Rethink HR Policies that Overlook the Long-Term Unemployed

Through community-based efforts and cooperation with schools and governments, employers are tackling the tough issue of long-term unemployment.

By Bill Leonard May 21, 2014

34-Staffing-Mgt-Long-tern-Unemployed_web.gif June CoverMost people would wince at being called a “poster child” for the long-term unemployed, but Miranda Hairston isn’t like most people. She revels in the seemingly unglamorous label and is eager to tell her story to anyone willing to listen.

“It’s not an experience that I want to repeat,” says Hairston, who spent more than two years out of work. “But I know it made me a stronger person, and I now feel compelled to give back and help others who are looking for a job.”

Hairston’s jobless odyssey began in the fall of 2011 and ended in January 2014 when she was hired as the marketing director for K&P Consulting Inc., an HR consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. Even though she can now leave talk and thoughts of unemployment behind, Hairston insists that her work in assisting long-term unemployed job seekers has only just begun.

Best Practices for Recruiting and Hiring the Long-Term Unemployed

More than 300 businesses have signed a White House pledge to adopt and use these four best practices, which the Society for Human Resource Management was instrumental in developing:

1. Ensure that advertising does not discourage or discriminate against unemployed individuals.

2. Review screens or procedures in recruiting and hiring processes so they do not intentionally or inadvertently disadvantage individuals from being considered for a job based solely on their unemployment status.

3. Review current recruiting practices to ensure that they cast a broad net and encourage all qualified candidates, including the long-term unemployed, to consider applying, by taking steps that may include:

  • Publicizing on your company’s website, in application materials and in other places seen by potential applicants your company’s commitment that qualified unemployed individuals will not be disadvantaged solely on their unemployment status.
  • Interviewing or otherwise considering qualified long-term unemployed individuals.
  • Training hiring teams and recruiters to focus on bona fide occupational requirements and leadership requirements for a role, and not just on an applicant’s current or recent employment status.
  • Engaging with local and regional entities in order to reach broad segments of the population with relevant skills and experience.

4. Share best practices—including successes with hiring the long-term unemployed in your own company—within your organization and across your supply chain, with staffing firms, employer associations and the broader business community.

“I am more committed than ever to helping people who are having a tough time finding a job,” she says. “I cannot adequately express my gratitude to everyone who reached out and helped me when I needed it the most, so I feel the best thing I can do now is give something back.”

According to Hairston, the public-private partnership Charlotte Works provided help and support that sustained her through her long job search. The organization connects unemployed individuals with the educational, job search and career counseling resources they need. The White House has recognized Charlotte Works as one of the most effective programs in the nation in helping to retrain long-term unemployed job seekers and in connecting them with potential employers.

The organization offers training and networking opportunities specifically targeted to help job seekers develop job skills aligned with the needs of area employers. It is funded through the federal Workforce Investment Act.

Hairston went through several Charlotte Works training courses and volunteered with the organization. Her involvement with and dedication to the program led to a job offer, and several of her colleagues jokingly call her the “poster child” for the organization.

“We provide a number of services and support to both job seekers and employers,” says Steve Partridge, president and CEO of Charlotte Works. “We concentrate on, and are very good at, connecting businesses with the kind of job applicants they need.”

Hairston says her volunteer work with Charlotte Works was a crucial step to landing a job. Employers tend to question employment gaps in resumes, and volunteer work can demonstrate that long-term unemployed job seekers have stayed active and engaged.

“We encourage all our program participants to volunteer,” Partridge says. “It helps us and is a great benefit to them.”

The Upside for Employers

Job seekers aren’t the only ones who benefit from staying connected with the community through such programs. Businesses also have much to gain by working with groups like Charlotte Works.

“There’s a tremendous upside for employers getting involved and partnering with organizations like this,” says John Challenger, president and CEO of the Chicago-based consulting group Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “First and foremost, giving back to your community is always a good thing, and being viewed as a community leader is a very good thing. It projects a positive image, which can boost employee morale and attract top-level job candidates.”

Challenger serves on the board of directors for Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. The organization’s mission is similar to that of Charlotte Works, and it also has been recognized by the Obama administration for its work in helping long-term unemployed individuals land jobs.

“Skills for Chicagoland’s Future has forged strong partnerships between business, educational institutions and government agencies,” Challenger says. “And these kinds of partnerships are needed throughout the nation to make a significant impact in reducing the number of long-term unemployed.”

Those partnerships can serve several purposes, according to Challenger and Partridge. For example, they can build strong alliances between employers and community organizations and can allow employers to provide direct input into the type of training and skill sets they are looking for in job candidates.

“I believe that is why Charlotte has been able to attract businesses looking to start up or relocate to the area,” Partridge says. “We now have the partnerships and infrastructure in place that allow us to respond quickly and effectively to employers’ needs.”

Charlotte Works and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future collaborate closely with local community college systems and workforce readiness boards to ensure that training and job support services meet the needs of employers and job candidates alike.

