June will mark the four-year anniversary of the official end of the Great Recession and, unless there is a significant shock to the economy, it will be the 40th consecutive month of private-sector payroll gains. Yet, millions of chronically unemployed Americans the job market have yet to see any improvement; a trend that could have dire consequences for the long-term health of the entire economy.
The longer one is out of work, the more difficult it becomes to achieve job search success. And, unfortunately, this is a situation that has not reversed, despite steady improvement in the overall job market.
The number of Americans out of work for 27 weeks or longer has declined since reaching a high of 6.7 million in April 2010. As of March, the count stood at 4.6 million, according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, much of the decline may be attributed to long-term job seekers abandoning the labor market entirely, and therefore no longer counted among the unemployed. Long-time job seekers still represented nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 11.7 million unemployed. That is down only slightly from a peak of 45 percent in April 2010.
The ongoing struggle for long-term job seekers was further demonstrated in a recent study by a pair of Northeastern University economists who examined variables impacting job search success. The two sent out 4,800 fake resumes with identical credentials but varying duration of unemployment, industry experience and number of previous jobs held. In tracking employer callback rates, the two discovered that the duration of unemployment played the biggest factor in whether a candidate would get a callback. Those out of work for less than six months were far more likely to get a callback versus those out of work longer than six months. Even those with no relevant industry experience were more likely to get a callback if they were unemployed less than six months.
The obstacles for long-time job seekers are numerous. Candidates who have been out of work for six months or longer are perceived as having outdated skills. As a result, they are often screened out early in the recruiting process. This may seem unfair and employers may indeed be weeding out great candidates, but when job postings receive hundreds if not thousands of applicants, from which a handful are selected for face-to-face interviews, the initial screening process more closely resemble a lottery than anything else.
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 self-imposed 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.
It is not just those experiencing long-term unemployment who suffer. It impacts the entire economy through decreased consumer spending, as well as increased government spending on social safety net programs, retraining programs and other programs to assist those left behind following the nation’s economic upheaval.
These obstacles are significant, but not impossible to overcome. The following is advice to 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 situation has 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, such as telling people you have not seen in ten years that you lost your job. Cold call employers about job opportunities. Ask a friend or former business associate for the names of five people who might be able to help with your job search and then call those people to request a meeting. 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.