Zombie Ideas and Workforce Policies
What if Workforce Development Focused on "Achieving Stability" Rather Than on "Finding a Job"?

Long-Term Unemployment Isn't Just About Job Seeker Deficits


I'm working with a client right now to prepare a submission for the DOL Ready to Work grant, which is designed to move individuals who have been unemployed or underemployed for 27+ weeks into H-1B visa jobs. 

As we're developing the proposal, talking to experts in the field and doing the background research on the issues faced by the long-term unemployed, one question keeps coming up--is long-term unemployment primarily a problem of job seeker gaps or is it bigger than that? 

There are many people, both in the workforce system and in the business community, who believe that long-term unemployment is mostly a story of job seekers lacking the hard and/or soft skills to find employment. They don't have the credentials, experience and education to be qualified for the available jobs. They don't know how to conduct a proper job search. In the worst case scenario, they are seen as lazy and unmotivated. 

At the heart of this story is the idea that long-term unemployment is the fault of the job seeker. And for some job seekers, this is true. Their career aspirations don't match their qualifications. They do need more education and more knowledge of how to conduct a modern job search. There are even people who are unmotivated, although I would argue this is a much smaller pool than we believe. 

But if we focus only on the job seeker side of the equation, we are making a big mistake in addressing the long-term unemployment problem.  We focus primarily on training and education and "fixing" the job seekers when we devise our interventions. We also add to the sense of blame that these individuals are already feeling about the situation. Which, in turn, decreases their motivation and makes it harder for them to feel positive in the job search. 

There's ample evidence, though, to suggest that other forces are at play here as well. And we need to take these into consideration as we develop strategies for working with the long-term unemployed. 

One elephant in the room that we keep ignoring is the fact that there are still 3 unemployed job seekers for every job opening. There simply aren't enough jobs to go around. This is not a job seeker issue. This is a demand issue and it's persisting. Matching people to jobs and creating career pathways begins to seem a little ridiculous to me when what we're dealing with is a major jobs deficit. 

An equally pervasive and pernicious problem is employer bias against the long-term unemployed. Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and a PhD candidate in economics at Northeastern University has researched this issue extensively:

. .  .he sent out 4800 fictitious resumes to 600 job openings, with 3600 of them for fake unemployed people. Among those 3600, he varied how long they'd been out of work, how often they'd switched jobs, and whether they had any industry experience. Everything else was kept constant. The mocked-up resumes were all male, all had randomly-selected (and racially ambiguous) names, and all had similar education backgrounds. The question was which of them would get callbacks. 
It turns out long-term unemployment is much scarier than you could possibly imagine. 
The results are equal parts unsurprising and terrifying. Employers prefer applicants who haven't been out of work for very long, applicants who have industry experience, and applicants who haven't moved between jobs that much. But how long you've been out of work trumps those other factors.

In essence, what he found was that the first thing employers look at is if you're out of work. If it's been 6 months or longer, then they are screening people out. 

It doesn't matter what skills, credentials and experiences the job seeker has. All that matters is if the person has been out of work for 6 months or more. If that's not bias, I don't know what is. 

As we look at helping the long-term unemployed, I think we have to get serious about the ways in which the system is stacked against them. There aren't enough jobs to go around and employers are actively screening these people out for the jobs that are available. Addressing this issue only from the supply side, focusing on perceived job seeker deficits, is both unfair to job seekers and, ultimately, will be ineffective.


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