How four simple words helped thousands find jobs: The story behind Career Exchange

As the pandemic took hold last March, many retailers, some of whom were already struggling, were forced to lay off large numbers of people as stores and entire divisions closed. Meanwhile, businesses such as groceries and delivery services began hiring at an unprecedented scale and pace to respond to a massive spike in consumer demand.

At the time, partners in McKinsey’s Retail Practice were holding back-to-back calls, trying to connect the companies downsizing with those that were hiring. “The conversations always left us with the same four words,” says partner Praveen Adhi. “How can we help?”

This desire led to a whirlwind three weeks, in which colleagues from our Retail and Organization Practices, partnering with, created the Career Exchange, an AI-powered online employment marketplace that pairs workers with jobs that match their skillsets. The US-based platform can host thousands of users at once, delivering an average of eight to nine job leads per person. Since launching last April, the Career Exchange has onboarded more than 120 companies and will soon include more than two million jobs from the National Labor Exchange.

From the outbreak’s earliest days, explains Praveen, the need for something like the Career Exchange was obvious. “It became clear very quickly that informal networking was not going to work,” he says. “We needed a more systemic way to help our clients cope with what was becoming the fastest, largest shift in labor since World War II."

He and McKinsey partner Andrew Davis did an informal assessment of talent platforms and job boards, but found they had been created for ‘normal’ environments; none had the capacity to accommodate the thousands of people changing jobs at once because of the pandemic.

They turned to the Organization Practice and found Carla Arellano, a partner who helps clients use analytics to hire and manage their talent. “I remember thinking at the time: wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a way to connect those organizations who were letting go of people with those who were hiring,” she says. “And better yet, if we can accelerate the hiring process by showing applicants opportunities by sorting jobs by skill sets, not just titles."

Unsurprisingly, McKinsey was not the only organization wondering how it could help tackle this emerging issue. Carla discussed the challenge with, a talent partner our firm had been working with, using their extensive stores of data to develop expertise in job matching and career pathing. “Eightfold was eager to join forces,” Andrew says. “They had the same goals that we did: to help people.”

Over the next week, the team built a strawman-version of the platform and created personas, or examples of users, based on their conversations with retail clients.

The site would have to be easy to use and allow job seekers to submit basic information including their location, whether they had car access, their appetite for working in an office during the pandemic, and their most recent job. From there, Eightfold’s AI could infer their skills and match them to jobs.

How four simple words helped thousands find jobs: the story behind Talent Exchange
In addition to helping more than 10,000 job searchers since launching, Career Exchange has also expanded to include reskilling, with more than 1000 free courses through Udemy, Coursera and edX.
How four simple words helped thousands find jobs: the story behind Talent Exchange

“We imagined the user to be someone who had just been laid off, filling out the application on his or her phone,” says Emily Field, who helped lead the project. “Often, they wouldn’t have a resume or LinkedIn profile. We looked at all of the friction points in the hiring process and sought to streamline them.”

On a Friday evening, McKinsey and Eightfold came together to discuss the strawman, and Eightfold built the functionality over the weekend. “Late Sunday night, some 30 people showed up for the call to see what the site might look like,” said Andrew. “We envisioned a simple matching platform. But the Eightfold algorithm was much more sophisticated; it could analyze millions of jobs across data sets.”

By looking at the job seeker’s inputs, the platform could deduce the skills a person was likely to have from their work experiences and match them with jobs based on those skills—rather than their former roles. This widened the scope of job possibilities for each. For example, an airline luggage handler might be matched with openings in warehouse logistics; an experienced barista could be connected with customer rep jobs; a construction scheduler might be slotted for a clinical coordinator position.

The site also had to address the needs of hiring companies. “An amazing client stepped up to help us with testing the site,” Praveen recalls. “They helped us figure out what data work was required to seamlessly upload hundreds of jobs, how effective the user experience was, and what was the best way to integrate the site with a company's own HR systems.”

Launching a public-facing site in three weeks was exhilarating.

Carla Arellano, McKinsey partner

On April 6, a year ago today and three weeks after the initial client conversations, the site launched, and the team orchestrated major outreach to companies: both those laying off employees and those looking to expand.

“It took some time, and the work was difficult, but we began to gain more traction,” says Emily. “In April, a delivery service joined the exchange, posting thousands of openings. Then, as layoffs spread, other industries joined, such as airlines and hotels. In May, college grads began to enroll, and the job profiles evolved: more digital and IT jobs came on as companies turned their attention to online channels.”

In addition to helping more than 10,000 job searchers since launching, the platform has also expanded to include reskilling, with more than 1000 free courses through Udemy, Coursera, and edX.

In three short weeks, some 15+ colleagues across Practices, disciplines, tenures and geographies dropped everything in the moment to help problem-solve issues and offer expertise to make the platform work. “Launching a public-facing site in three weeks was exhilarating,” says Carla. “It was an extraordinary effort in an extraordinary time.” And it all began with four simple words: how can we help?

Career Exchange is a COVID-19 response initiative offered at no cost to companies hiring, furloughing, or laying off individuals. It is a digital talent marketplace that aims to address the mismatch of labor supply and demand, helping organizations and individuals. McKinsey & Company supports the platform as part of our commitment to safeguarding livelihoods. Learn more or visit the Career Exchange website to sign up.

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