It's Time To Start The Conversation On Long-term Unemployment In Your Own Community

07/20/2012 04:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2012

With nearly 30 percent of our unemployed people out of work for 52 weeks, we owe it to ourselves to address the outdated approach to connecting unemployed workers with jobs. A key step is redefining "long-term unemployment" and our response to helping the millions of Americans affected by this potentially debilitating challenge. Long-term employment today is different from any other time. It's not just a six-month issue nor is it an issue that can be adequately addressed by traditional services.

Now more than ever before in our history it is time we as a nation start talking about how we can help the long-term unemployed get back to work. The best place to begin the conversation is right in your own community.

Two years ago, The WorkPlace, which prepares people for careers and develops the workforce for employers in southwestern Connecticut, sat down at roundtables with long term unemployed workers. Participants included leaders from business, government, and non-profit agencies -- people in positions to take prompt action to address the plight of the long-term unemployed. These roundtables were exploratory and we kept ourselves open to any and all ideas. We set for ourselves the goal of creating a force in our community that will grow support and services for the long term unemployed and gain wide spread recognition about their specific challenges.

There was a lot was a lot of listening at the roundtables and there was a lot to learn. Dozens of unemployed workers spoke about the outright prejudice and the lack of resources geared to helping those who had been out of the workforce for years, not just weeks or months. Roundtable guests heard first-hand from those who after two years without work had virtually exhausted their life savings, faced foreclosure, lost their self-confidence and self-esteem and with their families and had endured unimaginable stress.

Together we realized that we need to move beyond traditional remedies for the unemployed, not just in Connecticut, but nationwide. From these roundtables arose Platform to Employment (P2E), an innovative program that addresses the unique needs of the long-term unemployed to return to work while providing employers a skilled workforce. The program is a public-private partnership that gives businesses a risk-free opportunity to evaluate and consider hiring participants during an eight-week work experience program.

All P2E participants start with a five-week preparatory program that addresses the social, emotional and skill deficiencies caused by long term employment. Participants are then matched with open positions at local companies on an eight-week trial basis and their salary during the work experience is funded by The WorkPlace. The results have been impressive: To date, 75 percent of participants that completed the preparatory workshops have been placed in a work experience program with an employer. Of this population, more the 90 percent have been hired into full-time positions.

If the P2E program sounds familiar, it's because many people have recognized the larger picture of how it can become a catalyst for change for 99ers across the nation, including 60 Minutes. Earlier this year the show exposed the magnitude of being trapped in long-term unemployment, moved beyond statistics to focus on the faces and stories behind the emergence of this new dependent class, and documented P2E's ground-breaking initiative to put the long-term unemployed back to work. Today The WorkPlace is sharing our model with workforce and economic development agencies from across the nation.

This spring we hosted 195 different organizations for a webinar were we explained P2E and requirements for replication. Several communities have asked to continue the conversation and discuss how the program can be tailored to meet their specific needs. Currently we are exploring collaborations with more than a dozen communities across the nation. Additionally we are speaking with the private sector regarding financial supports to assist with the development of pilot programs in each of these communities.

A significant, unifying hardship on each of these communities is the need to support veterans and mature workers who are unable to return to work. Our pilot projects will address both of these populations.

However it is important to start the discussion on long-term unemployment locally and evaluate whether current systems are adequately addressing community needs. We must find ways to empower individuals to champion change and consider how existing resources can be allocated, programs modified, and new services delivered to best serve the unique needs in their own communities. Beginning with roundtables creates a force that can grow awareness and support for the growing ranks of men and women who are not participating in the economic recovery and have been removed from the labor force. Hosting a roundtable is one of the easiest things that can be done. All that is required is commitment, unrestricted thinking, and collective effort.