance is that college is a way to judge the intelligence of someone and a company is going to train the person to more or less customize them for their position in the company. Also a scarier realization is that some college professors and a lot more teachers (middle/HS) have little clue about the real world.



First, team assignments will never work, since each person is trying to prove their individual worth.

Second, it's not a bad idea as long as the projects are not very long. They should all have to be 1 hour or less, or at the very most 2. Why spend 6 hours on a project for a job you might not get, when you could spend 6 hours applying to 12 jobs?

Third, an employer could get a more perfect measure by requiring applicants to do a short task (completely outside of the website). Then they can see how well they would perform on the exact kind of work they would do. They would get much more detailed information than that which some score could provide.


Innocentive. com is doing this but is paying for results


our engineering senior design project was along these lines - the class split into groups and worked projects for various companies (Ford regularly does one of them, one was a power company, one was the town sanitation department). We got experience and class credit, they got free work (minus time and expenses, of course). It worked well, actually, though my personal experience was less than ideal.

It would be pretty good as a site - better if you talk to colleges and let them get some sort of credit for it - maybe as an independent study? Certainly the experience was valuable, and my husband ended up getting his job through a similar program at his school.


1. I think that perhaps some of these commenters are overvaluing the work that an unpaid, unemployed student with little insight into the business, customers, practices, standards, procedures, or company culture would actually produce. I doubt that a company would use (steal) a presentation made by someone who doesn't even know where the printer is, much less the intricacies of the business.

2. If the website were used to find "slave labor" (as previously suggested) that was of no benefit to the participant the slaves would simply decline to participate and the website would go away. (Should this point even have to be brought up on an economics blog??)


Very few jobs are so simply task-oriented. A successful role within an organization is a complex web of knowledge and relationships.

In most companies, context is key. I work for a small firm, and we have decided not to bring on a full time summer intern this year simply because we cannot afford to spend the appropriate number hours on oversight and mentoring to make it a worthwhile experience for either party (us, or the intern).

It can be difficult to get new full time employees up to speed and delivering on expectations. This virtual system would have no mechanism to even attempt the necessary coaching.

Furthermore, if you have multiple individuals all submitting "something" under the argument that one of they will certainly be a diamond in the rough, the element that you are forgetting is that the company then needs to dedicate a resource to sifting through ALL of the responses, including the 99% that are not diamonds.

Finally, there is the matter of confidential information and the public sphere, as many commentators have already raised.

There may be a few tasks that this model would work for. These would be relatively independent work scenarios where many submissions can be judged very quickly, such as graphic design. For the majority of work and the majority of organizations, though, this would not work.

The writer concludes: "It would give students exposure to real-world scenarios and assignments without the face-to-face interaction of an internship." The face-to-face interaction IS the real world. It is how you learn and grow. It is the difference between an online university and a real collegiate experience. The writer sounds eager to strip that from the "internship" experience, but without it there is likely to be little value for either party, and the costs to the companies would be too high to justify it.



How about, instead of "free" which seems to be the major complaint every one is lodging, we put up bounties for solutions. Similar to the Google answers websites, and Ubuntu developer Bounties for development.

This solves a few problems, since you're "selling" your solution, it slightly ungreys the IP ownership question.

It puts incentives on both sides to use the "service". Smart students looking to make a quick buck will go there just for the bounties, and inadvertently showcase their skills. And Business Will obviously undercut the actual cost of solving a problem.

Now one can ask, what then is the value of a certain idea? What is fair compensation for said idea? I think thats a self regulating problem. If the companies undercut too much, people won't solve their problems because of the work/reward trade off. And if they desperately need a problem solved what better way to solve it, than to put a big fat price tag on it. You'll naturally get a swarm of answers, granted you'll now have to navigate between crap and useful solutions.

I guess that raises an interesting question, is there sweet spot in the outsource and verify vs Brew at home trade off that will inevitably arise here? You'll need some one internal to verify if the solutions are even marginally useful. That might incur more overhead than solving the problem internally in the first place.

Food for thought.


Kitt Hirasaki


I think it'd be a fantastic idea. I work for a software UI design team, and we're already talking about sending candidates design assignments for them to bring in to the interview, because it's very difficult to assess someone's design skills without a concrete example to analyze and discuss.


This essentially already exists in the software world. There used to be, and probably still are, sites where people could post tasks with desired fees and any programmer could contact them and submit a job.

It isn't a bad idea, but it would require a lot of legwork to get it going anywhere. The web is a huge place and it takes a lot to get noticed. You'd probably have to partner with universities to get companies to take you seriously. If this site is really going to be totally unpaid work, quality may be a serious issue. How do you plan to turn a profit? Advertising or will you charge companies to access it? I'd be very skeptical about ponying up money to access "free" labor. Then there are the IP legal issues someone mentioned before. This could be a great success, but it will be very, very difficult to get going.