MU Extension Workforce Program: Creating pathways to employment

Missouri’s long-term unemployed workers face many challenges

In response to the Great Recession, the federal government channeled billions of dollars into workforce development programs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The funds strengthened Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs and revived many dormant initiatives. Enhanced services at states’ career centers provided more intensive service to large waves of unemployed workers.

smiling male and female health care workersBut ARRA funding is drawing to a close, and in Missouri, as in every other state, many employers and workers are still weathering the effects of the recession. Many industries, including health care and advanced manufacturing, are struggling to find workers with the right skills to fill new positions and those vacated by retirees. And, many potential workers do not have the time or resources they need to get the training required for these higher-paying positions.

“This has created a ‘perfect storm’ in Missouri,” according to Mary Paulsell, director of the MU Extension Business Development Program’s workforce program. “As a result, we are seeing increasing numbers of what the federal government calls the ‘long-term unemployed’ — individuals who have been without work for 27 weeks or more. This is a critical situation for our state.”

In 2013, there were 78,400 people considered to be long-term unemployed in Missouri, representing 40 percent of all unemployed in the state.

The long-term unemployed can be found across all industries, all educational levels and all age groups, and they face a stigma when attempting to find work. Because of the length of time unemployed, many of these workers are half as likely to be called back for a second job interview, and most have to apply for nearly four times as many positions to even get an interview.

“We have many people tell us that employers simply won’t talk to them when they realize they have been unemployed for more than six months,” Paulsell adds. “It doesn’t matter what the applicant’s experience is. Employers just seem to assume that if someone has been without work for that long, there must be something wrong with him or her. They must be a problem employee, or someone would have hired them by now.”

Paulsell says employers should have a longer-term view when hiring. Not only is being unemployed for months at a time difficult for the affected individuals, it takes a toll on the overall economy as well. As a result of being out of work and often forced to take lower-paying jobs to meet essential expenses, many of these workers will see their personal income adversely affected for up to 20 years after being unemployed. This has an impact on their spending power and that of their families, which affects all Missouri businesses.

In addition, individuals who are unemployed for long periods of time experience more physical and mental health challenges, and that transfers to their families as well. Children of the long-term unemployed often perform poorly in school and often grow up to obtain lower paying jobs than their peers.

The cycle of the long-term unemployed hampers the economy at large, depressing aggregate demand and resulting in the underutilization of productive resources. For instance, when individuals are out of work and unable to obtain training to keep their skills updated, those skills deteriorate, which can result in someone being unemployed for an even longer period of time. Often, these individuals simply drop out of the workforce after so many years of being overlooked or rejected for positions. That can have lasting effects on the national economy.

The solution to the challenges faced by the long-term unemployed requires the engagement of companies, educational institutions and workforce development organizations. Paulsell says the MU Extension workforce program is ready to do that.

“We want to work with specific industries or businesses and learn what gaps they are seeing in worker preparedness,” Paulsell says. “Then we look forward to working with career centers and other partners in the state to address those gaps through education and training.”

Employers should try diligently to give full consideration to applicants who are defined as long-term unemployed. Instead of thinking immediately that there must be a problem with a worker who has been out of work for some time, offer an interview with that worker to determine the real cause of his long-term unemployment. Often it is a result of factors outside their control.

If training is the issue, employers should consider participating in regional workforce efforts, including on-the-job training, paid work experiences and training partnerships with area career centers.