Management & Labor

How States Are Confronting High Long-Term Unemployment

Numbers of long-term unemployed remain high in most states.
by | July 8, 2015
People look for jobs at WorkSource Oregon, a statewide network of public and private partners, including the Department of Human Services, that aims to stimulate job growth. AP/Rick Bowmer

More than two million Americans aren't feeling the economic recovery, despite several months, or even years, of searching for employment.

The nation’s long-term unemployed represent one of the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and they typically face steep barriers to finding another job. Numbers of these workers – those who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more -- remain high in nearly every state even though job growth has picked up. In some states, the long-term unemployed accounted for more than four out of every 10 unemployed workers last year.

In recent years, workforce agencies have explored a variety of approaches in helping these workers. The issue is particularly crucial in states with the highest rates of long-term unemployment, such as Florida, New Jersey and New Mexico.

SOURCE: Governing calculations 2014 annual averages published by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

Some states with economies tied to the agriculture or energy sectors came out of the recession relatively well, by most accounts. Colorado, Idaho and Texas continue to report jobless rates among the nation’s lowest. Still, though, numbers of long-term unemployed workers in these states remain above pre-recession levels. (See graphic below)

As one would expect, some of the states where it’s taking workers the longest to find jobs have high overall unemployment. Regions supported by industries that downsized over the years also lack jobs for the long-term unemployed, who often struggle to find work matching their skillsets.

In New Jersey, the long-term unemployed accounted for about 41 percent of the state’s unemployed workers last year, behind only New Mexico for the highest rate of any state.

Carl Van Horn, who studies unemployment at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, attributed the state’s high rate to job losses in the financial services, construction and gaming industries there. Pharmaceutical companies, which have historically been a major source of employment in the state, also contracted long before the recession began.

Across all major industries nationwide, Labor Department data suggests those working in public administration are searching for jobs the longest – 42 weeks, on average.

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Some workers, like accountants or information technology professionals, can take their skills to other industries where the employment outlook isn’t so bleak. But it’s much more difficult, Van Horn said, for workers locked into specific occupations that don’t transfer well from one sector to another.

Those later into their careers also often struggle the most to get new jobs. Employers may perceive older workers as too expensive or believe they have outdated skills. It’s also not easy for experienced workers to grapple with taking a pay cut that might come with a new job when they’re supporting a family or paying a mortgage.

On average, workers in their 50s and 60s look for employment roughly twice as long as those just starting their careers. If these older workers are also attempting to change occupations, the barriers to employment are even steeper. “They’re switching their skillsets in a time when, even after they do it, they will end up competing against younger workers who may be more attractive to employers,” Van Horn said.

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Being out of work for a long time takes a severe toll on the unemployed and their families. Nearly a third of long-term unemployed workers surveyed in a recent Heldrich Center report said they missed a mortgage or rent payment, and 41 percent sold some of their possessions. Another two-thirds of those surveyed reported stress in relationships with friends or family members.

The long-term unemployed also carry a stigma that turns away potential employers, further hindering job searches. One often-cited Northwestern University study found employers were more likely to contact job applicants out of work for a few months with no relevant job experience than those with experience who hadn’t worked for more than six months.

Accordingly, workforce agencies have employed programs targeting the unique challenges this segment of workers must overcome. Kim Morigeau, a program specialist with the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, said it’s important to build up a person’s confidence and self esteem after experiencing long periods of unsuccessful job searching. “You can’t just look at someone who is unemployed and have one strategy that fits all,” she said. “It’s important to individualize as much as you can.”

One program that’s shown promise is known as “Platform to Employment,” an initiative developed by a regional workforce council in Connecticut. Participants receive five weeks of intensive training covering career readiness, interviewing and other skills to prepare them to find and maintain employment.

Nevada became the second state to begin administering the program statewide last year. People who have received unemployment benefits for more than 26 weeks get an invitation to apply. The state agency also invites area employers to the initial launch. Morigeau, who co-manages the program, said several other states interested in implementing Platform to Employment have contacted her. The results so far are encouraging: Of those who completed the program in Las Vegas last fall, 68 percent have regained full-time employment.

One limitation of some of the more intensive employment programs is that, given the time and resources required, they can only help a small number of people. And unemployed workers often don’t take steps that may improve their chances of finding a job if they cost money or are difficult to access. Only 22 percent of the long-term unemployed surveyed in the Heldrich Center report said they completed skills training, and just 13 percent met with a job coach or counselor.

In New Jersey, the Heldrich Center is developing a statewide initiative that features a mix of online and in-person services. Maria Heidkamp, director of the yet-to-be-launched New Start Career Network, said a website will include curated resources on how to find employment and current labor market conditions. They’re also recruiting human resources professionals to volunteer their time for one-on-one mentoring.

Earlier this week, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a plan that would require nearly everyone receiving unemployment benefits to enroll in a new reemployment program in order to continue receiving assistance. Components of the program include training in using the state’s employment website and completion of career assessment test.

Although it has taken a few years, many of the long-term unemployed have returned to work. One bright spot in the latest job report was a drop in the long-term unemployed, with preliminary estimates suggesting a decline from 2.5 million to just over 2.1 million in June. This segment of the workforce has steadily shrunk in size from 2010, when there were more than 6 million long-term unemployed workers nationwide. However, it’s still well above pre-recession levels.

Average weeks unemployed vs Total unemployed for 27+ weeks

Many contend the situation is far worse than what’s depicted in the federal data because it doesn’t consider those who have stopped looking for work.

While finding any job is already difficult enough for the long-term unemployed, they also need to find stable jobs. A Brookings Institution paper published last year pointed out that it’s this hurdle that often poses problems from those who’ve been out of work for longer periods of time. The study tracked long-term unemployed workers between 2008 and 2012, finding 36 percent had found jobs 15 months later. However, only 11 percent had obtained steady, full-time employment -- others worked part-time or weren’t working at all some months.

State Data

Select a state to view the most recent estimates for the long-term unemployed, or those who have sought employment for at least 27 weeks.

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