After months of slow, almost imperceptible job growth, private-sector payrolls are finally beginning to grow at a more significant and accelerated rate. However, one group continues to struggle with finding employment: the millions of Americans suffering from long-term joblessness. Their plight poses the biggest obstacle to continued job growth and could threaten to stall the recovery.
Unfortunately, the longer one is out of work, the more difficult it becomes to achieve success. You have to overcome a lot of employers’ preconceptions about candidates with significant gaps on the resume. You also have to overcome the many negative emotions that naturally accompany a long, frustrating job search.
There is some hope for long-term job seekers in the latest employment figures, which show the strongest job growth since the recession ended in 2009. Private-sector payrolls experienced a net increase of 760,000 new jobs between February 1 and the end of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is the largest three-month employment gain since 2006, when the private sector grew by 861,000 jobs from January through March. However, the hiring surge that saw more new jobs created in the last three months than in previous six months has yet to have a significant dent in the number of long-term unemployed. Over the three-month period ending in April, the number of Americans out of work for 27 weeks or more fell by 371,000 to 5.84 million or 43.4 percent of all unemployed.
The 5.84-million figure represents an improvement over the record 6.7 million long-term unemployed in May 2010, but it is has a long descent before reaching the pre-recession level of 1.3 million.
It is also important to understand that this figure does not include the many Americans who have quit looking for work and, therefore, are not counted among the unemployed. In April, there were 6.5 million people not in the labor force, but who wanted jobs. There are no statistics on how long these individuals have been out of work, but it is probably safe to assume that a majority have struggled with prolonged joblessness.
The problem of long-term joblessness is one of the biggest threats to a sustainable recovery. If we cannot find a way to get these people back on payrolls, the costs to the economy will be significant, not only in terms of decreased consumer spending, but in increased government spending on social safety net programs, retraining programs and other programs to assist those left behind following the nation’s economic upheaval.
For the long-term unemployed, the task of securing a job presents unique hurdles. One of the biggest obstacles can be time-pressed hiring managers who are under pressure to quickly narrow the field the candidates. As a result, they are often compelled to focus on those with the freshest skills.
In companies that rely on software technology to sort through incoming resumes, it is even easier to isolate the candidates that are currently employed or have the most recent experience. That may seem unfair, but when an employer receives thousands of applicants for a posted job opportunity, they have no choice but to establish wide parameters for weeding out the largest number of applicants.
For long-term job seekers who make it beyond the initial screening process, there is the challenge of addressing the significant gap in experience with the person conducting the interview. The interviewer is going to wonder why you have not been hired and whether your skills and/or work ethic have deteriorated. As the interviewee, you have to overcome these preconceptions.
The long-term unemployed also face personal barriers. Many have lost self-confidence due to the length of time out of the workforce. Others have had a series of rejections, which may leave them feeling defeated even before they walk through the doors of an interview.
Financial stress may play another role. Many long-term unemployed have lost or are close to losing their unemployment benefits. Some estimates put the number of unemployed workers who have exhausted their benefits from 3 million up to 6 million people.
These obstacles are significant, but not impossible to overcome. Following is some advice for the long-term unemployed looking to take advantage of the recent surge in job creation:
Re-ignite and re-connect with your network
There may be a large portion of your network with whom you have not spoken to in several months. Now is the time to re-connect with and expand your network. If you have not joined online networking communities like LinkedIn, do so now and start connecting with former colleagues, classmates and other acquaintances. If you are on LinkedIn, revisit your list of contacts, because chances are good that their professional or personal situations have changed in recent months. So, not only do you have a reason to check in with them (to congratulate or otherwise acknowledge their changed circumstances), but that change could put them in a better position to help your job search. From each existing contact in your network that you reconnect with, make a goal to get the names of two to five new contacts they know who might be able to help with your employment search.
Move away from resume-centric job-search strategy
Most Americans take the traditional approach to job search: scour the help wanted ads and send out resumes by the hundreds. The only difference is that the help wanted ads have moved from the print newspaper to the Internet. The biggest problem with this approach is that the resume is really just a way to weed out candidates. A long employment gap on the resume is going to stand out and not in a good way. Even without the red flag of prolonged joblessness, relying on a resume to get your foot in the door is a numbers game that favors the employer. You might as well be playing the lottery. In today’s market, employers posting a job opening will receive hundreds if not thousands of resumes. They will maybe find 10 to bring in for face-to-face interviews. Do you think they will go through every resume to find those 10? No. The initial key-word screening might narrow the field to 100 that a hiring manager will go through. He or she will only go through enough to get the 10 for interviews. Maybe that’s 50. If you are number 51 in that stack, you are out of luck.
Uncover the hidden job market
The other problem with relying too heavily on help wanted ads — whether online or in print — is that these represent a small fraction of the available jobs. We estimate that as few as 20 percent of the available jobs are ever advertised. The other 80 percent will be filled through employee referrals, personal connections and other backdoor channels. This is why expanding and staying connected to one’s professional and personal network is critical. It increases the chances of being in the right place, at the right time, when one of these hidden opportunities arise. The other way to uncover these opportunities is to simply start contacting companies where your skills would be a good fit. Your goal is to make contact with key managers in the department(s) where you would work. Avoid going through the human resources department (unless that is your profession), as their goal is to screen you out.
You may need to consider working for less money than you imagined, working in a different industry or accepting a job title that differs from your aspirations. However, your primary objective at this point needs to be getting back on the payroll so you can start filling in the experience gap.
Don’t be defensive or take on the role of the victim when it comes to your prolonged unemployment. Avoid phrases like, “no one is hiring” and “nobody wanted me.” Focus only on the positive attributes you possess, what you have done to keep your skills fresh. If the topic of your prolonged unemployment comes up, don’t dwell on it. Move past it quickly with a statement like, “There have been many opportunities, but a mutual fit has been difficult to achieve. During this time, however, I have had the opportunity to round out my experience through (education, professional development, volunteer work, etc.)”
Step outside of your comfort zone
An aggressive job-search strategy often requires you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. You will have to tell people you have not seen in ten years that you lost your job. You will have to cold-call employers about job opportunities. An aggressive strategy also includes asking a friend or former business associate for the names of five people who might be able to help with your job search, and then calling those people to request a meeting. You will have to engage in conversation with complete strangers at a networking event. These are difficult activities for the most confident among us, but you must abandon any misgivings you might have in order to find a position.