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Unemployed For The Long-Term: It Doesn't Seem To Get Any Better

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He remembers the exact date -- November 30, 2008. That is when Hue Galloway of New Britain, Connecticut was laid off with just a week's notice from his job repairing printers and computers throughout the state. His annual evaluations, he said, had been good -- 30 years of experience and "never a bad review," but that didn't keep him from being let go without any real explanation. He lived on unemployment insurance until that ran out, and he had some savings, but he eventually declared bankruptcy.

Like so many older workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, Mr. Galloway hit the ground running, thinking he'd be reemployed before too long. Over three-plus years, he sent out some 700 or more resumes, received about a dozen replies, and had four or five interviews, none of which led to anything. At 62, he did what many older unsuccessful jobseekers do: he took early Social Security benefits and gave up looking. He can "just get by."

Because he is not looking for work, Mr. Galloway is no longer officially unemployed, although if something came up, he says, he would take it. But if he is like other long-term unemployed studied by Princeton professors Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer, and David Cho, his chances of returning to work are slim indeed. Only about one in nine unemployed workers had steady, full-time jobs a year later, according to their analyses.

As time goes on, the unemployed find it harder and harder to land a job, in part because they have become damaged goods in the eyes of many employers. The fact that they cannot find work is held against them, even though job openings may be few and far between and the competition for them keen. And because discrimination against the unemployed is not expressly prohibited, except in a few places, jobseekers like Hue Galloway don't get to market themselves directly to employers in an effort to dispel any stereotypes.

When he gave up his job search in 2012, Mr. Galloway was one of about 1 million unemployed workers aged 55 or older who were long-term unemployed; that is, they had been out of work and looking for a job for more than six months. This was up from fewer than 200,000 in 2007, the year the Great Recession officially began.

In another study about the barriers faced by long-term jobseekers, Northeastern University's Rand Ghayad sent out thousands of resumes to employers and discovered that interview callbacks were far less common when applicants were long-term unemployed than short-term. Moreover, the long-term unemployed received fewer interview requests than jobseekers with less relevant work experience but shorter unemployment. Better, it seems, to have less experience than extended unemployment. How can an applicant fight that?

The employment news seemed to be looking up recently, with an estimated 192,000 jobs added to the economy in March. Unemployment rates for older and younger Americans were below what they had been even a year earlier and much lower than their recent recession-era highs.

So we would hope to see more long-term unemployed finding jobs. But there are still fewer jobs, fewer employed, and more people looking for work than at the start of the recession. Overall job growth has not been sufficient to get everyone who wants a job back to work.

The longer workers are out of a job, the more likely they are -- like Hue Galloway -- to remain unemployed and eventually to give up entirely and drop out of the labor force. The older they are, the more likely that is to happen. Social Security serves as an important safety net for older workers who have lost their main source of income and who have little hope of getting it back. However, taking Social Security early means permanently reduced monthly benefits for both the worker and the spouse -- and possible financial hardship as the years go by.

Who is to blame for the tough spot the long-term unemployed find themselves in? Is it an economy with too few jobs for everyone looking? Is it workers who haven't kept their skills up to date, or who haven't looked aggressively enough for a job, or who haven't looked in the right way or the right places? Is it the case that the skills unemployed workers had in their previous jobs aren't what today's jobs require? Is it employers who have reservations about the costs and technological competence of certain workers and won't give the long-term unemployed a chance? Is it a workforce development system that lacks sufficient resources to provide jobseekers with the tools they need to find work and the skills employers want? Unfortunately, there is no single or simple answer. If there were, we might have solved the problem by now.

According to Kruger and his colleagues at Princeton, solving the problem of long-term unemployment is likely to require, among other things, "a concerted effort by policy makers, social organizations, communities, and families." And until we hit upon the right intervention strategies, the long-term unemployed will see their skills atrophy, their potential job contacts wither away, and their confidence undermined. Many will give up. And the unemployed workers themselves, their families, and the communities they live in will be worse off as a result. Just ask Mr. Galloway.

Dave Nathan of AARP Media Relations contributed reporting to this blog.

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