A recent Handshake job posting by U.S. Customs and Border Protection raised several questions regarding the level of control that individual schools have over the database’s algorithm for recommendations.
Grace Fan ’19 had selected “immigration legal advocacy” as a career interest on her Handshake profile, according to a Facebook post she wrote. Typically, entering industry interests helps the algorithm filter postings more accurately. However, Handshake then recommended Fan a position as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, which Fan called “horrific” in the Facebook post.
When reached for comment by the Record, Fan said that she thought the posting was inappropriate. “Williams has historically accepted undocumented students and there’s been a lot of conversation about Williams being a sanctuary campus and it brought back that conversation,” she said.
The job posting, which has since been taken down by Handshake for misrepresentation, listed duties including “apprehending undocumented aliens [and] smugglers of aliens” and “giving verbal commands in Spanish to Spanish-speaking illegal aliens and smugglers.” In her post, Fan questioned how much control the College has over Handshake job postings.
“We can approve or decline job postings,” said Robin Meyers, director of employer relations at the ’68 Center for Career Exploration.
“We try to get rid of [things like] lawn-mowing, driving and commission-based jobs,” added Don Kjelleren, director of the ’68 Center for Career Exploration. The decision to approve or decline a posting is based on the question, “Is it suitable for a liberal arts graduate?”
Currently, between 800 and 1,000 schools use Handshake. There were about 18,000 jobs approved for the College last year, and the approval process is standardized across many schools, according to Kjelleran.
“Williams shouldn’t be posting border patrol or ICE because they’ve historically inflicted violence on undocumented immigrants at the border and have been perpetrators of that kind of violence,” said Fan. “There are plenty of students at Williams who have [immigration] as a part of their stories whether they themselves or their parents or have some sort of immigration story.”
“Schools can’t influence algorithms,” Meyers said; they can only approve or decline an employer. In this case, 787 schools — including the College — approved U.S. Customs and Border Protection as an employer. At 96 percent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a very high trust score, and when an employer is approved, their posts are also approved.
Meyers noted that “none of the schools have control over the language” used in Handshake job postings. Kjelleren added that the College is not allowed to specify if a job posting is an opportunity from alumni, because all schools see the same postings.
Kjelleren advised students to treat Handshake like any other job board, such as Indeed.com. “It lives in the cloud,” he said. “It’s not Williams property. Our biggest push is for networking, but it’s standard to have a database.” Meyers pointed out that Handshake uses Netflix as an example for how their recommendation algorithm works.
“Censoring opportunities is a tricky situation,” Kjelleren said. “The power is in the hands of students to decide what’s right or wrong for them.”
Still, Fan found the posting alarming given that Williams has made a public statement supporting unocumented students. “Knowing this, I thought Williams then posting a US border patrol job to its students felt hypocritical, particularly given the current political climate and the threats, dangers, and violnce that undocumented immigrans face every day in the US,’’ Fan said. “If Williams claims to support undocumented students and welcome them to the Williams community, it shouldn’t also allow things like this.”
On the Career Center’s website, the on-campus recruiting program policies establish, “Williams College Handshake accepts postings from employers whose desired qualifications match those of our students. We do not discriminate based on the ideology or political orientation of either employers or candidates.”
The website continues, “Williams College Handshake accepts recruitment messages from employers of diverse ideologies and political viewpoints. We believe it is essential to allow students to explore career opportunities for themselves and make decisions based on their interests and beliefs.”
Both Kjelleren and Meyers emphasized that the Career Center does not want to block access to opportunities, nor does it wish to decrease dialogue and engagement. Rather, it strives to educate students so that they can make “informed and intentional choices,” Meyers said.
“Don’t assume ill intent,” Kjelleren said. “We want students to engage in social issues.” Kjelleren and Meyers encouraged students to come to the Career Center with any doubts or concerns about an organization.
In the future, Handshake may include a feature opposite to the “Favorite,” so that students can receive more accurate recommendations. For now, Kjelleren and Meyers suggest entering industry interests on one’s Handshake profile to help the algorithm.