What If Two Employees Could Just Swap Jobs?


It is kind of hilarious how I’ve started to cover the Seattle beat without really planning to. Sure, I live here, but Seattle keeps showing up in the news for other reasons—the teachers’ strike, the $15 minimum wage, the microapartments and commutes—and I will frequently read an interesting finance-related story and then realize that it takes place in Seattle.

Like this one, about a man who created software to encourage workers to swap jobs for ones closer to home:

[Gene Mullins] has said the idea came to him when he was stuck in traffic, on the way from his home in Magnolia to the environmental engineering firm he worked for, which had recently moved out to Bothell. He stared at the commuter hordes crawling into Seattle and thought, “It’s too bad we can’t just trade places.” And then he thought, why not? He developed a package of software and related materials, trademarked ProximateCommute, that would explain the idea to workers, then crunch their job descriptions, home addresses, and work sites and suggest job swaps that would reduce both swappers’ commutes. In 1992 he persuaded the Washington State Department of Transportation to fund a trial, and he got the Seattle and Tacoma offices of KeyBank, which was touting its environmental dedication, to be a test bed.

That quote’s from Crosscut, and the entire story is fascinating. On the surface, it makes sense: if you have two KeyBank branches, and two people who work the same job at each branch, why not let the people swap jobs?

That trial was a tantalizing success. Twenty-eight of the 85 employees who volunteered to participate were able to transfer to open positions nearer their homes. Only two actually swapped jobs, but 23 were on a waiting list to do so when the trial ended. Together, the 30 reduced their average roundtrip commute from 43 to 15 miles. Four years later, one of the swappers still reveled in the changes the switch brought to her life: “I take crafts classes, work out, spend time at home, sleep in and stay up later. It’s a good idea.”

I am really curious about that waiting list. Did they eventually swap their jobs? Why did they have to be on a list in the first place? We live in a world where hiring/firing decisions happen very quickly, so what was holding these swaps back?

You’ll also notice that the ProximateCommute trial took place during everyone’s favorite decade, the 1990s. What happened after that? A 2002 Seattle Times article explains:

Mullins collected awards from organizations ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Association of Washington Business.

“Since the results were good,” Mullins says, “I assumed the world would beat a path to my door.”

It didn’t.

Over the next few years, Mullins did feasibility studies on proximate commuting for more employers, here and in California, sometimes with their money, sometimes with his own.

No one bought his program.

Why didn’t it take off? Government wasn’t supporting or requiring it, says an official with one firm that decided against pursuing the idea.

What’s more, the official says, the company didn’t see any economic benefit.

The Seattle Times lists all of the other reasons people might be hesitant to embrace a job-swapping program, the ones you might be thinking of right now: leaving familiar coworkers for unfamiliar ones, leaving a good boss for an unknown boss, and—from the company’s point of view—giving up a productive worker for an unknown worker.

But Crosscut thinks it’s time to bring ProximateCommute back, noting that many businesses are already taking similar steps, such as notifying a worker when a job opens up at a branch closer to home. There will, of course, be problems:

Trouble is, this requires a cognitive switch that seems to elude many politicians and agencies, however receptive some of their staff may be. Transportation planning focuses on moving bodies, not on reducing the need to move them.

Okay, so let’s not start with the politicians and agencies. Let’s go the other direction and create a disruptor-style app that allows branch workers to take their own initiative. It can use online dating functionality to allow workers to find people with similar jobs at nearby branches, and then the two of them can chat about their respective workplaces and teams before presenting a proposal to their managers—who would, at this point, both be vetted as “good” managers, because people aren’t going to want to swap to a bad boss. They could bring the respective people in to meet the teams, do an interview, and then if everyone was on board, arrange the swap.

Now you all can tell me why this would never work. 



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