A Fresh Look at the Unemployed

By Henry G. Jackson Feb 1, 2014

February 2014 CoverBeneath the headlines of falling U.S. unemployment rates, there is another, more troubling statistic: More than 4 million people have been out of work for six months or longer. Known as the "long-term unemployed," these Americans make up more than 37 percent of those looking for jobs, and they represent one of the greatest challenges to our nation’s economic recovery.

Ever since the U.S. started keeping records, at no time has such a large segment of the population remained out of work for so long. While theories about the reasons behind this trend abound—from low economic growth to the need to "reskill" workers for the new economy—some point to employment practices that may overlook this group as part of the problem. HR professionals are neither the cause of nor the cure for long-term unemployment, but we can be part of the solution.

This is why the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) joined a new initiative led by the White House to address long-term unemployment; it encourages employers to commit to inclusive hiring practices and remove employment barriers for qualified long-term unemployed job seekers.

President Barack Obama called the plight of the long-term unemployed a Catch-22, where "companies won’t give their resume an honest look because they’ve been laid off so long, but they’ve been laid off so long because companies won’t give their resume an honest look." Unfortunately, the evidence bears this out. Some studies show that, all else being equal, the longer a job applicant has been unemployed, the more likely he or she is to be overlooked.

As HR professionals, we are trained to consider long-term unemployment as a red flag. Some employers warily review resumes with significant employment gaps, others use applicant software that screens out resumes with unexplained periods of unemployment, and an errant few explicitly state that the unemployed need not apply. This has prompted a wave of state unemployment discrimination legislation, as well as interest from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Prior to the Great Recession, the prevailing school of thought was that those who remained unemployed for extended periods were unemployed for a reason within their own control. Today, there are greater economic forces at work. In this tough economy, which is one of the most persistent and confounding the U.S. has ever seen, HR professionals must learn to recognize the human capital potential in the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

We can also use effective practices for recruiting and hiring qualified long-term unemployed job seekers, such as reviewing hiring procedures or creating training partnerships with local academic institutions, nonprofits or Workforce Investment Boards. To help, SHRM’s Long-Term Unemployed Working Group, made up of leading HR professionals, has created a step-by-step guide for employers to prevent discrimination against the unemployed. In addition, SHRM’s guide for long-term unemployed job seekers provides practical tips for such individuals. More information is available at www.shrm.org/workforcereadiness.

I encourage you to join SHRM in our efforts to address this important issue.


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