“The alliances that we are building are the best steps we can make in getting people back to work and resolving what now seems like an intractable problem,” Challenger says.

An Intractable Issue?

At the beginning of May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 3.5 million active participants of the workforce had been out of work for more than six months. (The agency defines long-term unemployment as being jobless for 27 weeks or more.) The BLS estimates that long-term jobless workers account for 35.3 percent of the unemployed population in the United States.

The number of long-term unemployed job seekers skyrocketed to record levels following the recession of 2007-09. In the first quarter of 2010, the BLS calculated that more than 6.7 million workforce participants had been out of work for more than 27 weeks—that’s 46 percent of unemployed workers, the highest number reported since the Labor Department began tracking long-term unemployment data in 1948.

As the U.S. economy recovers slowly from the recession, the unemployment rate has improved from slightly more than 10 percent at the end of 2009 to less than 7 percent in May 2014. Even with a strengthening economy, job prospects for the long-term unemployed have been slow to improve. In late March, a panel of economists from Princeton University released a study that found that only 11 percent of the long-term unemployed job seekers in any given month were able to find full-time work one year later.

The study, which attempted to provide a comprehensive picture of long-term unemployed individuals, was presented to the Brookings Institution’s Panel on Economic Activity. The study’s researchers examined the impacts that a weaker job market and employer bias toward people who have been out of work more than a year have had on long-term unemployment.

“The demand-side and supply-side effects of long-term unemployment can be viewed as complementary and reinforcing each other,” the study states. “Skill erosion that accompanies long-term unemployment could induce employers to discriminate against the long-term unemployed.”

The study’s researchers asserted that “a concerted effort will be needed to raise the employment prospects of the long-term unemployed.” Unless substantive changes are made, many of these job seekers will become discouraged and drop out of the workforce—which in turn has a detrimental effect on the economy, the report concluded.

“Long-term unemployment is a very tough nut to crack,” Challenger says. “But I believe attitudes are shifting and several factors could help to make substantive changes.”

New Efforts Emerge

A key factor to reversing the trend of long-term unemployment, Challenger says, is that employers’ attitudes toward hiring people who have been out of work more than six months have brightened. More than 300 businesses have signed a White House pledge to adopt and use a set of best practices for recruiting and hiring the long-term unemployed. The Society for Human Resource Management was instrumental in developing the guidelines.

“President Obama’s initiative is an important step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done before anyone can declare victory,” says George Boué, SPHR, vice president of human resources for Stiles Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “The White House effort has certainly raised awareness about the issue. However, to really make a difference, we have the responsibility now to push the momentum forward.”

Although the White House initiative is an overall positive step, some employers will likely view any programs or ideas emanating from Washington, D.C., with disdain and mistrust. Boué is hopeful that they will set aside political partisanship and “commit to hiring practices that offer equal opportunities to all job applicants.”

Legislative actions often can indicate whether a particular issue resonates with the public, and lowering barriers to employment for the unemployed appears to be one of those issues. Oregon and New Jersey have enacted laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against jobless individuals. In addition, the California State Assembly approved legislation in the summer of 2012 to ban employer bias against the unemployed, but Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.

New York City and the District of Columbia also have nondiscrimination ordinances in place for this population. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, bills to prohibit discrimination against the unemployed were introduced in nine states during the 2013 legislative sessions.

No Simple Solution

While the proposed solutions may sound simple, changing employer attitudes, raising awareness about untapped talent and rebuilding workers’ job skills are not easy tasks.

“It really is a multifaceted issue and will take a complete community and grassroots efforts to make a real difference,” says Dan Ryan, principal at Ryan Search & Consulting in Franklin, Tenn. “The initiative launched by the White House is raising awareness, but I don’t think it will move the needle much and significantly increase hiring. It’s going to take much more effort than that.”

Ryan believes that programs like Charlotte Works and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future are making significant strides, but he also points out that their successes disguise the larger problem facing the nation.

“Urban areas like Chicago and Charlotte have the resources to create and target training programs that fill employer needs,” Ryan says. “The story is very different in rural areas, and once you get away from the bigger cities, you will find that the problem of long-term unemployment is much more intractable.”

He admits that some states have better economic conditions than others. North Dakota, for example, is mostly rural, but its booming oil and natural gas industries have lowered the state’s unemployment rate well below the national average.

HR’s Role

No one knows better than Miranda Hairston that it takes hard work, dedication and perseverance to land a job, and a similar commitment will be needed from job seekers, employers, schools and government agencies to address and conquer the challenges of long-term unemployment. Hairston believes that HR must take the lead in meeting this challenge, and her new employer, Paula Harvey, SPHR, GPHR, chief executive officer of K&P Consulting, agrees.

“I believe HR has a duty to communicate the message and raise awareness that the long-term unemployed deserve an equal and fair chance, just like any other job applicant,” Harvey says. “Programs like Charlotte Works are getting more business, community and educational leaders involved and committed, and changes are starting to happen. We, as HR professionals, must build on this momentum and carry it forward.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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