[Editor's note: This post was written by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers®, and originally featured on the Huffington Post.]
"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." So proclaimed President Theodore Roosevelt. Though we half-joke about what drudgery our working lives can be, the guy was right. Trouble is, it's a prize too few people ever win.
Currently there are more than 200 million people in the world who want and need to work but have no job. The number of people who are employed but underpaid, overqualified, or in jobs that don't match their skills or potential is immeasurable, but certainly enormous.
In an era when matchmaking supply and demand in the world of shopping has reached a level of incredible efficiency, why is it so hard for a willing worker with a specific skill set and an eager employer with a precise need to find each other?
Consider eBay. A quick, recent search for an obscure item -- a West African instrument called a balafon -- yielded a few authentic pieces for sale in Australia, California, and Banjul, Gambia (which actually happens to be the country where I was first introduced to its lovely sound). Also listed were some reproductions from a wholesaler in Utah and a hard-to-find album anthology of balafon music from a seller in England. As we all know, you name your price and if it suits the seller, the exact thing you were looking for -- perfectly suited to your interests -- becomes yours. Everyone's happy.
The matching doesn't stop there. Over on YouTube, I can see balafon performances to inspire and instruct me. And it's not hard to find an online community of fellow African-music lovers to direct me to other resources. It's like there's a giant, global effort to give everyone looking to buy and everyone looking to sell an easy, satisfying, profitable experience.
So why doesn't this happen in the global marketplace for employment? Finding and filling jobs is remarkably inefficient and ineffective all over the world.
Fortunately, there are some inventive people who are starting to solve this problem. They know the barriers to success and they are working to get around them.
These challenges vary from country to country and region to region, and depend on many factors, including lack of access to education and restrictive cultural norms.
For example, as jobs become increasingly concentrated in urban centers, women in rural areas who may be perfectly qualified are, in many cultures, discouraged from moving to cities on their own. Employers in those cities may select from a pool of less-qualified applicants; the women might never reach their full economic and career potential.
Another challenge faces many young people on the route to high-skilled careers. Often derailed from schooling and training by the relentless need to earn income, they may wind up in dead-end, low-paying jobs. That's not good for anyone, including employers, who would be better served by workers who are reaching their potential instead of feeling trapped.
A further challenge is lack of information. All too often, people are not aware of career options that might tap their talents. All too often, markets are not aware of skilled individuals producing high-quality goods in remote locations, leaving these producers shut out of income-earning opportunities.
Part of the solution is undoubtedly technology-based: Harnessing the web and mobile devices can help reach untapped populations of new workers, identify opportunities in less-competitive professions, and reveal markets with great potential for growth.
Also critical are support systems -- in banking and government -- for small and growing businesses (the biggest job creators in the world, as well as the enterprises most vulnerable to failure). Government incentives to address underemployment and lack of training can help, as well as more collaboration across the sectors that have a stake in vastly improving the employment landscape.
You can see a wide array of inventive solutions to these problems on the website of a global competition, Powering Economic Opportunity: Create a World that Works. The competition is uncovering innovative, market-based solutions that create economic opportunity and generate employment for vulnerable populations.
Among the entries are ones that connect self-employed language teachers -- many of them women in rural regions of developing countries -- with eager students around the world online. Another uses technology to link farmers with real-time market information, helping them buy supplies at the lowest price and sell to new buyers at the highest bid; the project keeps farmers employed at what they know best and prevents further migration to cities.
This is just a small sampling of the kinds of ideas that herald an efficient global job exchange in our future. Not surprisingly, the competition is a project of eBay Foundation, the folks who have already brought you a highly efficient global shopping experience. In partnership with Ashoka Changemakers, which runs many social change competitions, the competition is receiving entries from all over the world, the best of which will receive $250,000 in award money and a chance to be further supported by eBay Foundation.
That's a pretty impressive prize, and one that may ultimately make the much bigger prize that Roosevelt heralded -- "the chance to work hard at work worth doing" -- a universal experience.
Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo (cc)